What’s in a Label: A Look at Atlantic Records

Article by Eduardo Rivadavia

Atlantic Records rose to prominence as perhaps the ultimate independent record label prototype, but it was also among the few indies to survive the leap to a major label, becoming one of history’s most successful ones at that.

The History

Atlantic Records was founded in October 1947 with a $10,000 loan from the family dentist by Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish-born diplomat’s son, alongside Herb Abramson (himself a dentistry student, albeit one with prior, part-time experience at the National and Jubilee labels) and his wife, Miriam.

The trio would remain the company’s only employees for the next two years as Ertegun and Abramson scouted untapped talent from New York City’s nightclubs to flesh out Atlantic’s fledgling roster, focusing on their twin passions —  jazz and R&B — while dabbling in country, children’s music, and even spoken word recordings to keep the lights on.

Finally, in February 1949, Atlantic scored its first bona fide hit with Henry ‘Stick’ McGhee’s “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” paving the way for a flurry of signings and more consistent sales from the likes of Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, LaVern Baker, The Clovers, Sonny Terry, Professor Longhair, and the label’s next gamechanger, Ray Charles.

Brother Ray’s groundbreaking fusion of rhythm & blues with gospel brought soul music to the masses, and his subsequent explorations of everything from big-band jazz to country throughout the 1950s would earn him fame as the “genius,” even as Atlantic’s team behind the scenes grew to include several future music industry legends.

First came producer and engineer Tom Dowd, a veteran of the Manhattan Project who pioneered numerous recording techniques and the first multitrack studio technology, going on to capture an incalculable number of classic albums and singles by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, The Coasters, Eric Clapton, and the Allman Brothers Band, among others.

Then came Jerry Wexler, a former Billboard reporter credited with coining the term “rhythm & blues” to replace the extremely insensitive “race records” designation. Wexler’s ear for identifying and developing new talent would, over the next two decades, be as crucial as Ertegun’s to Atlantic’s success via his work with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and other icons.

Ahmet’s brother, Nesuhi, joined the fold in 1955 to oversee Atlantic’s jazz division and the label later benefitted from astute partnerships with rising stars like rock & roll songwriters Leiber & Stoller, producer Phil Spector, and, perhaps Wexler’s greatest coup, a timely promotion and distribution deal with Memphis-based Stax Records.

Stax’s incredible stable of artists, including Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Albert King, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding, would bolster Atlantic’s sales throughout the 1960s. Along with in-house signings like Pickett, Solomon Burke, and, of course, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, this set the stage for the company’s sale to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1967.

But Atlantic would retain control over its own roster after the sale, and the team kept up hitting its streak with artists like Cream (later assigned to the Atco imprint), Dusty Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Boz Scaggs, Roberta Flack, and Led Zeppelin, pointing the way forward to an even greater genre diversity in the ’70s, gradually inching in on Wexler.

Ertegun, meanwhile, remained virtually untouchable in the art of courting new artists and, with help from key new executives like Jerry Greenberg and John Kalodner, Atlantic powered through the decade behind platinum-selling signings like ABBA, Bette Midler, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Chic, AC/DC, Foreigner, and the likes while partnering to launch Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song imprint and The Rolling Stones’ vanity label.

In the ‘80s, Atlantic continued to prosper under  Ertegun and new president Doug Morris (until 1995), scoring multi-platinum sellers with Phil Collins, Debbie Gibson, INXS, Twisted Sister, and Skid Row, followed in the ‘90s by the likes of Rush, Stone Temple Pilots, Tori Amos, and Hootie & the Blowfish and later by Coldplay, Kid Rock, Matchbox 20, Jill Scott, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Gnarls Barkley, James Blunt, The Darkness, and many more — always under some version of the WEA/Time-Warner corporate umbrella. 

Though Atlantic’s modern business bears little resemblance to its indie label golden eras of the ‘50s and ‘60s, its legacy is secure, even surviving chairman emeritus Ahmet Ertegun’s passing in 2006 (reuniting the surviving members of Led Zeppelin to pay tribute) after nearly 50 years with the company.

The Look

Like most major record companies, Atlantic has used a vast assortment of logos, label colors, and designs during its decades-long history, beginning with a stylized capital “A” underlining the remaining letters with its crossbar, framed in black against red, yellow, and other background tones. 

An alternate, less aggressive logo and label adorned Atlantic’s first long-playing records of the 1950s in black, gray, green, gold, and yellow tones, but the first significant design change came at the end of the decade with the addition of a trademarked “Fan Logo” surrounded by a white circle and borders matching pink and orange, green, and blue. 

In the ‘60s, Atlantic’s labels adopted perhaps their most celebrated look: two shades separated by a thick, horizontal white line containing the capital “A” plus fan logo, of which the most iconic combination was probably the “green and red” (or orange, depending on one’s level of color-blindness) made famous by multi-platinum ‘70s releases from Zeppelin, Yes, Chic, Bette Midler, Alice Cooper, Foreigner, and AC/DC.

The ‘80s brought a combination of both retro designs and custom labels for jazz and “Atlantic Group” releases (see also the short-lived, late ‘70s disco label), after which the CD era came and all bets were off, yet the signature imagery made legendary by Atlantic remains imminently recognizable to any self-respecting collector.

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