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Why the name Atlantic?
We tried 15 other names first. Horizon was one. Every name we tried, we’d call the [American Federation of Musicians] and they’d say, “Oh, there’s already a company registered by that name.” All the companies used to register with the union. Anyway, there was Pacific Jazz Records, so I thought we’d call ourselves Atlantic, since we were on the other coast. And it turned out to be a lucky name.
Jerry Wexler joined as a partner in 1953. How did that come about?
Jerry was a reviewer at Billboard. He seemed to know more than the other reviewers; we’d become quite good friends.
Wexler worked for Billboard’s music editor, Paul Ackerman, who you also knew well.
Of all the people I knew in this business, Paul Ackerman was closest to an angel. He was extremely witty, perspicacious, a lover of beauty, a man of extreme sensibility, of incredible goodness and very charitable in his assessment of others.
I loved that man very much. As did Jerry Wexler, who developed under his tutelage, as well as Seymour Stein and many others. He appreciated the fact that we were attempting to present to the world a music which the majors really overlooked. He had that feeling about country music, about rhythm and blues. He was, I guess, as close as you can get — as anyone ever got — to being a philosopher of the music business.
So when Wexler joined, the principals at Atlantic were you and he, Herb and Miriam. And Nesuhi joined in 1954.
I think we’d bought out Dr. Sabit. Herb was in Germany. Atlantic had become the R&B label. Lew Chudd — who owned Imperial Records and was one of those people who knew nothing about music but had a nose, somehow, for what would happen, or had advisers or God knows what — said, “If this Turkish kid can do it, maybe his brother can do it.” He offered Nesuhi a partnership in Imperial. So we offered him a partnership in Atlantic.
Did that suit Nesuhi?
I don’t think he was that happy to leave California. Anyway, he came and sort of changed the whole image of Atlantic. Because he started to make some recordings which gave us class with a capital “K.”
He got the cool jazz guys from the West Coast: Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, that whole crew. He produced the Drifters. He recorded Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer. He also revised our arrangements about foreign distribution. And he produced possibly the best record we ever made at Atlantic, “The Genius of Ray Charles.”
You looked up to him, as your older brother?
Nesuhi was my mentor since I was a child. He was about four years older than me, and at age 10 it meant a great deal. I didn’t spend too much time with my parents because they were very busy. My father was a diplomat and really didn’t have very much time to spend with us kids, except at meals. But my brother was a sort of role model to me. He was precocious as a young man, and he was especially interested in philosophy, literature and the arts. He was responsible for awakening me to the delights of poetry, literature, avant garde painting and sculpture.
When we came to Washington, my brother stayed on in Europe, because he was going to the Sorbonne. While he was in Paris, he befriended several of the people around Andre Breton and that whole group, and he knew some of the expatriate Turkish artists who were living in Paris. They were all intellectuals and leftists, a large number of them.
He introduced me to the works of Picasso, Klee, Leger and Modigliani. I remember he sent a letter to my father while he was in Paris, asking for $500 because he had an opportunity to buy directly from Modigliani a nude oil. My father got very angry and wrote him a telegram, saying, “Please stop all this nonsense, and if you don’t pass all your grades, I’ll yank you right back to America.”
It sounds like a very serious adolescence.
This started when I was 7 or 8. Nesuhi was very early into all of this, and as many young people were then, slightly intrigued by communism and a left-wing point of view. Around 1938 or ’39, he rejoined the family in America. I was 15 or 16, he was around 19 or 20. We would go to various meetings of Spanish loyalists around Washington. Who’s always there? Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. We thought that Woody was kind of corny next to Leadbelly, because of his superior playing, but we were also very much touched by Guthrie’s lyrics. Nesuhi started to give lectures on jazz at a place called the Washington Bookshop, which I guess was a left-wing front.
At that time, Washington was totally Jim Crow. People don’t realize how strange it was for foreigners to come and see this incredible apartheid. Black people were not allowed in department stores, theaters, movie theaters, restaurants.
Nesuhi had made friends with Benny Carter in France. When the war started, the expatriates came back. Benny had come back, formed a band and was touring. We invited him out to dinner — and we couldn’t find any place. The only place we could go was Union Station, where they had to allow black people in the restaurant.
Did the fact that you were European set you apart, as far as the music business was concerned? Did black artists feel more comfortable with you?
That was a fortunate accident. The black artists felt especially comfortable with Nesuhi. He had more of an accent than I did; he was more foreign. Jerry once said to me, “All these records we make, [but] the person who will be remembered eventually will be Nesuhi. Because he’s making records that will live on, whereas our records will just go by.”
Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” was the first Atlantic single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts. Did Herb Abramson find Darin?
When Herb came back from the army [in Germany], the company had grown a great deal. It was tough to reintegrate him, especially since there was a great deal of open hostility between Miriam and Herb.
They were still married?
Herb fell in love with some German girl when he was there, and that caused the split. By that time, Jerry and I had become like a team, we made all the [recording] dates together. Jerry had never made records before joining Atlantic, but he picked up very quickly and was a great help to me. We were working very well as a team. When Herb came back, he had other ideas, so that’s when we started Atco as a label he would run.
There were a couple of entrepreneurs from the South who had discovered Darin somehow and recorded four sides. In those days, everybody recorded four sides, because that’s what you were allowed in a three-hour recording session. Herb bought these.
Darin used to come up to the office after Herb bought these masters. He’d have an appointment but, very often, Herb would keep him waiting half an hour, an hour. So Darin would be sitting in the room next to my office, which had a piano in it. He loved playing Ray Charles songs, and I would walk in because I could hear what he was doing. We became friends while he was waiting to see Herb.
We put out two records, they flopped, and Herb announced that he was dropping Bobby Darin as an artist. I said, “Don’t drop him, I want to make at least one session with him.” I was supposed to record this girl jazz singer [Morgana King], so I decided to make a split session so as not to spend too much money on what was a flop artist. We went in, and in an hour-and-a-half [on April 10, 1958], we cut three sides: “Queen of the Hop,” “Splish Splash,” “Judy, Don’t Be Moody.” They all hit.
Some people were offended by those records coming from Atlantic, because they were so pop.
No, they were R&B . . . R&B-ish. Darin was a very close friend. I loved Bobby. He was always very cocky, even in the beginning. He would treat some of the musicians as if they weren’t worth anything. He didn’t mean to disparage them, but he would make jokes. He acted as though he were Frank Sinatra. He had this little guitar, which was acoustic, that he used to strum on and write songs on. You’d have a famous guitar player on the session, Bucky Pizzarelli or Al Caiola, and he’d say, “Here, tune this guitar up for me.” He wouldn’t say, “Please” or “Sir.” One session musician did something to the guitar, and Bobby never could tune it after that.
We had a thing once, filming “Top of the Pops.” I was with him in London. Bobby would crack jokes in front of this big BBC orchestra. They didn’t get the jokes. He got into an argument with the producer because they put him on first — this was rehearsal — so he would get out quickly. He said, “I always go on last.” I said, “This is just a rehearsal, man.”
Then they took this 15-minute break. Bobby was very restless, always full of energy. He sat at the [studio] drums and started to play. The drummer said, “Get the fuck off my drums.” Bobby gets up and says, “OK, that’s it, we’re leaving.” I said, “Come on, you have to do this show.” He said, “No, fuck them, we’ll go to the other network.” I said, “There is no other network!”
You often tell the anecdote about Darin cutting “Mack the Knife” after Kurt Weill’s wife asked if you would record one of her husband’s songs.
My first wife was a theater person. This off-Broadway musical [featuring Kurt Weill’s work], “The Threepenny Opera,” was a big hit. “Mack the Knife” was in that. Louis Armstrong had cut the record previously; I think Bobby must have heard that, because he sings the identical lyrics. He said, “I know that song. I want to record it.” When we ran down the arrangement, I knew we had a smash — before he started singing. It was such a swinging arrangement.