The Music Of The Darker Streets

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The story of Atlantic Records is the stuff for which the phrase “only in America” seems unavoidable. Its founders, in 1947, were Herb Abramson, a veteran artist and repertoire man, and Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a former Turkish ambassador to the United States. And some of its early artists were black high school kids who perfected their rich harmonies in the echoing, tiled washrooms of bigcity high schools. There were plenty of other labels appealing to the same audience at the same time, but Atlantic somehow managed to develop a small but shrewdly chosen roster of performers who consistently produced memorable music, music that increasingly appealed to white listeners as well as black ones.

In any giant assemblage like this one, there are bound to be a fair number of clinkers: nothing withers faster than a song about a brand-new dance; several cuts demonstrate conclusively that white rock-and-rollers had no monopoly on teen-aged bathos; after a while some of the recordings—an astonishing number of which were done by the same two men, Ahmet Ertegun and his fellow producer Jerry Wexler—begin to sound as if they were done by the same two men.

But the average of Atlantic’s output remains remarkably high. So does its staying power. If you heard the best of these tunes, as I did, when they were first played on the radio, you will find that every note—sometimes every syllable—has somehow been retained.

The material includes everything from simple, gritty songs about life and love in those parts of the city we rarely saw—“Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk”—to sentimental standards such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” transformed through the pyrotechnics of Otis Redding into something infinitely more complex and impassioned than its composers ever imagined.

It was the Atlantic performers who made the difference. There were all the groups with their pseudo-elegant names—the Capitols, Cardinals, Chords, Coasters, Clovers, Drifters, Spinners—as well as brilliant individual singers like La Vern Baker and Ruth Brown, Joe Tex and Roberta Flack, Little Esther Phillips and Big Joe Turner, the massive former Kansas City bouncer, whose hits, like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” were stolen, nearly note by note, to make big white stars still bigger. (That sort of artistic larceny, begun at the birth of the race-record industry around 1920, continues unabated; new versions of old Atlantic hits will presumably still be recorded by the next two or three generations of would-be recording stars.)

It had only recently stopped being called “race music,” and it seemed raw, ardent, and compelling.

And the collection includes some of the finest recordings by two artists, who, if America conferred the title of National Living Treasure, as Japan does, should surely be among the earliest qualifiers—Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Charles embodies within himself two great musical traditions, gospel and the blues, each stretching back to slavery and beyond; and everything he sings is illuminated by their special melancholy and joy. But he is also a distinctive artist, and he manages to make each song—he has now recorded more than sixty albums of them—unmistakably his own. Even melodies as weary as “You Are My Sunshine,” “My Bonny Lies over the Ocean,” and “America” are somehow resuscitated when he applies to them his rough, anguished, infinitely flexible voice, his mysterious ability to alter the beat, shift the melody, suggest new meanings for old lyrics.

His early Atlantic work still astonishes; ten of his sly but churchly anthems have been included, among them “What’d I Say,” “I Got a Woman,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.”

Aretha Franklin, too, draws directly upon both the blues and the Baptist church—her father, the late Reverend C. L. Franklin, was a spellbinding Detroit preacher; she began singing in his choir and has recorded an extraordinary gospel album, Amazing Grace , also for Atlantic. But it is the gloriously profane side of her singing that is the focus here; few trained singers can match either the power of her voice or her mastery over it; fewer still can equal the emotional intensity of her performances of songs like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

The songs that make up this big set provided much of the background music for the turbulence that followed the fifties; civil rights marchers sang and danced to them; so did black and white troops in Vietnam, as well as the people back home who protested their presence there. And so did the rest of us, who otherwise mostly looked on.

It’s easy to overemphasize the political and sociological importance of any art. Too many students of what is grandly called “popular history” regularly fall into that trap; novelty tunes like, say, “Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back)” or “Charlie Brown (He’s a Clown),” included here, both by the Coasters, really can’t bear the weight of very much professorial solemnity, and music has only limited powers to soothe—or incite—anything.

Cottage Grove and the Midway moat still divide Hyde Park from its neighbors, after all, much as they did thirty years ago. And in many ways the differences between the two worlds have deepened.

Yet the fact that Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and the best of their black contemporaries now routinely speak to those who live on both sides of the nation’s stubborn urban deadlines must surely someday count for something.