Atlantic Records was a diskery built by catering to the tastes of working class Black folks. Ahmet Ertegun, his brother Neshui, Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and others collaborated on a direction that eventually led them to sign, market and sell music by Wilson Pickett, Ruth Brown, The Drifters, The Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane and two of the titans of the American Soul tradition: “The Genius” Ray Charles and “The Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin. Other eventual signings to the venerable label were: CHIC, Aaliya, Brandy, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Bette Midler, Hootie & The Blowfish, Jewel, and through a distribution deal with Al Bell’s Stax Records: Otis Redding, The Staples Singers, Johnny Taylor and Rufus Thomas. Along with sister labels, Elektra and Warner Brothers, they comprised the Warner Music Group.
THE STAPLE SINGERS
The thing that eventually happens to all great businesses of any kind happened to them; they got cold, and were then forced to find a solution that would improve their lot. They were spun off from the AOL/Time Warner conglomerate, and were acquired with the help of third party financing by Edgar Bronfman Jr. the scion to the Seagrams spirits empire.
Bronfman had previously diluted his family’s position in the Dupont Corporation in order to finance the acquisition of a controlling interest in the Universal/MCA Entertainment Group, and was widely believed to have gotten in over his head. He then sold off his interest, and at the time, it was thought that he’d had a very expensive post graduate experience, and would not be seen attempting to make a go of the record business again. But, business (especially show business) breeds an animal that takes defeat poorly, and inspires more comeback attempts than even Brett Favre’s.
So Bronfman did what anyone in his position would do; he gave it another shot. And this go ’round he installed former Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen as CEO of the Warner Music Group to do the heavy lifting. Lyor is a hip hop pioneer, and after a period of West Coast party promoting, began his record business career in earnest when he was hired to be Run/DMC’s road manager. It was during this period that we met, while I was the National Director of Promotion for the Rick Rubin/Russell Simmons owned, NYU based startup. Another character of interest was the VP of Simmons’ Rush Productions and Management company, a bespectacled buppy who moonlighted as half of the Harlem based rap duo, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, shared the playa’s love of soul food, and R&B and would be the eventual progenitor of the world view that would come to be known as Ghetto Fabulous.
THE GHETTO FABULIST & THE FORMER ROAD MANAGER
Andre Harrell, the architect of Ghetto Fab who would eventually leave Rush, start Uptown/MCA Records, run Motown, sign Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Al B. Sure, Heavy D, Anthony Hamilton, Biggie Smalls, and discover an intern that went on to make a little history of his own, came to town and called me on Wednesday with that unmistakable humor in his voice. “Collards? It’s your man Chitlins!”
“Dr.? Fux up witchoo?
“I’m in Charlotte, and I’m throwing a party tonight! It’s a Black and White Ball, and it’s going down at the House Of Jazz. You know about my Superstar Soul Search, right?” he excitedly asked. “I’m doing the first round right here in your town. You coming? I’ll send a car for you!”
I’d heard through the grapevine that with the backing of the aforementioned former road manager with the big title, the charismatic Harrell was launching a new joint venture with Atlantic Records, and doing it with his Superstar Soul Search. An internet driven contest that pits vocalists against one another for the right to compete in a final showdown on July 31st in Atlanta. The grand prize? A recording contract with the newly formed Andre Harrell Music/Atlantic label.
I passed on Wednesday’s party, and made my way over to the competition the next day. The room I entered was filled with dreams, ambition and talent. A deep, rich and hungry pool of black gold. Church trained, secularized gospel singers looking for a way out. A new generation of precisely the kind of people that Atlantic signed, and catered to while experiencing their original success. All of them singing in styles that the current record business has all but abandoned in pursuit of hip pop crossover agendas.
With radio being dominated, and marketing budgets being absorbed by the likes of Chris Brown, Ga Ga, Rhiana, Usher and such, it seems as though truly soulful singers have been driven underground. The Superstar Soul Search and Andre Harrell Music/Atlantic has been conceived to address this problem. And take advantage of this niche.
After many years of attending talent showcases all over the country, I’d never seen anything like this before. The last time I can remember witnessing this much high quality underground Black talent was in the seventies when I frequented Harlem’s world famous Rucker Basketball Tournament on the hallowed ground at 155th Street and 8th Avenue. The place where hoop dreams were lived out, and ghetto ambition was channeled for a ticket to the “show”, while people climbed trees for a clear look at the dramas that were played out on that blacktop stage.
Charlotte, NC (home to Jodeci, Fantasia and Anthony Hamilton) was the first of six cities to host showcases. Harrell came in town with his usual flourish, and took over one local radio station for 3 hours, and as promised, threw a party on the eve of the event. He then did a morning drive-time interview on a competing station on the day of the contest, and made his way to preside over the competition along with the help of celebrity judges K-Ci Haley of Jodeci, and Brooklyn-born MC, Special Ed.
With the help of his celebrity judges, and a few friends, Harrell was to settle on one winner that would compete in the finals against eventual winners from Atlanta, Philly, DC, Detroit and Houston. Then, the Harrell dream express rolls back into Atlanta, and gives a kid with soul a shot at a dream. Charlotte made it kind of hard on him by forcing him to take two contestants to the next round.
One of them, Baltimore-born songstress, Amaye’ took the stage, entered our hearts and won the right to move on. When asked about her background, she informed the playa that she’d been a pre-med student with 3 years toward a chemistry degree when the feeling overtook her and forced her to postpone her senior year.
I also asked about her musical beginnings, and she hit me with, “I was a poet, and really considered myself to be more of a poet than a songwriter. I was too shy to sing. I’d also been a dancer, and that was my main vehicle of self-expression until I sang on an occasion in college. After that,” she continued, “I was home one night in Baltimore, and I was on my way out of the house at an unusually late hour, when my father asked, ‘Where you going?’ I said, the studio, and he said, ‘You can’t sing,’ I told him, ‘Yes I can.” The playa agrees with the young lady.
THE MERCHANT & CHARLOTTE SUPERSTAR SOUL SEARCH WINNER AMAYE’
The other winner was a classically smooth soul singer who was the obvious winner a full three hours before he was chosen. J Remy was the playa’s name, and he can blow. He covered the Temptations over a hip hop beat, and gave us a reinterpretation of David Ruffin that cut through. When asked about his background by Harrell, he said little and let his singing do the talking. He spoke volumes.
The express moved on to Atlanta. I accompanied Harrell to the airport. We spoke fondly of the past, and boldly of the future. He’s onto something with this web and radio based contest/promotion (Radio 1 & Interactive 1 are his partners). By creating a triangle that allows the internet and radio followers the opportunity to track the rise and fall of these young aspirants, and feeding directly into one of the majors, he has streamlined the American Idol approach, and given it what it has been sorely lacking; soul. The dream lives!