Fortunately, the new seven-volume series of double LPs titled "Atlantic Rhythm and Blues: 1947-1974" does more than just present this legendary label's staggering legacy of black music hits. By moving chronologically through the R&B, rock 'n' roll and soul eras and providing a discussion of the musicians and studios responsible for each selection, the series dramatizes the organic evolution of black popular music.
The label's ability to stand at the center of black pop for more than two decades reflects not only its hit-making abilities, but its uncanny knack for discovering influential artists. For example, by 1950, Atlantic had already recorded the one-of-a-kind New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair. Longhair never had a hit, but "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and "Hey Little Girl," both available on "Volume 1: 1947-1952," helped lay the foundation for the whole New Orleans rock 'n' roll piano style.
Of course, no artist was more significant in R&B history than Ray Charles. The ever-prescient Atlantic signed Charles in 1952, when his recorded output hardly suggested his protean creativity. Ten of Charles' Atlantic recordings are scattered across the first four volumes, including his secularized spiritual "I've Got a Woman," which shocked the R&B world in 1955. By the time of 1959's uninhibited gospel-style rave-up "What'd I Say," Charles had liberated the pop vocal style and defined the essence of soul.
It was Atlantic and the labels they distributed, particularly Stax-Volt, that fostered the soul style of the '60s. Perhaps the three seminal recordings in this then-nascent style are presented on "Volume 4: 1958-1962." A young and shrieking Wilson Pickett testified to that extreme on the Falcons' 1960 hit "I Found a Love." In 1961, one-time child preacher and gospel singer Solomon Burke offered a sanctified treatment of the countryish "Just Out of Reach." A year later, down in Memphis, William Bell did much the same with "You Don't Miss Your Water," and the soul era was under way.
As the commercial appeal of these churchy singers became apparent, both Atlantic and Stax-Volt began to record numerous gospel-trained singers. "Volume 5: 1962-1966" and "Volume 6: 1966-1969" present the very best of southern soul music. The hits on these records -- for example, "In the Midnight Hour," "Respect," "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Soul Man" -- are the cream of an era. The singers -- Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex and so on -- constitute a Who's Who of soul.
A key part of Atlantic's tradition of recorded excellence resides in the clean and natural production sound it achieved. This trait is highlighted by the early R&B hits on "Volume 1" and "Volume 2: 1952-1955," all recorded at a time when most recordings from independent labels had a raw, unpolished sound. Framed by the adroit play of musicians like pianist Van Walls, guitarist Mickey Baker and saxophonist Sam Taylor, the great voices of Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker still carry an unmatched expressiveness and clarity. Although most of Atlantic's R&B material was recorded in New York and produced by the label's owners, later it occasionally used outside producers and other recording locales. The most important outsiders Atlantic employed were songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
"Volume 3: 1955-1958" and "Volume 4: 1958-1962" provide the great rock 'n' roll hits of the Coasters, the Drifters and Ben E. King, most of them produced by Leiber and Stoller. On Coasters hits like "Charlie Brown" and "Along Came Jones," Leiber and Stoller's songs blended comic-book scenarios, buffoonish vocals and an unparalleled sense of musical absurdity.
It's hard to single out any of these seven volumes as greater than another, since each presents great and lasting material critical to the popular music of the time. The only exception might be "Volume 7: 1969-1974," which offers a number of the smooth pop- and jazz-styled hits of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. It was at this time, with blues and gospel roots receding in black pop, that Atlantic's hegemony in black music finally began to erode.