HERB ABRAMSON

Born Herbert C. Abramson, 16 November 1916, Brooklyn, New York City
Died 9 November 1999, Henderson, Nevada

Label owner, producer. Herb Abramson was the first president of Atlantic Records. He was a blues, jazz, and gospel music enthusiast, who began collecting records in his teens. After meeting fellow jazz record collectors Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun in Washington, D.C., in the early '40s, he began promoting jazz concerts in New York and neighboring D.C. From 1944 to 1947, Abramson was a part-time A & R man at National Records, where he produced Joe Turner, Billy Eckstine and the Ravens, among others. He also started his own labels, Jubilee for gospel and Quality for jazz, in 1946, with financial backing from deejay Max Silverman, aka Maxie Waxie. The companies never really got off the ground and in September 1947, Jubilee Records was sold to record distributor Jerry Blaine, who developed it into a successful label.

In 1947, Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun launched Atlantic Records. Herb had the music business experience that Ertegun lacked. The label's first releases were jazz records, issued from its cramped headquarters at New York's Jefferson Hotel. Atlantic had a slow start, scoring its first R&B hit in 1949 with Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo De O Dee". A key factor during Atlantic's youth was Abramson's wife Miriam. She administered the company and by Ertegun's account was important in keeping it organized and disciplined. She also suggested Ray Charles for the artist roster which went on to include such R&B/pop luminaries as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and Clyde McPhatter.

During the forties, Abramson had qualified as a dentist. The government had paid for his training and they called him up in 1953. He had to do two years of military service in Germany. When Abramson returned to the Atlantic office in 1955, things had changed dramatically. Herb had left Ahmet in charge of a small but prospering independent R&B record label, assisted by Miriam Abramson and by newly recruited Jerry Wexler, who had worked for the trade paper Billboard and for a music publisher, but knew nothing about making records. When Abramson came back from Germany, Atlantic had continued its success as a rhythm and blues company and stood on the brink of the pop market. "Tweedle Dee", "Shake, Rattle and Roll", "Such A Night", "Mambo Baby", "Oh What A Dream" and "Sh-Boom" had all been recorded first by Atlantic, built into R&B hits, and covered for the pop market by other, bigger companies, whose versions still outsold Atlantic's, but not for much longer. Wexler was sitting at Herb's desk and working beside Ahmet in the studio, and there was no easy way to push him out. Besides, Herb and Miriam had separated. Miriam (who would marry Freddy Bienstock in 1957) was still working at Atlantic, so there were extra tensions. Herb was given an office of his own, and took over responsibility for the newly-created subsidiary label, Atco.

But Herb was not able to pick up where he left off. The Coasters were successful on Atco, but they were produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Things came to a climax after Ertegun interfered with an Atco artist, Bobby Darin. Abramson had produced three unsuccessful sessions with Darin and wanted to drop him from the label when his one-year contract ran out on May 1, 1958. Ertegun overruled him and spectacularly proved Darin's potential by producing "Splish Splash" (which Abramson thought was junk) himself, with a smash hit as a result. This was too much for Abramson. He asked the others (Ahmet and his brother, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Wexler) to buy him out, which they did, for $300,000. Abramson ventured off on his own. His grandly named labels included Triumph, Blaze and Festival. He signed up Gene Pitney, Solomon Burke, Don Covay and Bobby Comstock, but not much worked out. Pitney and Covay did eventually become very successful, but after they had left Herb. Solomon Burke wasn't eligible to record for him after all, as his contract with Apollo hadn't expired when Abramson signed him. And when it did run out, Jerry Wexler signed him to Atlantic and had a long string of hits. Herb's only hit was "Tennessee Waltz" by Bobby Comstock on Blaze in 1959. In the sixties Abramson decided to go into independent production, using the old Atlantic studio on 56th Street, which he called A-1 Sound Studios. His biggest success as a producer was "Hi Heel Sneakers" by Tommy Tucker (1964), of which he also owned the publishing. Among the other acts he produced were King Curtis, Elmore James, Titus Turner and Louisiana Red. In February 1998, one year before his death, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation gave Abramson a Pioneer Award.

 
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