"What'd I Say" is a mighty tome in all senses of the word: some 565 pages
at a size about half as big again as A4. "What'd I Say" describes 50 years
of the Atlantic record label, encompassing some of the finest music to ever
be released. It is worth noting up front, however, that in recent years the
label's interests have largely shifted away from its roots in blues, jazz
and soul music.
The book is essentially a time line of the history of the label, consisting
of lengthy quotes from just about everyone who was involved (owners,
artists, producers etc.) surrounding essays by several of the best music
writers around. In the opening chapter Ertegun relates where the owners
were coming from and how they got into the business. It sets the tone for
the rest of the book, and sets the standard for photography too, since it
contains a vast collection of black and white photographs of some of the
best American artists of the time.
The early years (1947-54) are documented by Greil Marcus. This was the
period when the label established its identity, which largely reflected the
owners. Nat Hentoff then picks up on the label's heritage in jazz music,
which included recordings of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Ornette
Coleman and the indefatigable Ray Charles, who almost defies
categorization. Will Friedwald later returns to the jazz theme, covering
the mid-50's through to the mid-70's.
The third essay, by Lenny Kaye, describes how Atlantic dealt with the
introduction of rock'n'roll into the American culture. Rather than just
follow the trend, Atlantic continued to evolve its own musical identity.
This approach was helped by cohorts like Jerry Wexler, songwriters Jerry
Leiber and Mike Stoller, as well as a roster of class acts that included
the Drifters, the Coasters, Chuck Willis and the aforementioned Ray Charles.
Time marched on, and the label continued to evolve, passing through its
Southern Soul period, documented by Robert Gordon. This is probably the
period that most people can relate to best, since this was when Otis
Redding, Solomon Burke, and Rufus Thomas were all recording for the label.
The start of the shift of emphasis away from the label's roots is dealt
with by Robert Christgau. Although several of the old acts were still
around, there were new kids appearing on the block such as Cream, Buffalo
Springfield and Led Zeppelin. Somehow, Atlantic has always managed to keep
away from the worst excesses of every musical era, and maintain its musical
standards. This is even true of the disco period, covered by Vince Aletti,
where Atlantic had some of the classier acts around: Sister Sledge, The
Tramps and Chic, to name but three. Even during "The Great Age of Excess,
1972-1986," as David Fricke's essay is called, they had Abba on board.
The final essay, Barney Hoskyns' "The Soul In The Machine" is not about
soul music as such, but the soul of the label, namely the acts and styles
that have kept the label going into the new millennium. Even though things
in the music scene have changed so much over the lifetime of the label, it
continues to evolve. This was the era that gave us the likes of The
Lemonheads, Jewel and Hootie and the Blowfish.
It is hard to do justice to a book like "What'd I Say" in a short(ish)
review. Suffice to say, it is a "must have" book. It is not the sort of
book that you could sit down and read at one sitting, and although it fits
into the "coffee table" category of books, it is probably too big and too
heavy for all but the sturdiest of tables. The cost of the book is more
than justified by the photographs alone. The essays and commentary simply
help to complete the picture of one of the most important labels in music
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