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2003 Annual Meeting . . . The Question of Culture

Atlanta: City Without a Sound?

Fifth in a series of articles highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . Atlanta

by Allen Tullos, Matt Miller, and Timothy J. Dowd, Emory University

What is the sound of Atlanta music? Think of Nashville, and country music rushes in. With Memphis, you get Elvis and rockabilly, Stax Records, and R&B. New Orleans evokes jazz from Armstrong to the Marsalis family. Despite their compelling “Hotlanta,” the Allman Brothers Band brings Macon and Southern Rock to mind. Athens gets you REM, the B-52’s, and the 1980s college-indie scene. As for Atlanta music? An Atlanta sound? Maybe classical piped underground to the MARTA rail stop at Peachtree Center, or maybe the ad jingle “Delta is Ready When You Are.”

But wait, there’s more. Although Atlanta is overshadowed by the musical reputations of other Southern cities, its artists, producers, labels, and venues have made their share of popular music contributions. While space constraints prevent us from describing the breadth and diversity of these, we highlight here some of Atlanta’s sounds.

Music Business Roots

Atlanta’s early history suggested that it would be a central player in the recording industry. Richard Peterson reminds us that the first field-recording session of Fiddlin’ John Carson took place in Atlanta in June 1923. It appeared that the city—with its fiddlers, commercial distribution potential, and powerhouse radio station—might become the country music capital. Also in the 1920s, field recording of blues likewise took place in Atlanta, with recording firms (e.g., Victor, Okeh) benefiting from the performances of “Barbecue Bob” Hicks, Willie McTell, and other African-American musicians. However, the centrality of Atlanta music would not continue. Nashville became the capital of country music, and the Depression dampened blues recordings. Moreover, well-heeled segments of Atlanta—with their aspiring image of white New South urbanity—disdained and actively discouraged both the hillbilly bands and the blues players.

From the 1940s to the mid 1950s, Atlanta existed on the periphery of the music industry. Its citizens, both black and white, supported lively popular music culture from gospel to swing, but the city lacked recording facilities and music industry infrastructure. Despite a few local recording firms like Hunter—and the rudimentary recording facilities found at radio station WGST—Atlanta artists often left town to record or waited until major firms came to record sessions at WGST or the Fox Theater. For example, Willie “Piano Red” Perryman—Atlanta’s answer to Fats Domino—recorded his best material for RCA Victor. Similarly, once-unknown performers such as Little Richard and Ray Charles—and later on, James Brown and Gladys Knight—passed through Atlanta before establishing success elsewhere.

From the late 1950s through the 1980s, local firms began to take advantage of Atlanta talent and, in the process, developed a recording infrastructure. Bill Lowery and his Lowery Group, for example, held the publishing rights to early rock’n’roll hits such as “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “Young Love.” Lowery later found commercial success with the pop-rock of Tommy Roe, whose “Shelia” topped the charts in 1960, and with the R&B vocals of The Tams, who had such hits as “What Kind of Fool” in the 1960s. Such success allowed Lowery to build Master Sound in 1963, one of the first studio complexes in Atlanta. William Bell offers another example. While the 1960s found black artists recording primarily for white-owned labels and studios, several important black-owned enterprises emerged in the 1970s—including Bell’s. Riding high from success at Memphis’ Stax Records, Bell relocated to Atlanta and started the Peachtree label. Bell produced singles by blues singer Mitty Collier, as well as lesser-known Atlanta-based artists (e.g., Gorgeous George). Atlanta talent also enjoyed success on the national stage—with hits for non-Atlanta recording firms. These performers include Atlanta Rhythm Section and the Indigo Girls. Following an old pattern, a number of Nashville recording artists (e.g., Vern Gosdin, Trishia Yearwood) continued to come from the Atlanta metro region.

As the 1990s dawned, Atlanta still was not a central player in the recording industry, but it was no longer peripheral. Research conducted in 1993 for a mayoral commission found that, although Atlanta was not a music business leader, its recording studios generated some $28 million in revenues and it ranked among the top 10 U.S. cities for the number of both nightclubs and performing artists/entertainers.

Current Business: The Case of Rap

Even in rap, Atlanta’s sound is not so much singular and distinctive as it is diverse and hybridized. “Space Rap,” released on Shurfine by Danny Renee and the Charisma Crew in 1980, could very well be city’s earliest contribution to the genre. Throughout the 1980s, Atlanta and its independent labels largely remained a satellite of the rap centers of gravity in New York and Los Angeles. Groups such as Success-n-Effect, for instance, showed the influence of NWA and the West Coast. Atlanta’s rap scene also felt a strong influence from the Miami bass style, brought to national attention by Luke Skywalker and 2 Live Crew. MC Shy D, for example, is an Atlanta-based rapper who started his career recording for Skywalker records. Arrested Development—a progressive rap collective fusing soul, blues, and Sly Stone-influenced funk with socially conscious lyrics—was founded in the late 1980s by rapper Speech (Todd Thomas) and DJ Headliner (Timothy Barnwell), who met at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Their “3 Years, Five Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…” sold four million copies in 1992.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Atlanta’s rap scene came into its own. Producers Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid started LaFace Records in 1989 as a joint venture with Arista. Until relocating to Los Angeles in 2000, the label towered over Atlanta’s musical landscape, producing hits from singers TLC and Toni Braxton and rappers—the duo Outkast’s recent “Stankonia” went multi-platinum amid critical acclaim. Jermaine Durpri is another stalwart of Atlanta rap; he achieved enormous success when producing the debut album by teen rappers Kriss Kross. His So So Def label, a joint venture with Columbia, has delivered soulful R&B and rap hits. In addition to Kriss Kross and the smooth Usher, So So Def has delved into hard-partying adult acts like Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz and the So So Def Bass Allstars.

By 2002, yearly estimates of Atlanta-based rap firms and performers’ contribution to the city’s economy range from $300 million or more. Atlanta is also one of the sites associated with the growing national attention to rap’s “Dirty South,” a neo-regional imaginary inspired by a rap from the group Goodie Mob.

Music Venues

Given Jim Crow laws, Atlanta venues were officially segregated until the second half of the 20th century. Notable establishments such as the Peacock Club, for instance, were found along Auburn Avenue—a center of the African-American business community. Segregation’s hold on Atlanta musical entertainment began to weaken in the late 1940s and 1950s, when a radio station began full-time broadcasting of music by black performers and when white listeners frequented R&B shows. In 1968, the city’s black and white musicians’ unions merged. By the 1970s, the races mingled at venues like the Sans Souci, the Pink Pussycat, and the Soul Expedition.

As Atlanta emerged as a major convention destination and transportation hub, it developed music venues that offer opportunities to savor the sounds of the city and the diverse caravans of musicians passing through.

Mega-concerts of music stars take place in Philips Arena and HiFi Buys Ampitheatre. A mid-size, primarily rock showcase is the Roxy in Buckhead. Intimate settings include the Variety Playhouse, an eclectic venue in the Little Five Points neighborhood, where audiences can hear dependably excellent musicians performing genres ranging from world music to bluegrass. The MJQ Concourse features a younger crowd, with DJs playing dance music from a variety of genres, including rap, jungle, and house. In East Atlanta, the Earl and the Echo Lounge are spots to hear newer indie rock bands. The Village has a regular house blues band and a relaxed neighborhood atmosphere. Eddie’s Attic at the Decatur MARTA stop is a legendary spot for up-and-coming acoustic singer-songwriters.

While our discussion has focused on popular music and commercial venues, Atlanta has much more to offer. Many of the city’s churches produce powerhouse gospel music in their sanctuaries Sunday after Sunday, and they welcome visitors. Well-known performance groups such as The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and The Morehouse College Glee Club also contribute to the multiplex sounds of Atlanta.