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Bob Porter: The Wizard of R&B

When Atlantic Records decided to document its history with a fourteen-record set, the company knew that Bob Porter was the man for the job

Ahmet Ertegun, founder, Atlantic Records

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. Circa 1980.

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Last spring, when Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun needed a copy of blues singer Lil Green’s “Romance in the Dark,” he wisely contacted Bob Porter. Porter, of course, had one. A New Jersey-based jazz and R&B expert, the forty-five-year-old Porter currently finds his services much in demand. Aside from presiding over a daily jazz radio show on Newark’s WBGO and a syndicated National Public Radio blues program called “Portraits in Blue,” he recently coordinated a live Charlie Parker reissue for the revived Blue Note label and worked on Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington and Jimmy Smith compilations for PolyGram.

When Porter brought the Lil Green record to Ertegun’s New York office, the two men immediately hit it off. Soon Porter found himself paired as a producer with Ertegun’s nephew, Atlantic A&R man Aziz Goksel, on Ahmet’s long-brewing pet project, Atlantic Rhythm and Blues, 1947-1974 — an imposing, seven-volume, 186-trak overview of the most celebrated R&B catalog of the postwar musical period. Porter still found working with Ertegun — a social lion on several continents, as well as a walking musical legend — to be deeply educational.

What was your first meeting with Ahmet like?
It was . . . let’s say unique. I’d be asking him about Harry Van Walls, who was one of the legendary New York piano players of all time, or Frank “Floorshow” Culley, a legendary honking tenor player, and all the time Ahmet would be taking calls from the Turkish embassy about clearing a runway for some special VIPs flying into Ankara. We’d start talking about La Vern Baker, and all of a sudden somebody’s calling him about Mick Jagger’s birthday. He’d be telling me how one of his favorite reed players was Rosey McHargue with the Ted Weems Band, and the next thing you know somebody from the White House is calling. It was weird, you know? But Ahmet is really a Renaissance man of American music. And in terms of his having all this knowledge about jazz and blues, and heading a major label, he’s truly unique.

How were the songs selected?
There’s a book that lists all the Atlantic masters up to 1974 — four humongous volumes. We’d go over each artist and bounce titles off of Ahmet. He would say, “This was the hit,” or “No, that’s not the one.” He’s the single thread that runs through this series.

Were there master tapes for all of this stuff?
Atlantic lost a lot of material in a fire a few years ago, and at this point I’m not sure anybody knows what they actually have. Not all the masters we had were in the best of shape. Time does funny things with recorded materials: they acquire noise; tapes tend to peel. We digitally remastered all the stuff. We had to dub some of the material from 78 rpm records, but I think we got extremely good transfers — we found records that were in mint condition.

That couldn’t have been easy.
Well, I’m in touch with most of the jazz and R&B rare-record auctioneers. The problem is that guys who are heavy label collectors, particularly the Atlantic label, will never have anything in mint condition. You don’t find old Tiny Grimes records in mint condition — they’ve been played, you know?

What did you hope to achieve with this series?
The inspiration was that Sixties series [on Atlantic], the History of Rhythm and Blues. But that really had a lot of inaccurate or missing information. I figured, what the hell, why not do this one for posterity? So we tried to list in copious detail everything we could about the original recording date, the singers, the bands, every piece of information we could unravel. The most important thing in doing any work of this nature is that you get it right.

How difficult was it deciding which tracks to include?
Well, when you look at the major artists. . . I mean, where do you draw the line with Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding? There are so many classic, you’ve got to prune to make it workable. Otherwise those artists will dominate to the point where it’s virtually their record. We decided to stop in 1974 because that, in a sense, marked the end of an era. When you get into disco and rap music, you’re really talking about something that’s very different. The conditions in the country were a lot different when this music was being made. I think that the demise of soul and R&B may ultimately be viewed as a casualty of integration.

Why the renewed interest in reissues of old material?
I think it’s been building for a while. But Tower Records has started a revolution: the fact that they will sell everything, and try to keep everything on hand, has suddenly made it very attractive to record companies to get back into the catalog business. And other chains are going in this direction, too. So now PolyGram has set up a classics division, CBS has its Special Products division, and Capitol has revived the Blue Note jazz label. I wouldn’t be surprised if RCA soon started reissuing its jazz catalog on its Red Seal label — otherwise, that material is just going to keep pouring in here from France.

With all of these reissues coming out, what are the collectors collecting these days?
Basically, especially among R&B collectors, original 45s are highly prized. One of, I believe, two known copies of the Five Sharps’ “Stormy Weather” [Jubilee Records, 1952] sold for $3800 a while ago. And, hell, the only known copy of King Oliver’s “Zulu’s Ball” changed hands for $4000 some time ago, and it was later resold for $6000. Today, it could be worth $10,000, $12,000. But there’s danger in that sort of enormous value being placed on original recordings, because all of a sudden the people who are getting deeply involved in collecting them are not music people.

The collecting business is very cyclical. I think by the end of the decade you’re gonna have people looking for twelve-inch disco singles — and looking hard for them. Because in the long run, music is more than just music; it is milestones in people’s lives.

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