Without providing any startlingly new information, "The Atlantic Records Story" humanizes the names that dominate the early rock 'n' roll record books.
Ahmet Ertegun--a Turkish diplomat's son whose vision of America was embodied in its black music--might have evolved into the quintessential music mogul, but at the dawn, he and Herb Abramson and Jerry Wexler were the '50s counterparts of today's independent "alternative rock" label visionaries--scrappy hipsters immersed in the music and devoted to documenting a subculture's expression.
In their case, things took an unexpected twist when their records suddenly became big hits, helping change the face of American popular music. The two-hour program details this de-ghettoizing of black music and offers a good primer on the development of soul music.
It's all presented without a lot of flair--the show's style reflects little of the dynamic spirit of the music it's covering. It's also an uncritical, strictly in-house perspective, lacking comment from any outside observers and avoiding any sticky issues.
Atlantic is regarded as a relatively upright operation, but the charges of slow royalty payments to its early artists and the label's '80s descent into artistic blandness (only recently reversed) should be part of the story too.
What energy the show has comes from the bounty of vintage performance footage. If you needed any reminders of Atlantic's significance, just drink in this parade of irreplaceable artists--from Ray Charles to Cream, Bobby Darin to the Stones, the Drifters to Buffalo Springfield, Aretha Franklin to Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane to . . . well, as Ertegun tells it, if he'd had another $20,000 in his pocket in '55, he would have had Elvis too.
* "The Atlantic Records Story" airs at 6 and 10 tonight on the A&E; Network.