Henry Allen and Cotillion Records: One Of The Pioneers Of The Development Of The Contemporary Black Music Industry

Since its revival a couple of years back, Cotillion Records has underlined Atlantic Records’ commitment to black music. With pioneer Henry Allen at the helm, the label has enjoyed acceptance and success with acts such as Slave, Mass Production and Cerrone. In an exclusive interview, Mr. Allen talks with David Nathan about his own career as well as Cotillion’s progress and aims.

ANYONE who takes the time to really check back into the history of black music in the USA (and indeed, on an international level) will no doubt be made immediately aware of the incredible changes that the industry has gone through over just the past two decades.

Black music has come “out of that closet” and certainly, in terms of sales and development, black artists are now in a stronger position than ever. It’s no rare feat for an album or single, for that matter, to attain double platinum within a short space of time – and that means selling a whole lot of records! And that’s to say nothing of the immense impact that black music has had on the international scene.

It would probably be true to say that its influence as well as the actual sales on all forms of black music could have started out as purely a much needed outlet for creative expression has, indeed, turned the musical world around.

Within the contemporary black music industry, there are a few men who have been literally giants or pioneers in ensuring that status and development that the music has seen over the past twenty years. Men like Berry Gordy Jr.Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun Brothers at Atlantic, Ewart AbnerLeBaron TaylorHenry StoneKenny Gamble & Leon HuffCurtis MayfieldJim StewartAl Bell and Henry Allen.

Mr Allen’s career in the industry spans some twenty-three years. After periods with ABC-Paramount, who at the time were into packaging cover versions of current hits of the day and Vanguard Records, Henry joined Atlantic Records in 1955 when the company had a roster which included the likes of Ruth BrownRay CharlesLaVern Baker, groups like The DriftersThe CoastersThe Clovers.

In his own words: “I actually joined the company as supervisor in their stock room. Back then, of course, the company was so much smaller than it is now. The whole industry operated a different way – there really is no comparison with what goes on today.”

With an obvious eye and ear for talent, Ahmet Ertegun, brother Nesuhi and Jerry Wexler (literally the founding fathers of Atlantic) saw the potential they had in Mr. Allen, whose obvious energy and penchant for hard work marked him as a keystone in the development of the company. Needless to say, it wasn’t too long before the gentleman found himself as the local promotion man covering r&b and pop, moving on to become the regional Eastern promotion man in 1959, later moving up another peg to become national promotion chief for the label.

He notes: “The company was still small but growing. Back then, my job entailed many different phases of work – it really encompassed career development with artists, coordination in general, making sure the records were being played in cities that artists were visiting – just a whole lot of work!”

By the time Henry Allen was promoted to become the first black Vice-President in charge of promotion in the record industry in 1967, the company had begun to enjoy some success with white acts.

“We’d had the big hit with ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny & Cher, we had Bobby Darin, of course, ‘Alley Cat’ by Bent Fabric, I worked on the Bee Gees’ ‘1941 Mining Disaster’, The Rascals’ ‘Groovin”. We had reached a point where other acts outside of r&b and jazz could see that we could do the job.”

At the same time, Henry had been very active in working on the Stax/Volt catalogue, then under a special distribution agreement with Atlantic. “We had all those great acts – Otis ReddingEddie FloydWilliam BellRufus & Carla ThomasJohnnie Taylor – those were the pioneering days for the company and it was a very successful situation for Atlantic. In fact, I still work closely with Jim Stewart (one of the founders of Stax) – we have a partnership in a studio in Memphis and one of the products that’s come out of there is our album on R.B. Hudmon, who we feel is going to be a major star.

“R.B.’s also done a duet album with a young lady called Denise Irving and I think people recognize that what Memphis music represents is, in many ways, the roots of Atlantic’s r&b involvement.”

Henry’s appointment as the first black Vice-President in the industry was “very important for my people. It put a responsibility on me to succeed even further, to show people that it could be done and I’d like to think that it helped pave the way for some of the tremendously talented black executives that have come through in recent years like LeBaron TaylorPaul JohnsonRichard Mack.”

Modestly, Mr. Allen doesn’t point out that many of the black executives now holding top positions in the record industry received much of their initial training from him: “I’d like to think I’d helped but it would be for those people themselves to really make those kind of comments!” he laughs.

Atlantic in 1967 was indeed at the forefront of black music with major acts like Wilson PickettJoe TexSolomon BurkeDon Covay and it was the year that Aretha Franklin, hitless after a few years with Columbia, exploded on the musical scene, courtesy the foresight of Jerry Wexler.

“There are just so many funny little stories I could relate of things that have happened over the years but, for instance, in connection with Aretha’s first record – ‘I Never Loved A Man’. I’ll never forget we were in a serious blizzard in Chicago and the country was crying out for the record – couldn’t get enough! So we had to dig our way to a truck in an alleyway in Chicago to get copies out to people!”

Aside from travelling the country with Aretha, Henry worked closely with Wilson Pickett. “Now, he was a personal project of mine. I still maintain that he is the greatest rhythm and blues singer alive. It’s all a matter of knowing how to deal with Wilson, how to approach him, building a rapport.

“Many’s the time he wouldn’t want to cut a particular song and I’d just talk with him, let him see why we felt the record would work and don’t you know, he’d end up doing it and it would be a smash. It was all about having that personal contact that’s missing with so many people in the industry today.

“Yes, I felt sad to see him leaving Atlantic but it was just one of those things – we tried to keep him here but things change, people change, situations change.”

With Atlantic’s integration within the WEA conglomerate, Mr. Allen found himself in a new position as Senior Vice-President, noting “that the company had always operated basically as a family but with its growth, naturally, it’s become more difficult to maintain that kind of relationship.

“But there are people within this structure who have contributed immeasurably to its success and to my own personal career development. People like Ahmet, who trusted me to the point where, when we decided to re-establish Cotillion as a label, he invested a lot of money in the project on behalf of the company. And Jerry Wexler, with whom I used to spend many weekends, when we’d go through material for different acts.

“I have the upmost respect for Jerry, because he taught me so much about the thing’s I’ve had to deal with in the industry. He taught me, for instance, to be upfront with people when they come to you with material, with tapes. Instead of hanging them up for days, as so many people tend to do in the business, I’ll get back to people the next day if possible to let them know if we’re interested at Cotillion.

“What happens is that I’ll take a tape home and listen to it, check it out and if I feel that its got something that will make it or the artist happen, then I’ll play it to the staff here – the guys who go out on the road. Jerry taught me about things like that – being on the case, for instance.

“We used to buy every single album that came out in the r&b field back then, when he was still with Atlantic, and we’d listen to what was going on out there. And I still do that.

“It’s absolutely vital for Cotillion or for any label that you listen to the radio, to what people are doing, to the competition, to the musical trends that are happening. Any executive worth his salt will be on the case, will see what’s happening on the streets.

“What I do is listen to the radio, talk to dealers, find out if stuff is selling and what is selling. It’s a big mistake to get wrapped up in just your own product.”

Cotillion’s re-birth in 1976 was meant, according to Mr. Allen “to give Atlantic a new life-line to new talent in the black music market. You see, by ’76, everyone was getting into the market. Look at CBS’ involvement! So we needed another branch to the Atlantic tree to give acts access and to give the company access.

“And we’ve purposely been extremely selective in our choice of acts. We’ve taken our time, evaluated the artists that have come to us. Sure, we spent the first year weeding out any mistakes we may have made, because everyone is susceptible to doing that.

“But, I’d say that we’ve more than made up for that with the acceptance of SlaveMass ProductionCerrone, and the other acts we have in the pipeline, Sister SledgeR.B. HudmonPhilippe Wynne and so on.”

Henry is happy to relate exactly how each of his major ‘finds’ came to be with Cotillion.

“With Slave, what happened was that the group came in to me one Friday and I was leaving the office to go play some golf. They had three unfinished tracks with them and Jeff Dixon, the DJ from Jersey, was working with them trying to get a deal. Well, I heard the tune ‘Slide’ and it immediately made me stop!

“I told Jeff I wanted to think about it and throughout the whole weekend, I was nervous because I figured that if anyone else heard it, they’d probably grab it. So first thing Monday morning, I called him and told him he had a deal for Slave. And you know what happened from then on.

“The group has fulfilled so much of the promise with their second album, after the success of the first one. Musically, it’s ten times more into what they want to do. And the next one is going to be even better!

“I have every confidence in the guys and what we do is keep a close liaison on what they’re doing by having them stop by with the tapes at different stages in production. That way, we can keep feedback flowing between us on the product that’s coming.”

With Mass Production, Henry encountered another situation. “As you know, The Isley Brothers spent two different periods with Atlantic through the years and we’ve always remained close. Well, Kelly knew the group and he told them that he felt that a label like Cotillion could handle the product. At that point, they had six sides completed and their manager came to the office and we did the deal. Going back to what I said before, Jerry Wexler taught me not to procrastinate in making decisions and I try not to!”

Philippe Wynne’s pacting with Cotillion was a natural situation, Henry relates. “When Philippe left The Spinners, we realized that he needed direct concentration. He still had a contract with Atlantic but we felt that with The Spinners still on the label, it could present marketing problems. We believe in him totally and we’re confident that the next product you hear from him is really going to establish him at the top.”

Cerrone, of course, was already with Atlantic’s French licensee and when Mr. Allen heard the first album, he immediately knew he wanted it for Cotillion. “As you know, that turned out to be a smash for us and Cerrone has been in making promotional appearances and so on to consolidate further what we’ve started to build.

“Sure, someone can come in here with a song with a great hook and a singer with a great voice, but it’s whether that artist can be developed.

“Take Sister Sledge. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback on everything that the group has done so far but for some reason, we just haven’t been able to get that out-of-the-box smash on them. We’ve tried every recording approach, including sending the girls to Germany to work with the Silver Convention people.

“Well, now that they’re working with Brad Shapiro (who worked with Millie Jackson and Wilson Pickett amongst others), we’re trying something new. We’re cutting them funky, gritty. That’s why it’s so important for me to maintain a close contact with all our artists, so that we can keep trying to come through with hit products. Once a label gets too big for that, it can be a big problem.

“What we want to build for Cotillion is the reputation of being able to take our product home, being able to have heavy sales on everything we put out.”

Mr. Allen sees the black music market as continually expanding and growing and he reflects:

“There’s been an increased awareness and sophistication on the part of the black record buyer plus the young white adults, college students and so on, don’t discriminate about the colour of the artist. It’s their music that counts. These are some of the factors I see that have contributed to the growth of the market.

“And,” he adds, “on a personal level, the growth of Cotillion couldn’t have happened without the fantastic cooperation that I’ve had from so many friends over the years. Dealers, radio people, promotion people who have put so much faith in me.

“And I want to particularly say that my own people have been so supportive. There used to be a myth about how black brothers wouldn’t help each other but in my own career, that just isn’t what’s happened.

“Plus, my own view on how we should put things back into the community is something I’d like to make mention of because it’s something that Atlantic, as a company, has always been aware of. We’ve made sure that we did whatever we could to put back into black communities and particularly through Cotillion Records, I want to continue to do just that.”

© David NathanBlues & Soul, April 1978

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