MIRIAM ABRAMSON (BIENSTOCK)
Born Miriam Kahan, 4 January 1923, Brooklyn, New York City, NY
With Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006), Herb Abramson (1916-1999), Jerry Wexler (1917-2008) and Nesuhi Ertegun (1917-1989) all deceased, Miriam Bienstock is the only survivor of the pioneering executives of the Atlantic label, the only surviving independent record label from the 1950s. Mrs Bienstock was interviewed by John Broven in June 2004, for his book "Record Makers And Breakers" (2009). The quotes that follow come from that book. A native New Yorker, Miriam Kahan had an avid interest in music from an early age. She had piano lessons, playing classical music, but during her teenage years she also took an interest in jazz.
Through this interest she got acquainted with Herb Abramson, who became her first husband. Abramson had a part-time job as an A&R man at National Records (1944-1947), started his own labels (Jubilee and Quality) in 1946, which never got off the ground and then co-founded Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun in 1947, with financial help from a Turkish dentist, Dr. Vahdi Sabit. From very early on, Miriam Abramson was involved in the record business through her association with Herb. "In the late '40s, there was just the three of us." (Ahmet, Herb, Miriam.) "Then we got a bookkeeper, she was the first employee : Fran Wakschal." Fran would stay with Atlantic for 49 years. "At that time, I was really doing everything. You have to understand that records were delivered by truck ... to the sidewalk. So I would go down and I'd carry the big boxes up the stairs, then I'd pack them again and send to disc jockeys and to distributors as samples. I'd do all of that. When I look at it now it was ridiculous, but, of course, I was very young. These were the 78s ; they were very heavy." Miriam also claims that she acted as Ruth Brown's manager for a while, but Ruth hardly mentions her in her autobiography ("Miss Rhythm") and when she does, it is in a very negative way (page 146, 148, 261).
Apparently, Miriam was quite a tough business woman. She followed a conservative financial policy. Her main task was to keep the office glued together, which she did with strong authority. She was also in charge of Atlantic's publishing company, Progressive Music, which was sold to Hill & Range in 1962. She knew all the musicians because she called them to the sessions and signed their checks. And she was the one who made that all-important decision how many copies of a record would be pressed. In 1955, she came to England to negotiate a deal with Decca. "I would deal with people there who were not really comfortable with women in business, so ... we would do business very quickly and get it over with. But they were charming. Sir Edward Lewis was wonderful." The first Atlantic single to be issued in the UK was LaVern Baker's "That Lucky Old Sun"/"Play It Fair" in November 1955 (London HLA 8199). Atlantic had a slow start and was permanently undercapitalized during its first decade of operations. "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Sticks McGhee was the label's first hit (# 2 R&B, # 26 pop, 1949), soon followed by strong sellers for Ruth Brown and, from 1951, the Clovers and Joe Turner. Atlantic was building up nicely when Herb Abramson was drafted as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army's Dental Corps and, on February 4, 1953, headed for Germany. To fill the void, Ahmet Ertegun brought in Jerry Wexler, a music journalist, in June 1953.
By the time that Abramson returned, in April 1955, Atlantic was a different company. Not only did it have success in the R&B field, it was also on the brink of breaking through in the pop and jazz market. Jerry Wexler was sitting at Herb's desk and co-producing with Ahmet in the studio and there was no way to push him out. Moreover, Abramson had returned with a German girl friend. Miriam and Herb would soon divorce, but both were still working at Atlantic, so the atmosphere was full of tension, even though Herb was given his own office and his own label (Atco). In 1957, Miriam married music publisher Freddy Bienstock, a marriage that would last 52 years, until Bienstock died in September 2009. They had two children, Caroline and Robert, who both hold major positions in the entertainment industry.
In December 1958, Herb Abramson bowed to the inevitable and sold his interest in Atlantic to the Ertegun brothers and Wexler. The new management lineup was Ahmet Ertegun (president), Jerry Wexler (executive vice president and general manager), Nesuhi Ertegun (executive vice president, LP department) and Miriam Bienstock (vice president, publishing). Miriam was not in favour of hiring Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as independent producers, because Atlantic had to pay them as producers. But the big pop hits of 1958 ("Yakety Yak", "Splish Splash") changed things and Atlantic's financial worries were finally over. About the later complaints of Atlantic artists (Ruth Brown in particular) about not getting enough royalties, Miriam says : "I think the artists always complained. There were a couple of famous searches by accountants for various artists, but they were not very serious. (...) We didn't try to cheat anybody, and what we did was normal practice at the time. We paid the royalties, and if they had problems, we'd give them money." Miriam Bienstock was bought out as a minority stockholder in September 1964. A Billboard article noted that "her duties, to be absorbed by Atlantic's executives, included serving as president of its publishing firms (Walden and Cotillion Music), supervising manufacturing and handling relations with foreign affiliates." It was also stated that "she will enter the fashion field." That didn't happen, she became a theatrical producer in New York City and London. "I was not in favor of selling the company", said Miriam, "and they had to get rid of me in order to sell the company" (to Warner-Seven Arts for $ 17.5 million, sale completed in October 1967). Looking back at her 17 years at Atlanric, she says : "I didn't feel like a pioneer. I felt I was doing my job. At that aparticular time, there were very few women in the record business who were in an executive position. It seems glamorous, but when I look back at it, I think it's really amazing how hard we worked. And we didn't think anything about it, when you think of what came out of it. It gives me a lot of pride. We had an aura that belonged all to ourselves ; we were not like the other record companies. I don't want to use the word 'class', but that's really what it was. And you can hear the records are like that, too."
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