Miriam Bienstock, Co-Founder of Atlantic Records, Dies at 92

March 31, 2015

By BRUCE WEBER

March 30, 2015

Miriam Bienstock, a co-founder of Atlantic Records who ran the business side of the company in its formative years, helping to lay the groundwork for what became a colossus of the recording industry, died on March 21 at her home in Manhattan. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by her children, Caroline and Robert Bienstock.

The history of Atlantic Records, now part of the Warner Music Group, is populated by a small country’s worth of megastars from across the spectrum of jazz, pop and rock — including Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Charles Mingus, Wilson Pickett, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Abba and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Its current roster includes leading acts like Coldplay, the hip-hop artists Flo Rida and Ty Dolla Sign, and the English folk trio the Staves.

The label was born in 1947 of the shared interest of its three founders — Ms. Bienstock, her husband at the time, Herb Abramson, and their friend Ahmet Ertegun — in the music that came to be called rhythm and blues. The company was started with $2,500 from the Abramsons and a $10,000 investment from Mr. Ertegun’s dentist.

Though the company’s initial years, before white America became enamored of black music, were difficult ones, Atlantic was kept afloat and eventually spurred by a handful of hits, including “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee, “Teardrops From My Eyes” and “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” by Ruth Brown, and, after the producer Jerry Wexler joined the company, Ray Charles’s first signature tune, “I Got a Woman.” (Mr. Ertegun’s brother, Nesuhi, also joined the company early in its existence.)

Mr. Ertegun, a son of Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, was the chief talent scout. Mr. Abramson did the recording, and Ms. Bienstock handled just about everything else — not only keeping the books, collecting payments and paying the artists but also moving the office chairs out of the way to make room for the artists and recording equipment in the company’s first office; arranging for the designing and printing of the record jackets; receiving the finished records and carrying them upstairs, and repacking the records for shipment to distributors and record stores.

“I must tell you, Miriam was an important person in keeping discipline at Atlantic Records, and keeping everything on the up-and-up,” Mr. Ertegun, who died in 2006, said in an interview with Billboard magazine in 1997. “She ran the office, and none of us was inclined to run the office. She is unheralded, unrecognized, but if we hadn’t had her in those developing years, the company would have folded. She also had very good taste in music.”

One of very few women in the record business at the time, Ms. Bienstock earned a reputation not only for toughness — her son, Robert, said in a eulogy for his mother that many of the businessmen she dealt with called her “Dragon Lady” — but also for efficiency and for the kind of shrewd rule-skirting that the record business of the day required.

Payola — the illegal practice of bribing radio stations and disc jockeys to play particular records on the air — was part of the way business was conducted, and as Ms. Bienstock later acknowledged, Atlantic was a participant. When Congress began investigating the practice in the late 1950s and questioned the Atlantic staff, Ms. Bienstock recalled in “Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneers” (2009) by John Broven, “we said to the federal government, ‘We didn’t do it … but we’ll never do it again.’ ”

She was born Miriam Kahan on Jan. 4, 1923, in Brooklyn, where she graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and Brooklyn College. Her parents, Abraham Kahan, who worked in the garment industry, and the former Sylvia Brahinsky, were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. She married Herb Abramson, a fellow Brooklynite and jazz fan who had worked for the National Records label, and they helped start two short-lived record companies before joining forces with their friend Mr. Ertegun.

Mr. Abramson, who died in 1999, was drafted in 1953, and he and his wife divorced shortly after he returned. He subsequently left the company and she acquired his shares.

She also took over the company’s music publishing arm. She sold her interest in the company in 1964, a few years before Warner Bros. acquired Atlantic.

In 1957, she married Freddy Bienstock, who had worked for Elvis Presley finding songs for him to record and who later became a music publishing executive. His company, now known as Carlin America, was named for their daughter, Caroline, now its president and chief executive. Mr. Bienstock died in 2009.

In addition to her son and daughter, Ms. Bienstock’s survivors include eight grandchildren. In recent years she was a theater producer and investor.

Originally published by The New York Times