[Marxism] Ahmet Ertegun: 1923-2006 His Atlantic Records shaped pop music
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Fri Dec 15 11:19:19 MST 2006
AHMET ERTEGUN: 1923 - 2006
His Atlantic Records shaped pop music
By Geoff Boucher and Randy Lewis
Times Staff Writers
December 15, 2006
Ahmet Ertegun, the Turkish ambassador's son whose ear for the culture
of black America would make his Atlantic Records a legendary fount of
20th century popular music, died Thursday. He was 83.
Ertegun had slipped into a coma after suffering a head injury in an
October fall backstage at a Rolling Stones show celebrating the 60th
birthday of former President Clinton. Ertegun never recovered from
the severe trauma of the injury, said Dr. Howard A Riina, the
attending neurosurgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and died
with his family at his bedside.
Ertegun was a true titan of the music industry across decades — his
upstart Atlantic label became the home of R&B music in the 1950s with
Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, the Drifters and the
Coasters and then triumphed on new turfs in the 1960s and 1970s with
signature acts such as Aretha Franklin; Led Zeppelin; Cream; Yes;
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and Sonny & Cher.
But more than a mogul, Ertegun was a passionate connoisseur of music
who was beloved by many of his artists and peers for his personal
panache and his encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially jazz and
rhythm and blues.
"Ahmet had as much fun as any man alive," Stephen Stills of CSN&Y
said Thursday. "He started out doing what he loved, and he did it all
his life. He also brought America's black and white cultures together
through music and helped cure the cancer of racism we had on our
Ertegun was a founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and remained
chairman of Atlantic Records until his death. He was also an
enthusiastic presence at concerts and industry events, such as the
Stones' performance for Clinton at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan.
News that he had died brought an outpouring of sentiment from
veterans of the music industry. And, even for a business circle
inured to hyperbole, there was a strong consensus that an era had
come to an end with the death of Atlantic's architect.
Ertegun started Atlantic Records in 1947 with a fellow jazz fan, Herb
Abramson, as a partner and with a $10,000 loan they got from a family
dentist. The label became a 1950s sensation by delivering earthy R&B
and lively jazz that corporate labels were too slow or too timid to
"He was a visionary…. He was one of the great personalities of our
time, moving from Jagger to Kissinger, from Ray Charles to Brooke
Astor," said Clive Davis, the founder of Arista Records who now heads
J Records and is chief executive officer of BMG North America. "His
passion for music was singular, and his contribution to our musical
heritage was second to none."
Ertegun's legacy was spun not only in platinum and gold records but
also in the careers of others who looked to Atlantic as the template
for independent label success and to Ertegun as a charismatic hero.
David Geffen, the billionaire entertainment mogul, said Thursday that
it was at Ertegun's advice that he first launched his own label.
Geffen said Ertegun's personality was as potent as his business
acumen. "He loved musicians, he loved music, he loved life…. He was a
lot of fun, a real raconteur," Geffen said. Of his friend's
storytelling, Geffen said: "He was elegant and raunchy."
In the music-industry book "Hit Men" in 1991, author Fredric Dannen
described Ertegun as a winking and worldly player: "He had Great
Record Man written all over him. He was jaunty, and bald, and had a
goatee…. He could order a bottle of wine from a headwaiter in perfect
French, then turn to his jazzman dinner guest and slip into black
jive. Ertegun was one of the original characters of the record
business, but the one with the most class."
He was born July 31, 1923, in Uskudar, a dense suburb of Istanbul
that lies on the Bosporus. The family didn't take the name Ertegun
until 1936, when President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed that all
Turkish families should adopt surnames. The future mogul's father, a
lawyer and diplomat named Mehmet Munir, chose "Ertegun"; it means
"living in a hopeful future."
Passion for music
It was his mother, Hayrunisa Rustem, who gave Ertegun a passion for
"If it hadn't been for the mores of Turkish society, she probably
would have been a star," he once wrote. "She had a beautiful voice,
played every instrument by ear, was a terrific dancer and loved
music. Wherever we were, she always bought all the popular hits of
the day: Josephine Baker, Mae West, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell
Sisters, among many others, so we always had a lot of music in the
His father's assignments took the family throughout Europe during the
1920s and to London in 1931. There, at age 9, Ertegun's elder brother
Nesuhi took him to see Cab Calloway's Orchestra at the Palladium.
"Then we went to hear Duke Ellington," Ahmet Ertegun recalled later.
"It was an incredible experience for me."
The family odyssey led to Washington, where Ertegun expected to find
"cowboys, Indians, Chicago gangsters, beautiful brown-skinned women
The new land wasn't quite what he expected, but its music continued
to enthrall him. He also found a strong empathy for African Americans
and their suffering from discrimination, which reminded him of Muslim
Turks and their experiences in Europe.
The Ertegun brothers scoured black neighborhoods for vinyl records
and became fixtures at the Howard Theater, a jazz hotbed in the
nation's capitol. They began to make their passion a business. In
1940, they booked New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet, singer Big
Joe Turner and trumpeter Sidney De Paris at the Jewish Community
After Mehmet Ertegun's death in 1944, Nesuhi moved to Los Angeles to
teach jazz at UCLA and open a music store and record label. Ahmet,
who had graduated from St. John's College, stayed in Washington,
where he met his future partner Abramson, who loved jazz but had been
producing what was then called "race" music and soon would become
known as R&B.
With $1,000 of their own money and the loan from dentist Vahdi Sabit,
they created Atlantic Records in October 1947. Ertegun was soon off
to New York and immersed in a dream job.
The labor started to pay off in 1949, when Atlantic began to make a
stir on the charts with records such as "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee"
by Stick McGhee & his Buddies and "So Long," a ballad by Ruth Brown.
Brown became a sassy signature act — the label would be nicknamed
"the house that Ruth built" — and devoted fans of music also hailed
the clean, detailed sound of Atlantic's recordings. Ertegun had Jerry
Wexler on his side; the producer (who would buy out Abramson) and his
all-night sessions with the label's roiling roster of artists
produced what would become legendary music.
In its heyday, Atlantic touched every corner of the black music
landscape. Some of the most celebrated recordings would be in jazz
from artists including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and the Modern
Ertegun seemed to sense that time would appreciate the recordings
perhaps more than the people in the room. He brought in top-flight
session players, even when the singer in the session was a raw
unknown, like the blind piano player whom the world would soon know
as Ray Charles.
"All of these famous musicians were not entirely sure that this blind
piano player, who was the star, really deserved all of this," Nesuhi
Ertegun recalled later of those momentous sessions. "They were kind
of looking down their noses a bit, making little wisecracks, and I
could see that the atmosphere was not too cool."
Charles would create a sensation and become one of the legacies of
Ertegun's affinity for recognizing great music in its rawest state.
A cultural force
The Atlantic records also become a force in American culture that
echoed beyond jukeboxes. White, mainstream audiences were suddenly
singing along to edgy black artists, most notably Charles, all under
the banner of Atlantic. The Oscar-winning film "Ray" (2004) would
show how Charles, Wexler and Ertegun stood at a mid-century nexus of
pop culture and race relations.
Ertegun appeared as a character in another film in 2004, "Beyond the
Sea," which showed his key role in the career of singer Bobby Darin.
Whether it was Darin, soul queen Franklin or rock heroes such as Led
Zeppelin and Cream (whose members swooned at Ertegun's connection to
Charles and the previous generations' music icons), the Atlantic
imprint set the standard for a savvy and polished independent label.
Ertegun sold Atlantic for $17.5 million to Warner-Seven Arts in 1967,
which put an end to that independent history, but not to the name
brand. Atlantic continued as a powerful force in the music industry.
Said Wexler: "If Atlantic had not grown and developed, it probably
would have died. All the labels we started with are extinct…. Rock
added a huge dimension to the label. R&B alone is not enough to
sustain a [large] company."
Ertegun was also hailed as an impresario in a far different arena.
With a passion for the sport of his childhood, he and his brother
co-founded the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.
Again, they brought in top-flight talent to support their large
ambitions: They signed brand-name stars from abroad such as Pele,
Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer to energize the sport in
America. The brothers were inducted into the National Soccer Hall of
Fame in 2003.
No matter the setting, the dapper Ertegun was famous for being at the
cutting edge of the moment but somehow also slightly above the fray,
even in an industry like the music business that is rarely known for
decorum or calm sophistication. In a 1978 profile of Ertegun for the
New Yorker, writer George W.S. Trow described a night six years
earlier when he accompanied Ertegun and his wife, Mica, to see the
Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. The band had just closed a
deal with Ertegun that would see Atlantic distribute the band's
"They arrived late," Trow wrote. "By the time they arrived, their
seats had been taken by very young people. Ahmet and Mica made no
attempt to evict the squatters. Ahmet spread a white handkerchief on
the concrete step adjacent to their seats and Mica sat on this. Ahmet
stood next to her, protectively…. A boy who looked about 13 passed
around a joint. Ahmet nodded politely and passed it along."
Ertegun was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a
non-performer in 1987 (four years later, Nesuhi, who died in 1989,
also was inducted). Ertegun was awarded an honorary doctorate in
music in 1991 from Boston's Berklee College of Music, and in 2000 was
honored as a "living legend" by the Library of Congress. Last year
the Recording Academy, which bestows the Grammy Awards, made Ahmet
Ertegun the first recipient of the President's Salute to Industry
He is survived by his wife and a sister.
Ertegun will be buried in a private ceremony in Turkey. A memorial
service will be conducted in New York after New Year's.
geoff.boucher at latimes.com
randy.lewis at latimes.com
A quiet force in the world of music
By Robert Hilburn
Special to The Times
December 15, 2006
The popular notion is that without Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and
Little Richard, there wouldn't have been rock 'n' roll. But it may be
closer to the truth to say there wouldn't have been rock 'n' roll
without Ahmet Ertegun.
The co-founder of Atlantic Records loved to say he was just lucky to
have worked with such landmark artists as Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin,
Aretha Franklin and Cream.
Yet everyone who has cared about pop music over the last half-century
should feel fortunate to have had Ertegun. The son of a Turkish
ambassador to the U.S., he made contributions to the American pop
scene that were as passionate and irreplaceable as any of the artists
on his label.
Generations of music entrepreneurs and executives — David Geffen,
Chris Blackwell, Doug Morris, Jimmy Iovine and countless others —
have cited him as a hero and role model.
Through it all, Ertegun, a shy, sophisticated man with a great
appreciation for art, carried himself with dignity and humility.
He did few interviews because he felt the spotlight should always be
on the musicians, but I managed to get him to sit down a few times to
talk about building Atlantic. His eyes twinkled as he talked about
first hearing Eric Clapton in London in the mid-'60s, or about
watching Bobby Darin grow from the novelty of "Splish Splash" to the
mainstream boldness of "Mack the Knife."
The quality that struck me most was his genuine respect for the music
and the musicians.
Most owners of R&B record companies in the '50s were opportunists —
often record store owners or jukebox operators who started labels in
hopes of picking up some extra bucks. They had little respect for
artists or, in many cases, the music.
Along with Sam Phillips, who launched Elvis Presley on Sun Records in
Memphis, Tenn., Ertegun helped guide artists to a musical vision that
he felt was both exciting and could serve as a bridge to what he felt
so keenly from his foreign background was a missing piece of the
American dream: racial equality.
Ertegun and his older brother, Nesuhi, who also had a prominent
career in the music business, grew up with a love of jazz.
As youngsters in London, they saw Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway,
and their father later hosted jazz musicians, black and white, at the
embassy in Washington, a move that raised some eyebrows in that
segregated era. In his teens, Ahmet Ertegun sponsored what was
believed to be the first integrated jazz concert in Washington.
Indeed, he got so caught up in the music world that he passed up a
career in the diplomatic service to start a record company with Herb
Abramson in New York in the late '40s.
Like Phillips in Memphis, Ertegun didn't just see the blues and R&B
sounds of the day as a novelty. He sensed a spirit so liberating that
it could appeal to listeners of all races.
After working with jazz and R&B artists from the New York area,
Ertegun was drawn increasingly to the rawer sound coming from the
South. But most of the New York artists he came across resisted the
"We had urban, very sophisticated musicians who came out of the big
bands and singers who were straight pop singers, imitating Billy
Eckstine or singing standards," he once told me.
"What we did was take the best singers we could find and force them
to play soul music. As a result of that, we came out with a sound
which was halfway toward funk."
As the label's reputation grew, Ertegun began finding singers,
including Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter, who had the blues and
gospel instincts to sing soul music on their own.
The result was hit recordings that helped reshape the boundaries of
American pop — records such as Charles' "I Got a Woman" and "What'd I
Say," the Drifters' "Money Honey" and the Coasters' "Yakety Yak."
Soon, Atlantic — along with Sun Records and the Chess Brothers' Chess
Records in Chicago — was at the creative center of the music
business, and major labels started raiding Ertegun's talent roster.
When Charles, Darin and McPhatter all left Atlantic in the late '50s,
Ertegun thought the company was finished. But he and his gifted
Atlantic team, including producer Jerry Wexler, went on to greater
heights in the '60s with Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Wilson
Pickett and others.
Over the years, the Atlantic roster would include such other
distinguished artists as Buffalo Springfield, the Bee Gees, Dusty
Springfield, the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
To no one's surprise, Ertegun was one of the first nonmusicians
inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he avoided most
award ceremonies. He agreed to host Atlantic's 50th anniversary
concert at Madison Square Garden in 1998 only because the event
raised millions for charity.
The lineup that night included more than two dozen artists, but the
real draw was Led Zeppelin, and the capacity crowd was impatient to
see the British band by the time Ertegun walked on stage around
midnight to accept an award. You could hear jeers and shouts of
It was an awkward moment for this giant of the music business. But
Ertegun wasn't at all downbeat as he stood backstage later.
"They were right," he said with his characteristic grace. "They came
here to hear music — not see some old man accept an award…. It's the
music that matters. Fifty years from now, people will still be
listening to Led Zeppelin. They won't even remember me."
Ertegun was wrong.
The music community will always treasure him.
Robert Hilburn was The Times' pop music critic for nearly 40 years
until his retirement in January.
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