Spectropop remembers

AHMET ERTEGUN (1923 - 2006)

Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, has died. An indefatigable nightclubber and concertgoer to the end of his life, Ertegun fell and injured his head at a Rolling Stones concert in New York to mark former President Bill Clinton's 60th birthday on October 29th. He later slipped into a coma. He was 83.

Atlantic became the leading R&B and soul recording label in the US, and artists such as Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Chuck Willis, LaVern Baker, the Clovers, the Drifters, the Coasters, Bobby Darin, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, the Young Rascals, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Sonny & Cher, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were just a few of the musicians Ertegun worked with, wrote for, produced, recorded and paid. His colleague Jerry Wexler described Ertegun's life as "a brew of rock stars, diplomats, financiers, movie stars and avant-garde artists." In a typical episode Ertegun once found himself sitting on the office sofa at a party to celebrate an anniversary of Atlantic Records, between two guests who had never met. With perfect aplomb he introduced Henry Kissinger and Wilson Pickett, who threw a high five.

Ahmet Ertegun was born in Istanbul in 1923. His father, Münir Ertegün, a lawyer and legal adviser to Kemal Atatürk, was dispatched to the diplomatic purlieus of Switzerland, France and England. Thus Ahmet and his elder brother, Nesuhi, found themselves at the London Palladium in 1934 and being enthralled by Duke Ellington. As Ertegun recalled: "This was my first encounter with black people, and I was overwhelmed by the elegance of their tuxedos, their gleaming instruments, and their sense of style. But mostly it was the music. I was accustomed to the sound of scratchy phonograph records, so to hear the purity and power of that orchestra in a live setting was overwhelming. I fell under the spell of black music. A new world opened up for me."

The passion for American music became all the easier to pursue when Ertegun's father was posted to Washington as the Turkish Ambassador. He and his brother - already fluent in three languages - were able to invite mixed-race gatherings of musicians to the embassy to perform and eat in a way that was well nigh impossible in the rest of the capital. They scoured the shops for records and they were already noted collectors while still in their teens. Ertegun studied at St John's College, Annapolis, and Georgetown University and was contemplating post-graduate study when his father died in 1944. His mother and sister returned to Turkey, but the brothers stayed in the US. Nesuhi moved to Los Angeles, where he taught jazz studies at the University of Southern California, and Ahmet moved to Manhattan, where he decided to start a record label.

With Herb Abramson, a dentist who had forsaken his profession for his love of the blues, and a $10,000 loan from another dentist, Vahdi Sabit, he set up Atlantic Records in 1947. Its first office, in the less than prepossessing Hotel Jefferson, doubled as Ertegun's sleeping quarters. Its next premises doubled as a studio. From the beginning Ertegun was keen that the catalogue should be eclectic. When he heard that his brother's services were being sought by the Imperial label, Ertegun insisted that Nesuhi return to the East Coast, and jazz - in the shape of Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and the Modern Jazz Quartet among many others - would be one of Atlantic's many strengths. That was in the future, but the fledgeling label of October 1947 was hard-pressed to find something that would sell until Ertegun came across Stick McGee's song 'Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-o-dee'. He persuaded Stick to have another shot at the song - which promptly sold 400,000 copies and gave Atlantic its first hit.

From the outset the label made waves by offering its artists royalties, but Ertegun was hardly prepared for the push-and-shove, and the payments to radio stations, that were the industry's modus operandi. But soon his list of songs and performers was so strong that it had an impetus of its own. It had a considerable boost from the hits of Ruth Brown. Though Ertegun liked to describe himself as given to "indolence and excess" he spent hours attending cabarets where he found such of his performers as Mabel Mercer, Chris Connor and Bobby Short, or scouring the South, where he recorded the likes of Professor Longhair and Blind Willie McTell. The atmosphere at Atlantic Records engendered creativity. Before joining it in 1952 Ray Charles had looked set to be a mere echo of Nat King Cole - and after leaving the label in the early '60s he was never to achieve the same intensity that he did on those jazz and R&B recordings that culminated in the infectious 'What'd I Say'. During one recording session Charles heard that his mother had died. Instead of calling off the session he gave that rousing performance of 'Mess Around', a song by Ertegun himself, adapted from Cow Cow Davenport's 'Cow Cow Blues'.

Other early successes for the label included 'Shake, Rattle And Roll', recorded with Big Joe Turner; the Drifters - whose early hits, such as 'Money Honey' and 'Honey Love', would evolve into the Latin-tinged hits 'Save The Last Dance For Me' and 'Up On The Roof' - the Coasters with 'Yakkety Yak' and 'Along Came Jones'; and Bobby Darin with 'Mack The Knife' among other hits. Ertegun, already something of a star in his own right, had a palpable influence on the young Phil Spector, though Spector's only commercial success at the label was to co-write 'Spanish Harlem' for Ben E. King. Spector left the label in 1961 on the day of Ertegun's second marriage, to Mica Banu, an immigrant from Romania whose success as an interior designer had brought her into contact with the city's grandees. Marriage wrought a change in Ertegun. Always cultured and well read, he was now as likely to be at dinner on Park Avenue as staying up late in a club. He remained well-disposed to his first wife, about whom he was always vague, so much so that, on one occasion, he met her and did not recognise her.

The advent of the Beatles in February 1964 changed the US music industry, and Atlantic met the challenge - as well as the loss of Charles and Darin - by diversifying. Ertegun himself, hip to the emerging youth culture, took on Sonny & Cher, and insisted that their first single be reversed so that a song called 'I Got You Babe' got the airplay. Inevitably, Atlantic's artists made it a target for takeover bids. It was sold for $17 million in 1968 to the Kinney Corporation, which metamorphosed eventually into Time Warner. Despite subsequent wrangles with David Geffen, Ertegun's continued presence proved to be a valuable asset, and those who shared the tastes which formed the label's 1950s output, were surprised to see him taking a shine to such "progressive rock" bands as Led Zeppelin, Cream (and, in particular, Eric Clapton), Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and the Buffalo Springfield breakaway group of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But the sales spoke for themselves, and it was a mark of Ertegun's standing that he was able to woo the Rolling Stones by giving them their own label within the conglomerate. Mick Jagger made no secret of his esteem for Ertegun, a man who shared his taste for high society and low-down blues. Although he went on to foster Foreigner, Phil Collins and Michael Hutchence, Ertegun's early tastes were evident in several acts he signed in the 1970s: Manhattan Transfer, Roberta Flack and Bette Midler.

A mark of his style and unaffectedly youthful spirit is that with the arrival of the CD era, he participated cheerfully in myriad reissues of Atlantic's 1950s artists. In addition to taking an active interest in affairs in Turkey (where he had a fine house for the summer months), Ertegun had a passion for football. He and his brother co-founded the New York Cosmos soccer team in 1971, and were instrumental in coaxing such legendary players as Pelé to play for the club. In 1987 Ertegun was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he himself founded. His brother, Nesuhi, died in 1989 and was inducted posthumously two years later. Ahmet received an honorary doctorate in music from Berklee College of Music, Boston, in 1991, and the Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1993. The Library of Congress honoured him as a "Living Legend" in 2000.

Ahmet Ertegun had great ears; a man whose fastidious but unusually broad taste made him as comfortable with the raw R&B of Big Joe Turner and Professor Longhair as with the refined Broadway theatre-song interpretations of Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short. He helped to document some of the most important music of the 20th century and yielded precedence to no one in the list of US record men whose post-war independent labels preserved music that continues to give such pleasure and instruction today. Some of his rivals were angels, while others were devils who expressed their gratitude to their artists by perfecting the art of rip-off. Although there was much more of the former than the latter in Ertegun, nevertheless he was among those whose extreme wealth was founded on the talents of African-American artists, by no means all of whom reaped the kind of rewards they were due. "For every Picasso he had on his wall, I had a damp patch on mine," the singer Ruth Brown wrote in her autobiography. Brown, whose recordings of 'So Long', '5-10-15 Hours' and 'Lucky Lips' gave the Atlantic label some of its earliest hits, was referring to the time, decades later, when she was so poor that she had to find work as a maid, and Ertegun responded to a letter asking for help with a personal cheque for $1,000, while claiming that she still owed the company $30,000 in unrecouped advances and recording costs. Understandably, she saw $1,000 as a meagre recognition of her efforts in helping to establish the company, while viewing the mention of a debt as a typical example of the questionable practices whereby the music business made victims of so many of those who provided the material that made it rich. From their exchange arose the idea of creating the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a body set up in 1989 to provide financial and medical assistance for former rhythm and blues artists in need. Ertegun organised a founding donation of $1.5m.

Ertegun was always modest about his own compositions, several of which - including 'Chains Of Love' and 'Sweet Sixteen' - he wrote under the pseudonym "A. Nugetre". He is survived by his wife, Mica, and his sister, Selma.

(From The Times, except penultimate paragraph, which is by Richard Williams from The Guardian)

Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder and chairman of Atlantic Records:
born July 31st, 1923 - died December 14th, 2006