Ahmet Ertegun: 1923–2006
Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat, was perhaps best known for his love of and advocacy for African-American musical forms, especially rhythm and blues and jazz. He frequently told the story of his introduction to American music at the age of 9, when his brother Nesuhi took him to see the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras at London's Palladium. "Those were incredible experiences," Ertegun told Moistworks' Alex Abramovich, "because the jazz I'd heard on records couldn't compare to the way these bands sounded live."
When Ertegun's father was named wartime ambassador to the United States during WWII, he expanded his knowledge of American music by hanging out at the DC record shop Waxie Maxie's, where, eventually, he began working as record buyer. In 1947, he moved to New York, where he and Herb Abramson, a dental student, started an independent record label.
As Ertegun told Alex Abramovich, "I went into the music business in order to make records that would sell to a black audience....When Herb Abramson and I started Atlantic, we wanted to make any kind of records that would sell. We were really thinking of the R'n'B market. Race records, as they were called—gospel, blues, meaning, black music.
"Most people don't really understand it this way, but black music is what we're talking about. Everything we hear is black music, and imitations of black music. And there's a reason why black music is the only music which has become international."
His instincts were impeccable. Among the artists he signed or championed were Stick McGhee, Ruth Brown, the Clovers, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, the Rascals, Led Zeppelin, CSNY (he convinced Crosby, Stills, and Nash to allow Neil Young to join them on a concert tour), and Dire Straits. On the jazz side, Atlantic recorded John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Les McCann, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Hank Crawford.
Ertegun's true genius, however, was not just his recognition of talent, but his understanding of his artists' strengths. Several of Atlantic's most significant recording artists developed their true voices while at the label. Ray Charles, for instance, had a long recording career at ABC Records, but he became Ray Charles while at Atlantic. Aretha Franklin had recorded gospel-tinged music at Columbia before joining Atlantic, which sent her to Muscle Shoals with Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, creating the sound that made her the Queen of Soul. Similarly, when the Rolling Stones' contract at Abkco expired, Ertegun himself sealed the deal that brought the band to Atlantic Records.
Then there's the one who got away: Elvis Presley. In 1955, RCA beat out Atlantic when bidding for Elvis's contract. One is tempted to speculate about the course of the King's career had someone with Ertegun's deep understanding and integrity been around to counterbalance Tom Parker's stranglehold on the material Presley recorded.
Ertegun was influential in establishing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which named its main exhibition hall in his honor.
It is common in obituaries to say, "We won't see his like again," but in Ertegun's case it is unquestionably true. He took an independent label to international prominence by following his passion. In his 1991 commencement address to the Berklee College of Music, where he was awarded an honorary degree, Ertegun told students, "When my father died in 1944, I was 21, a college graduate, philosophy student, jazz lover, a hanger-about at jazz nightclubs, and as Jerry Wexler once pointed out, I was totally unemployable.
"I had to make a decision. What little my father had left in his estate was barely enough to take care of my mother and sister, who had returned to Turkey. Nesuhi was in Los Angeles, where he had a small label dedicated to recording the last surviving New Orleans jazz players. He was also teaching a course on Afro-American music and jazz history at UCLA.
"I had to decide whether I would go into a scholastic life or go back to Turkey in the diplomatic service, or do something else. What I really loved was music, jazz, blues, and hanging out. Since I was not a musician, I decided that I would become a record maker, what we call today a record producer."
Not a record maker, but a record maker for the ages. If the heavenly hosts don't already sing praises with a backbeat, they will be doing so soon.