Few record executives have had played such a role in shaping the music business as Ahmet Ertegun. It’s now more than a decade since we lost the great co-founder of Atlantic Records, who helped steer the careers of countless superstar acts and was also a distinguished songwriter, producer and philanthropist.
The urbane Turkish-American entrepreneur was born on 31 July 1923, in Istanbul, and his impact on the music world started soon after the end of World War II. He died at 83 in December 2006, but to this day, the standards he set are aspired to by the modern generation of label heads.
Ertegun’s unique insight and acumen were a huge influence on the emergence of such R&B figureheads as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and rock legends including Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and many others. The personal relationships he built with those and so many other artists gave him an aura that went far beyond the music he helped bring to the world.
In February 2007, Billboard magazine’s special edition paying tribute to Ahmet included a profile of his international achievements by this writer. We reprint part of it here.
“The tales of Ahmet Ertegun’s international adventures as an executive and a socialite are legion. And just when you think you’ve heard them all, up pops another musician touched by his presence to contribute more memories.
What set the late co-founder of Atlantic Records apart from his contemporaries was his world view. The record business to him was never just about the United States. Just as his father had been a globe-covering Turkish ambassador, Ertegun truly had a window on the world of music, and through it he saw cultural possibilities for which scores of his international artists will forever be grateful.
At 77, [Ertegun] travelled to London to be guest of honour [at a star-studded industry event] in 2001. He was presented with the Music Industry Trusts Award…for his contribution to the global careers of such British greats as the Rolling Stones, Cream, Yes, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and many others.
“They don’t give that award to foreigners, do they?” Ertegun asked this writer just before flying to the United Kingdom. He explained: “I feel partly British, because I spent part of my youth in England. I was a great fan of British music even from the jazz days of the 1930s, when I was a very young boy. Prior to living in England, we’d been in France and Switzerland, but England felt much closer to America.”
One recalls that on the awards night, approaching the podium for a typically memorable speech and walking with a stick, he said: “There’s no truth in the rumour that one of my rappers did this.”
The musical exchange program between the United Kingdom and the United States was one that Ertegun helped establish. It brought rich rewards for the aforementioned Brits and such others as the Bee Gees, Dusty Springfield and Anglo-American acts Foreigner and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
And that exchange worked both ways. In 1967, it took a package of artists on Atlantic’s mighty Stax label to Europe for a revue tour that represented the most soulful experience in the young lives of many future British stars.
One of the artists on that itinerary, Sam Moore, then of Sam & Dave, tells Billboard that he had the recent, timely opportunity to break bread and make good with Ertegun. “I was doing a listening party [for his Overnight Sensational album] at the Cutting Room in New York,” Moore says, “and the next thing I knew, in walks Ahmet, without an entourage. He and I sat down and we talked, and it was the most glorious time.
“All the years Dave and I were with Atlantic, I never thought he cared that much about me. But I found out later on, man, this guy was ok. Everybody that came up under Ahmet, they all learned from Ahms. He set the mold. There was so much respect, not fear, for this man.”
Ertegun said in 2001: “With the advent of R&B, and the last gasps of the blues in America, a new crop [of musicians] arose. Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, people who were not imitators. They somehow swallowed the pill and became natural blues players. They play like originals, and I idolise them.”
Clapton’s colleague in Cream, Jack Bruce, tells a story that somehow evokes the ambience of Ertegun’s jetsetting days and his comfort in rock star company. “He was in London at [manager and impresario] Robert Stigwood’s office in mid-winter, and asked me if I’d give him a lift to his hotel. I had this very strange car called an Adams Probe. It was [something like] 2 feet 6 inches high. To get in, you had to open the roof. I was supposed to be driving him to whatever posh hotel. We went down the stairs in Brook Street, and it had been snowing. Ahmet said ‘Where’s the car?’ There was this little mound of snow, and I said ‘It’s under there.”
More seriously, Bruce salutes Ertegun as a genuine frontiersman. “The nice thing about all of those guys — Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Ahmet — was that they were all in there pretty much from the beginning. Ahmet was very much into the music and very innovative. Where would we be without him?”