Ahmet Ertegun: July 31, 1923 to December 14, 2006
The next time someone tries to tell you that the roots music mythos is ironclad, that for a person to be a credible part of some music with a thick history and true geography that they must, inevitably, be of that time and place and culture themselves, you can remind them of the saga of Ahmet Ertegun.
This son of one of the first families of modern Turkey, and, specifically, of a Turkish ambassador to the United States, stayed stateside from the 1940s on to play a central role in making American musical history, in reshaping the geography of the blues, in spreading and developing the sound of African-American rhythm & blues, jazz, soul, and the rock ‘n’ roll derived from them. Ertegun died December 14 at age 83 and was buried back home in Istanbul.
The location almost seemed incongruous, but he’d been an extraordinarily civilized and tolerant patriot, and an internationalist — a Muslim whose key business partners at the Atlantic Records label he co-founded were Herb Abramson and Jerry Wexler, both Jews. Ertegun recorded some of the most talented Protestant Christians in modern American music — Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Aretha Franklin, and above all, you still have to figure, Ray Charles. That list expanded to include Atlantic’s jazz masters John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, and rockers Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Thanks to the acute portrayal of Ertegun in the movie Ray, many people carry an image of the young Ertegun enthusiastically teaching Mr. Charles the “Mess Around” number he’d written. But then and long after, make no mistake, he was a hard-driving, hard-bargaining, focused and extraordinarily successful businessman. In the rough and often downright dirty independent record label business of his era, however, you were lucky to be in the hands of this executive who was ultimately driven by the love of the music, and delivered the music you made with quality in keeping with that. And so, yes, the late Ruth Brown had to lead a battle in the ’80s to see that she and other early R&B artists got more of the royalties long due them; but Ertegun, once pushed, went further, fostering the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to help older artists in need.
I spent a memorable afternoon with Ertegun in March 2002, at his New York office, where he remained active as Atlantic chief, having cut back a little from being head of all of the Warner Communications conglomerate’s record groups. It was not that simple for an ink-stained wretch to see him anymore, but my ticket for approved entry was my subject — Little Miss Cornshucks, the virtually forgotten 1940s singer who’d inspired him, when he saw her live in D.C., not just to listen to soul, but to seek it out and record it.
You went through office after office and multiple security checks to get in there with him, past a video wall blasting Kid Rock clips, and into his inner sanctum, with its framed autographed notes from Jagger and Jimmy Page, Ray and Aretha, its presidential handshake photos, and even mounted shoulder patches from Apollo astronauts who’d taken Atlantic music to the moon. He spoke of Cornshucks in that singular suits-meets-the-streets way he had of speaking, and then he listened to the long-lost Cornshucks recordings I’d gathered together from varied out-of-print 78s, burned onto a CD-R — recordings he’d never heard. He was animated about the heavily orchestrated 1946 sides on Sunbeam (“That’s too much orchestration; too much. They fucked it up!”), then got tearful when he heard the great, lean Benny Carter-produced Coral versions of “So Long” and “Try A Little Tenderness”.
“And that sound,” he said quietly, “was why I got into this business.” Despite the whole huge Warners apparatus still available to him, he asked, like a friend from some internet music group, “Can you make another one of these real fast? I’ve got to send one to Jerry Wexler!”
The man was still a fan. And more than that, of course. Throughout his creative, adventurous and joy-filled life, Ahmet Ertegun remained — to steal a phrase used to describe the beat-era comedian Lord Buckley, and why not? — one immaculately hip aristocrat.