[Marxism] The Turk who helped father rock and roll

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 15 11:00:17 MST 2006


NY Times, December 15, 2006
Ahmet Ertegun, Music Executive, Dies at 83
By TIM WEINER

Ahmet Ertegun, the music magnate who founded Atlantic Records and shaped 
the careers of John Coltrane, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin 
and many others, died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 83.

A spokesman for Atlantic Records said the death was the result of a brain 
injury suffered when Mr. Ertegun fell backstage at the Beacon Theater in 
Manhattan on Oct. 29 as the Rolling Stones prepared to play a concert that 
marked former President Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday. He had been in a coma 
since then.

“Few people have had a bigger impact on the record industry than Ahmet,” 
David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, said yesterday in a telephone 
interview from Los Angeles, “and no one loved American music more than he did.”

Mr. Geffen said that Mr. Ertegun “started me in the record business” in 
1970 by helping to finance his first record company, Asylum, “just as he 
gave many independent entrepreneurs the chance to start their own companies.”

Mr. Ertegun was the dapper son of a Turkish diplomatic family. He was 
equally at home at a high-society soiree or a rhythm and blues club, the 
kind of place where, in the 1950s, he found the performers who went on to 
make hits for Atlantic Records, one of the most successful American 
independent music labels.

He was an astute judge of both musical talent and business potential, 
surrounding himself with skillful producers and remaking R&B for the pop 
mainstream. As Atlantic Records grew from a small independent label into a 
major national music company, it became a stronghold of soul, with Aretha 
Franklin and Otis Redding, and of rock, with the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Yes.

Ever conscious of the music’s roots, Mr. Ertegun was also a prime mover in 
starting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In a music career 
marked by numerous lifetime achievement awards, he was inducted into the 
hall in 1987.

Mr. Ertegun said he fell in love with music when he was 9. In 1932, his 
older brother, Nesuhi, took him to see the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway 
orchestras at the Palladium Theater in London. The beauty of the jazz, the 
power of the beat and the elegance of the musicians made a lasting impression.

His instincts were not impeccable. He lost out on chances to sign the 
Beatles and Elvis Presley. But in an industry in which backstabbing is 
commonplace, Mr. Ertegun was admired as a shrewd businessman with a passion 
for the creative artists and the music he nurtured.

Along with a partner, Herb Abramson, Mr. Ertegun founded Atlantic Records 
in 1947 in an office in a derelict hotel on West 56th Street in Manhattan. 
His initial investment of $10,000 was borrowed from his family dentist.

By the 1950s, Atlantic developed a unique sound, best described as the 
mixed and polygamous marriage of Mr. Ertegun’s musical loves. He and his 
producers mingled blues and jazz with the mambo of New Orleans, the urban 
blues of Chicago, the swing of Kansas City and the sophisticated rhythms 
and arrangements of New York.

Mr. Ertegun often signed musicians who had been seasoned on the R&B 
circuit, and pushed them toward perfecting their performances in the 
recording studio. Every so often, with his name spelled in reverse as 
Nugetre, Mr. Ertegun appeared as the songwriter on R&B hits like “Chains of 
Love” and “Sweet Sixteen.”

In 1954, Atlantic released both “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles and “Shake, 
Rattle and Roll” by Joe Turner. (Mr. Ertegun was a backup singer on “Shake, 
Rattle and Roll.”) The songs had a good beat, and people danced to them. 
They were among the strongest roots of rock and roll.

After his brother Nesuhi joined Atlantic in 1956, the label attracted many 
of the most inventive jazz musicians of the era, including Coltrane, 
Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Ornette Coleman. In 1957, 
Atlantic was among the first labels to record in stereo.

By the 1960s, often in partnerships with local labels like Stax in Memphis, 
Mr. Ertegun was selling millions of records by the leading soul musicians 
of the day, among them Ms. Franklin and Mr. Redding. Ms. Franklin had 
recorded previously for Columbia Records, but her hits for Atlantic — which 
merged her gospel roots with an earthy strength and sensuality — were the 
ones that made her the Queen of Soul.

Mr. Ertegun’s music partnerships, he sometimes pointed out, were often 
culturally triangular. He was Turkish and a Muslim by birth. Many of his 
fellow executives, like the producer Jerry Wexler, were Jewish. The artists 
they produced, particularly when the label began, were black. Together, 
they helped move rhythm and blues to the center of American popular music.

Mr. Ertegun and Ioana Maria Banu were married on April 6, 1961. Known as 
Mica, she became a prominent interior designer. She survives him, as does a 
sister. Nesuhi Ertegun died in 1989.

The Ertegun brothers and their partner, Mr. Wexler, sold the Atlantic label 
to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts in 1967 for $17 million in stock. Four years 
later, the brothers took some of the money and founded the New York Cosmos 
soccer team.

But Mr. Ertegun kept making records. When Kinney National Service — a 
conglomerate of parking lots, funeral parlors, rental cars and other 
unmusical enterprises — completed the acquisition of Warner Brothers-Seven 
Arts in 1969, he and his label kept going.

Mr. Ertegun was now a rock mogul. Atlantic Records signed the Stones to a 
distribution deal when the band’s contract with Decca Records ended; Led 
Zeppelin; and Crosby, Stills & Nash, who became Crosby, Stills, Nash & 
Young after Mr. Ertegun persuaded Neil Young to join the group. The 
corporations changed — Kinney turned into Warner Communications, which 
became Time Warner — but Atlantic and its founder still flourished.

It remained one of the only record labels of the 1940s to survive the 
multibillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions of the 1990s in more than name 
only, with its founder still in charge. Mr. Ertegun reduced his daily 
corporate duties in 1996 but remained an inveterate night-clubber, avid 
concertgoer and insatiable music maven well into his 80s.

Ahmet Ertegun was born in Istanbul on July 31, 1923. His father, Mehmet 
Munir, was the legal counselor to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

In 1925, Ataturk sent the elder Ertegun to serve as the Turkish 
representative to the League of Nations. In the next 20 years, he was the 
Turkish ambassador to Switzerland, to France, to the Court of St. James 
under King George V and to the United States during the Roosevelt 
administration. The young Ahmet grew up in that worldly realm. His father, 
then the dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington, died in 1944.

That year, at 21, having earned a bachelor’s degree at St. John’s College 
in Annapolis, Md., Mr. Ertegun was taking graduate courses in medieval 
philosophy at Georgetown University.

“In between, I spent hours in a rhythm and blues record shop in the black 
ghetto in Washington,” he told the graduates of Berklee College of Music in 
Boston on receiving an honorary degree in 1991. “Almost every night, I went 
to the Howard Theater and to various jazz and blues clubs.”

“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,” he said. “What I 
really loved was music, jazz, blues, and hanging out.” And so, he told the 
students, he did what he loved.

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