A Mogul Who Helped Mold Pop Culture
The sheer improbability of Ahmet Ertegun’s career makes it an all-American success story: the tale of an outsider, from Turkey no less, who loved African-American music so much that he became a major force in pop history. Points of friction in American culture — class, ethnicity, race, religion — mostly provided him with sparks.
Mr. Ertegun, who died on Thursday at 83, was an old-school music mogul, a self-invented character with the urge to start a record company. He was, by all accounts, a charmer: a man of wealth and taste who had stories to tell, a shrewd business sense and a keen appreciation of all sorts of pleasure. He wasn’t a musician, but he had an ear for a hit, one that served him for half a century.
When Mr. Ertegun and a partner floated Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from a dentist, it was one among many small independent labels trying to serve the taste of postwar America. But as the others had their handfuls of hit singles and disappeared, Atlantic kept growing. With Mr. Ertegun as chairman, the job he held until his death, it was a major label by the 1960s, the home of multimillion-sellers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in the 1970s and the core of the Warner Music conglomerate that continues to survive in the currently embattled recording business.
David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, said yesterday that he had once asked Mr. Ertegun how to make money in the music business. Mr. Ertegun said he would demonstrate, got up from his chair, hunched over and shuffled slowly across the room. Mr. Geffen didn’t understand, so Mr. Ertegun did it twice more. Finally he explained: “ ‘If you’re lucky, you bump into a genius, and a genius will make you rich in the music business,’ ” Mr. Geffen recalled. “Ahmet bumped into an awful lot of geniuses.”
He looked for those geniuses in places where no one would expect to find the European-educated son of a Turkish diplomat. Living in a segregated Washington, Mr. Ertegun was drawn to jazz and to rhythm and blues, and he began a lifetime habit of going to dives to hear the real thing. Mr. Ertegun moved easily between high society and the kind of ghetto basement club where he first heard Ruth Brown, whose hits through the 1950s were the label’s bulwark. He sought out singers who had something startling, something untamed, in their voices: singers like Ms. Brown, Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, the Coasters, Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin.
He cherished the down-home passion he heard. But his outsider’s ear may have helped him produce music that could aim for an audience beyond what the record business was calling “race music.” Even on low-budget recordings — for years, Atlantic’s Midtown Manhattan business office by day was its recording studio by night — he and his control-room collaborators sought a sonic clarity and definition that made Atlantic’s singles stand out on the radio. Unlike his 1950s contemporaries at Chess Records (home of Chuck Berry) and Sun Records (where Elvis Presley made his debut), Mr. Ertegun didn’t gear Atlantic’s songs particularly toward teenagers. Although Ruth Brown sounded girlish in a song like “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” many of Atlantic’s 1950s rhythm and blues songs were simply steeped in the blues.
Part of what Mr. Ertegun also heard in his cherished singers was the sound of the gospel church. Mr. Charles merged the beat and the call-and-response of sanctified church music with considerably more secular implications in songs like “What’d I Say.” Mr. Ertegun, who was born a Muslim, worked with church-rooted African-American musicians and Jewish producers, notably Jerry Wexler, on many Atlantic hits; that interfaith coalition helped forge soul music. Before her stint at Atlantic, Ms. Franklin had made albums for Columbia Records, but she had sung ballads and jazz standards. When she recorded for Atlantic, her sound moved back toward the church and she became the Queen of Soul.
After the 1950s, Mr. Ertegun was more a deal maker than a control-room producer. But his ear stayed reliable. Atlantic picked up the Southern soul of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and when British rockers began recycling American blues and rhythm and blues, he latched on to bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin. Atlantic’s R&B pedigree helped bring the Rolling Stones to the label for their commercial heyday in the 1970s, leading to decades of society-column photos of Mick Jagger with Mr. Ertegun. (Mr. Ertegun died after being injured in a fall backstage before a Rolling Stones concert on Oct. 29.) But Mr. Ertegun didn’t abandon his business judgment. When the Stones received a lucrative offer from Virgin Records for their next contract, Mr. Ertegun let them go.
Like other labels of the ’40s and ’50s, Atlantic made contracts with its early artists that now seem exploitative. On the eve of the label’s 40th anniversary, Ruth Brown made loud public complaints about her lack of royalties, and Atlantic agreed to waive unrecouped debts for Ms. Brown and other musicians on its early roster, and to pay 20 years of back royalties. The label also contributed nearly $2 million to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which pressured other labels toward royalty reform and gave money to needy musicians.
Mr. Ertegun was also a prime mover in starting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, another nod to history. In 2005 he told the online magazine Slate that he wanted his legacy to be that “I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music.”
Through the decades, Mr. Ertegun never stopped visiting his beloved dives, from R&B lounges to punk clubs. He always stood out, dressed in his bespoke suits and expensive shoes; he never lost his Turkish accent. But he was an outsider who had become something more than an insider, an American phenomenon who proved the best way to cross boundaries was with the promise of a good time.