‘A towering, larger than life figure.’ By Des Cowley
The Last Sultan: the Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun
By Robert Greenfield (Simon & Schuster)
Anyone with a passing interest in rhythm & blues, jazz, or rock music will probably be familiar with the name Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records in 1947. Whether Otis Redding, Charles Mingus, Cream, or Led Zeppelin, the memory of Atlantic’s iconic label design spinning on a turntable is probably a treasured one for many of us.
Greenfield’s biography of Ertegun came out a couple of years back, and is now available in paperback (or if you hunt around you might be lucky enough to find the hardback on a bargain table as I did). Greenfield is a former associate editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and probably best known for his classic account of the Stones’ 1972 Exile tour through America.
Greenfield’s book is a good companion piece to the 2007 documentary film Atlantic Records: the House that Ahmet Built. It also provides a corrective to the more celebratory aspects of that film. Greenfield’s account of Ertegun’s privileged upbringing as the son of the Turkish ambassador in Washington in the 1930s goes a long way to explaining his later flamboyant lifestyle.
Regardless of his financial situation, Ertegun never scrimped when it came to expensive clothes, good restaurants, or fine cars and chauffeurs. When the film Ray was released in 2004, Ertegun went ballistic about his portrayal in the movie: ‘I have never worn clothes like that! I’ve never worn a double-breasted suit! Two-toned shoes!’
Ahmet fell in love with American music as a ten year old, when his elder brother Nesuhi took him to see Duke Ellington at the Palladium in London in 1933. By the time he was fifteen, in Washington, he’d regularly have the family chauffeur drive him to Max Silverman’s record store where he’d seek out old 78s by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Pretty soon, he and his brother had a collection of over 20,000 jazz and blues records.
Ertegun founded Atlantic in New York with fellow music enthusiast Herb Abramson, largely bankrolled by the family dentist Dr Sabit. This was pre-corporation America, when small-time entrepreneurs, like the Chess brothers in Chicago, could seek out new musical talent, recording as many sides as they could afford in the desperate hope for a hit record. After Atlantic struck out with their first 22 releases, the partners finally hit gold with Stick McGhee’s ‘Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’. But the label’s first real star was singer Ruth Brown, who cut over 100 sides between 1949 and 1961, giving Atlantic its first taste of a number one hit.
In 1949, the two partners headed south in the footsteps of John and Alan Lomax, hoping to track down undiscovered blues artists. In reality, they were a decade too late, with most bluesman already signed up to RCA and other major labels. Ertegun and Abramson did, however, get wind of ‘musical magician’ called Professor Longhair, and, after taking in a performance in New Orleans, they signed him to Atlantic, though his records never sold as well as they’d hoped.
The first great recording artist that Ertegun nurtured was Ray Charles who, after a few false starts, began to deliver a string of classics that included ‘I Got a Woman’ and ‘What’d I Say’. When Ray jumped ship to ABC-Paramount a few years later after his contract expired, it dealt an emotional blow from which Ertegun arguably never recovered. From then on, he understood his relations with musicians were about business, not friendship.
By the early fifties, Ertegun had brought Jerry Wexler on board to largely replace Herb Abramson. Wexler would later go on, in partnership with Stax, to build a roster of soul and r&b recording artists for Atlantic second to none: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke. At the same time brother Nesuhi, who’d joined the label in the mid-fifties, developed a jazz catalogue that included John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
By the 1960s, the financial growth of Atlantic Records was so dramatic that the musical side of Greenfield’s book becomes overshadowed by an endlessly rotating series of backroom deals, legal spats, and business takeovers.
In 1967, Ertegun sold the company to Warner Bros for a sum that turned out to be far less than what it was worth; but stayed on as President, remaining the figurehead of Atlantic right up until his death. He never lost his passion for signing up new acts, flying to LA in 1966 after hearing the buzz about a new band The Buffalo Springfield. While that incarnation failed to deliver on its early promise, the resulting configurations of CS&N, and CSN& Y, along with solo albums by Stills and Crosby, delivered in spades for the label.
Ertegun early on recognised that rock music was the future, and bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin provided not just financial windfalls but serious musical credibility to the label.
Ertegun’s story takes in maverick producers like Phil Spector, wonder boys like David Geffen, and music moguls like Jerry Greenberg and Mo Ostin. In the late 1960s, Ertegun spent 18 months romancing Mick Jagger and the Stones, before finally convincing them that their newly founded record label belonged on Atlantic, a move that delivered distribution rights for Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street.
In a later bizarre twist, the accidental fall that precipitated Ertegun’s death in 2006 occurred pre-show at the Stones’ gig at the Beacon Theater, the same performance filmed by Scorsese for his film Shine a Light. At age 83, while still working, the life of one of the most flamboyant and beloved figures in music history came to an end.
In Greenfield’s account, Ahmet Ertegun comes across as a complex figure. Married to wife Mica for over 40 years, he maintained a lifestyle that embraced overt wealth, serious partying, girls, and recreational drugs. He could be charming or ruthless in turn. While he loved black American music and culture, he was later challenged, like many early label owners, about non-payment of royalties to black artists. He donated his own money to help found the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and was fittingly inducted into it in 1987. His funeral was a traditional Muslim ceremony in Turkey, his place of birth.
A towering, larger than life figure, Greenfield’s biography of Ahmet Ertegun captures a slice of America during a time when, for those mavericks running record labels, it was the music that mattered.