Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and perhaps the most important figure in the acceptance of soul and R&B music by the mass audience, passed away today at age 83. He slipped and fell while attending a Rolling Stones concert in New York on October 29, the injuries eventually causing him to fall into a coma from which he never awoke.

Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat, along with his brother Nesuhi developed a love for jazz and blues while growing up traveling Europe and the US with their father. The Erteguns eventually settled in Washington when Turkey appointed his father ambassador to the US. By the time Ahmet was grown, the Ertegun family had amassed a collection of over 25,000 jazz and blues records.

In 1947, Ertegun borrowed $10,000 and set up Atlantic Records in partnership with his friend Herb Abramson. The duo made their mark in the music industry by signing, recording and promoting the R&B and blues artists that they loved and the major labels of the day were reluctant to sign. Within a few short years, Atlantic was America's premiere R&B label. Artists who recorded for Atlantic included Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, the Coasters, the Drifters, and Ray Charles. The label also attracted a top-notch stable of writers and producers, including the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Wexler, and older brother Neshui Ertegun, who achieved success in his own right as a producer. Wexler and the elder Ertegun would eventually become partners in Atlantic as well.

In the 60's and 70's, Ahmet Ertegun would diversify Atlantic into the pop and rock fields. Ertegun attempted to sign Elvis Presley in 1956, but was outbid by RCA. The label continued to pursue rock acts, though, and by the early 70's would have under contract such titans as Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and Yes. Ertegun was also instrumental in acquiring Atlantic the distribution rights for the Rolling Stones' new label. While this was going on, Neshui helped solidify Atlantic's reputation as a jazz label by producing the likes of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Ertegun never lost his interest in R&B, either. When Aretha Franklin came to Atlantic after Columbia Records didn't know what to do with her, Ertegun, with the help of producers Wexler and Tom Dowd, turned the dynamic singer from a case of unfulfilled potential into a superstar. Also, in partnership with Stax Records, he helped take a Southern R&B circuit veteran named Otis Redding to the height of international fame prior to Redding's untimely death.

Ertegun would keep up with trends in popular music almost to the end. He was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997, and his friends in later years included Kid Rock and Lil' Kim.

Ahmet Ertegun may well be best remembered for his ability to cross racial and cultural lines as well as musical ones. He was a Turkish Muslim in partnership with Jewish Americans who got his start recording black musicians. There is hardly a branch of popular music in which Ertegun failed to make a mark. Popular culture has lost one of its giants.

- An early history of Atlantic Records, prominently featuring Ertegun's role in the label's success.

- A Slate Magazine interview of Ertegun from 2005.