The Rhythm of a Heart
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Ahmet Ertegun was as much an icon as any rock, soul or jazz legend who ever passed through Atlantic Records, the label he founded in 1947 and turned into one of the most influential in history. The owlish executive always seemed the brightest luminary in any space he inhabited, whether backstage at Madison Square Garden or the back bar of a smoky club, whether surrounded by famed singers and musicians or nervous newcomers to the business.
It was telling that Ertegun, who died Thursday at 83 after having been in a coma since Oct. 29, was hospitalized after taking a tumble backstage at a New York concert by his old pals the Rolling Stones. In 1970, when the British superstars were shopping for a label to distribute their independent records, Ertegun personally conducted negotiations with Mick Jagger and signed them despite other labels offering the band much more money. Ertegun's fabled international jet-setting lifestyle may have sealed the deal, but it probably didn't hurt that Jagger was a rhythm and blues fanatic who knew that in the '50s, Atlantic was the cornerstone label of the R&B movement.
Jagger also knew that if you looked at R&B standards such as "Chains of Love," "Sweet Sixteen" and "Mess Around," you'd find them credited to A. Nugetre -- a backward spelling of Ertegun -- who didn't want to embarrass his well-to-do family. That's also him singing on the chorus of Joe Turner's seminal "Shake, Rattle and Roll."
Ertegun was the longest-standing record label founder, still at the helm of his company almost 60 years on. He always kept an ear to the street: One of the many reasons musicians young and old alike loved him was because he spoke their language. He built a track record at Atlantic that no other label ever matched, with a roster including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to name just a few.
The Turkish-born debonair mogul spoke with a clipped cadence that gave testimony to aristocratic roots -- he'd first come to the United States as a boy in the '30s when his father, Mehmet Munir Ertegun, became Turkey's ambassador to Washington. The perpetually raspy edge in Ertegun's voice gave away a lifelong love for the nightlife.
Ertegun was probably the last label lord with hands-on involvement in everything from talent scouting and production to pressing, distribution and promotion. I first met him when he was sitting in the Atlantic recording studio in 1974 with his partner, producer Jerry Wexler, as Aretha Franklin and some of Atlantic's crack session players spent hours wrestling with a ferociously swinging version of "Lullaby of Broadway" that, inexplicably, would never be released.
The last time I spoke to Ertegun, he was holding court at a 2002 dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, being honored by the American Friends of Turkey and the American Turkish Society for a lifetime of achievement. At home in a whirl of politicians, philanthropists and musicians -- including Atlantic legend Wilson Pickett -- Ertegun was frail, moving slowly with a wooden cane necessitated by ongoing hip problems. Of course, people joked that Ahmet Ertegun couldn't possibly have such problems since he was the very definition of hip.
It was in Washington that Ertegun found his calling. "If anybody asks me where I'm from, my first inclination is to say Washington, because that's where I grew up meaningfully," he once told me.
He was born in Istanbul but his father's ambassadorial stints took him and brother Nesuhi to such world capitals as Bern, Switzerland; Paris; and London, where the youngsters fell madly in love with the great black jazz bands of the '30s. He recalled hearing, as a 9-year-old, the Cab Calloway Orchestra and savoring "the dazzling presence of these black gentlemen in their white, shining suits . . . the rhythm and the excitement of the music."
His schooling was both traditional -- St. Albans and Landon, St. John's College in Annapolis, Georgetown University -- and nontraditional, particularly at the Howard Theater, a mecca for black entertainment. "I went there almost every week, because every week there was a great band there and I didn't want to miss any of them," he confided. "I got my education in music at the Howard."
In a segregated city, the Ertegun brothers haunted local jazz and blues clubs. The Crystal Caverns is where, in 1947, he discovered Ruth Brown, Atlantic's first hitmaker. The pair also collected jazz and blues 78s; they'd go from house to house in black neighborhoods because they craved "race" records "and that was the only place you could find them," Ertegun recalled.
On Sundays, the Erteguns turned the Turkish Embassy into an open-house brunch for visiting jazz musicians, with informal -- and integrated -- jam sessions that begat some enduring friendships. As teenagers, the brothers promoted the city's first integrated concert at the Jewish Community Center, the only venue that would allow both a mixed band and a mixed audience.
When their father died in 1944, Ahmet and Nesuhi rejected the family tradition of civil service in Turkey and decided to remain here -- with Ahmet at one point turning down an offer from family friend (and Washington Post publisher) Eugene Meyer to become a cub reporter at this paper.
"We wanted to live in America, and we chose the business that we love because we loved American music," he told me in 1985. He learned the business side from Max Silverman, whose radio repair shop at Seventh and T streets NW was a gold mine of used 78s; Silverman later founded the Waxie Maxie record chain.
The Erteguns launched two local labels but both failed in 1946. The following year, with a $10,000 investment from the Ertegun family dentist, they formed Atlantic in New York. Ahmet, studying medieval philosophy at Georgetown, joked that "I slept more hours on the train between Washington and New York than I did in my own bed."
New York would win out as a headquarters, but Ertegun's Washington connection would remain evident -- from Ruth Brown and the Clovers in the '50s, to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway in the '70s, and Stacy Lattisaw and Johnny Gill in the '80s. (Brown, whose success led to the label being called "The House That Ruth Built," suffered a heart attack and stroke and went into a coma in Las Vegas the same day Ertegun fell in New York. She died Nov. 17.)
Atlantic's first significant hit came in 1949 with Stick McGhee's "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," and the label eventually prospered when Ertegun and his partners (notably Wexler) began, as producers, to fuse a Northern sophistication with a gutsy Southern blues sensibility. This achieved a cleaner, brighter sound than R&B had known. Ertegun said proudly that he and his early partners "wanted to make the kinds of records that we would want to buy."
In his autobiography, Wexler called Ertegun "the savviest and suavest executive in the history of American recorded music." It's hard to disagree.