The long halls leading to Ahmet Ertegun's office are lined with gold and platinum albums, but the office itself is spared that brashness. What dominates is the music: a long row of unplated (and therefore playable) records, piles of demo tapes with dreams attached, pictures of artists, pictures from artists, the occasional awards plaque and a stereo system capable of blasting out the sounds that define Atlantic Records' past, present and future.
On this weekday afternoon, Ertegun is fielding the tapes that come to him as chairman of the board of Atlantic. Over four decades, he has transformed this once-tiny rhythm and blues label into a major link in the conglomerate chain known as Warner/Elektra/Atlantic. Fueled by the success of such artists as Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks, Twisted Sister, Pete Townshend and several monster sound tracks, Atlantic is having its best year ever for sales volume. W/E/A will do close to $600 million worth of business, with Atlantic probably accounting for a third of that.
Trim, dapper, debonair, his graying goatee anchoring a head that has been bald since he was 17, Ertegun is the quintessential CEO. He and his wife Mica, a well-known decorator, are fixtures at the ritziest social events and parties on several continents. Ertegun is a lender of Russian Constructivist and American abstract paintings to some of the world's most prestigious museums, a one-time president of the New York Cosmos soccer team, a multimillionaire mover and shaker.
Or, as the late Joe Turner might have described the man he always called "Cuz," Ertegun is a shaker, a rattler and a roller. He is Ishi in the two worlds of inherited wealth and acquired power, comfortably straddling the dichotomy of princes and Princes.
Even today, the sleepy eyelids cannot mask the alert eyes of this executive who still likes to get in the trenches. He'd been in a studio until 4 that morning, recording a new singer.
"I'm an old-timer, I still call them sides," Ertegun says in the clipped aristocratic cadence that reveals his cosmopolitan roots. His father, Mehmet Munir Ertegun, was Turkey's ambassador in Washington from 1934 until 1944.
The singer is a young woman named Charelle, and Ertegun, who's been working with her for the last six months, is as excited at the tail end of 1985 as he was 38 years ago when he founded Atlantic with Herb Abramson.
"I feel she's going to be the greatest revelation of next year," he enthuses. "If she doesn't become an immediate great success, it won't be her fault. It'll be mine."
Ahmet Ertegun is no stranger to recorded revelations. The music he sought out back in the late '40s and early '50s was rhythm and blues, and the Atlantic Sound -- in the form of Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Coasters, Clovers and Drifters, LaVern Baker and others -- was as popular and influential as the Motown Sound would be a decade later. It also helped set the stage for rock 'n' roll.
Ertegun is very much in the mold of the old movie men such as Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn, self-made tycoons. There were others like him -- Marshall Chess, Lew Chudd at Imperial, Art Rupe at Specialty -- tough entrepreneurs who tapped into the emerging black pop music known as rhythm and blues. They all came up in the late '40s and early '50s. By the '60s, they'd either folded or curtailed their activities.
Only Atlantic survived and prospered, and only Ertegun managed to turn a minor label into a major. Not bad for a man who used to have to go to the bank before every recording session to see if he could afford it. In 1967, the Ertegun brothers and Jerry Wexler, the company's principal stockholders, sold control of Atlantic to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in exchange for $17 million in stock. His older brother Nesuhi, who has been with the company since 1955, is president of W/E/A International. Ahmet Ertegun, 61, has remained as chairman of the board at Atlantic, a position with such historical impact that he's been dubbed "The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Mogul in the World."
Yet even now, Charelle is far from Ertegun's only hands-on project. He's working in the studio with Roberta Flack and planning a weekend trip to Nashville to record another new act, Downs and Price. He also produced one of the year's bestselling rock albums, "The Honeydrippers," (both he and singer Robert Plant used barely disguised pseudonyms).
"I like the business end of it, too," Ertegun insists. "I'm not going to say I don't. But the most fun is being with the artists."
How Ahmet Ertegun came to his moguldom may be the most unusual story in American music.
"I was born in Istanbul, but left at 2, and I never really spent any time there," he says. His father had ambassadorial stints in Bern, Geneva, Paris and London, but "if anybody asks me where I'm from, my first inclination is to say Washington, because that's where I grew up meaningfully."
Like his older brother Nesuhi, Ahmet Ertegun went to local schools. He prepped, first at St. Albans and then at Landon, went to college in Annapolis (at St. John's, graduating at 20 near the top of his class).
His father was the senior ambassador in Washington during World War II, an immensely popular and powerful figure. When he died in 1944, President Roosevelt dispatched his body home aboard the USS Missouri. Had the father lived, it's probable the son wouldn't have entered the record business.
"He would have pushed us to return to Turkey and go into civil service," Ertegun says. "My father's father was a judge, and my mother's father was an admiral in the navy and my father was a diplomat and public servant. It was a tradition . . . My brother and I decided to stay in America because we wanted to live in America, and we chose the business that we love because we loved American music."
The Erteguns loved the music made by black Americans in particular, a passion that had been instilled when Ahmet was still in short pants.
"The first time I heard a black orchestra was Cab Calloway at the Palladium in London," he says fondly. "I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. There was just the dazzling presence of these black gentlemen -- I hadn't seen many black people at that time -- in their white, shining suits . . . the brass instruments shining . . . the rhythm and the excitement of the music."
By the time the brothers came to Washington in 1934, they were already inveterate jazz collectors. "We had to go hunting in used-record shops and also go from house to house in the black sections of not only Washington but neighboring towns in Virginia and Maryland, asking people if they had old records for sale. Most of those jazz records were released as part of what they used to call "race" series and that was the only place you could find them. In those days, there were no reissues, so you had to look for the originals."
Eventually the Erteguns amassed 25,000 blues and jazz records, all catalogued and indexed, with personnel written on jacket sleeves. "I realize now we must have had one of the biggest collections in the world," Ertegun says ruefully. When they left the embassy, they had to sell off most of it.
The young Erteguns' passion for the music wasn't confined to 78s, either. They promoted some of the earliest jazz concerts in Washington during the '30s, at the Jewish Community Center, the National Press Club, Turner's Arena. And on Sundays, they turned the Turkish Embassy into an open house for visiting jazz musicians.
"We'd invite people to have lunch at the embassy -- Ellington, the Basie band, Lester Young -- and then there were informal jam session in the afternoon. It was fun for them, there was no obligation for them to do anything but come and have a good time."
And of course there was the Howard Theatre, the 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. I got my education in music at the Howard."
After his father's death, Ertegun's family returned to Turkey, while he remained in graduate school at Georgetown studying philosophy. "But I loved the music, and I knew many of the musicians and singers personally," he says, "so I thought it would be really fun to make some records."
Ertegun had been a regular at Max Silverman's Quality Music Shop at Seventh and T streets, and it was there that Atlantic was previewed.
"Aside from the fact that I bought records there many years before when it was a used-record business, we'd become very good friends. It was the hot record shop in Washington, so I used to just hang around there a lot in the afternoon. At one point we formed a label, Quality Records, and recorded two or three sessions, which turned out quite well but did not do well. That somehow folded right away.
"But I was intent on going on with it. I had a friend, my dentist in Washington, who decided he would invest $10,000, and Herb Abramson a fellow record collector and executive with National Records came in and put up a little money, and we started Atlantic Records."
Atlantic started in New York, even though Ertegun's move there was gradual. He was still going to school at Georgetown, living on Q Street and "coming to New York on long weekends. I slept more hours on the train between Washington and New York than I did in my own bed."
For the first few years, Atlantic had only minor hits. Ironically, for a label that would eventually be lauded for its stable of great singers, those first records tended to be instrumentals. But Ertegun wasn't worried.
"For me it was so much fun just to go up to Harlem and hang out at the various clubs' amateur shows where you could hear new talent. Frankly, I never thought we were going to have a big record company. I thought we were just passing a little time, doing this to add a little bit of money to my student allowance, which wasn't very big."
Neither was Atlantic, but like a number of other small, independent labels, it was tuned in to the new currents in popular music emerging after World War II. Rhythm and blues was at first a catchall phrase, encompassing black swing bands, harmony groups, blues shouters, funky jazz combos, boogie-woogie pianists -- all kinds of music that the major record companies despised.
"In the early days there was a great camaraderie between the various independent record companies," Ertegun recalls. "We made records that the majors would not make, and we made music that the majors actually fought against. Variety and RCA started a big campaign against the product of independent labels, records with 'obscene' lyrics -- until they signed up Elvis Presley. Then suddenly the campaign against this kind of music and those kind of lyrics stopped."
One thing that set Atlantic apart from many of its competitors was its reputation for paying its artists the royalties they deserved. Unlike some of the independent bosses, opportunists who had little interest in the music or the musicians, Ertegun was a genuine fan, not just an entrepreneur.
"Frankly it never occurred to me not to pay royalties to artists," Ertegun says. "We treated our artists as stars because we were all fans . . . I think that's what made Atlantic survive where some of the others didn't. We kept our artists for many years. They developed and became stars and stayed with us."
Atlantic prospered also because Ertegun and his partners (notably Wexler) began, as producers, to fuse a northern sophistication with a gutsy southern blues sensibility, achieving a cleaner, brighter sound than rhythm and blues had known.
"What we were trying to do was to make rhythm and blues records that would sell to a black audience but also had the potential of crossing over. A lot of our records did cross over, successfully enough to make big white artists cover them."
Ertegun suggests a context of radio in the '50s that sounds remarkably like radio in the '80s. "There was a definite Jim Crow attitude on the part of the broadcasting industry, and there were very few disc jockeys on white stations who would play any black music except for pop singers like Nat King Cole or the Mills Brothers. They wouldn't play Joe Turner or Ruth Brown or Ray Charles. As a result, when their songs started to have some white sales based on white audiences listening to black stations, white artists would cover the song, use our arrangements and immediately get on radio. That happened many times, but the worst was the Chords' 'Sh-Boom,' which the Crewcuts covered. If they hadn't we would have sold a couple of million. As it was we sold six or seven hundred thousand."
At that point, Ertegun and Wexler were producing all of Atlantic's releases, even singing backup when it was needed (that's Ertegun on the chorus of Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll"). And then there was the sudden emergence of a new songwriter on such raucous hits as Joe Turner's "Sweet Sixteen," Ray Charles' "Mess Around," the Drifters' "Whatcha Gonna Do?," Ruth Brown's "Wild Wild Young Men" and a half dozen hits by the Clovers. His name was A. Nugetre, which looked suspiciously like Ertegun spelled backwards.
"We had a tough time finding good material," Ertegun explains with a smile. "The publishers were not sending us material to record. They never sent companies our size good material.
"So there was only one thing to do.I tried to write very funky songs because we had to sell records in the South -- that was our biggest market -- and to do that we had to have really funky music. The artists we had were sophisticated, urban artists who looked down on the blues, so I had to write songs that were so funky that there was no other way for them to sing it than to get down with it. I never considered myself a great songwriter but I had to get some hits to survive."
Ertegun's Washington connection is more than just an emotional one. Among the first acts signed to Atlantic were two discovered here: Ruth Brown and the Clovers. The process would be repeated in the early '70s with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway and in the early '80s with Stacy Lattisaw and Johnny Gill. Earlier this year, Ertegun made a quick trip to Washington to check out local recording studios, and, some felt, to check out the go-go scene. Critics pointed out that Atlantic, which had once been on the cutting edge of black pop, had totally missed the rap and hip hop explosions and might be seeking to reestablish its connections to black currents.
The scouting trip was reminiscent of the early years of Atlantic when Ertegun and Wexler would travel widely, particularly down South. "It's hard for me to take time off and meander around the countryside looking for talent," Ertegun concedes. "The scene has changed. In the old days we were not only looking for new talent but also trying to find some of the old legendary players," like Professor Longhair in New Orleans, Jimmy Yancey in Chicago or Blind Willie McTell, whom he found working as a gospel singer and beggar on the streets of Atlanta.
"It was a different time, a different era. Right now when there are emerging groups and artists, by the time we get to them, they already have a lawyer or a manager." And they tend to contact Atlantic, not the other way around.
There were greater changes, of course. By the late '50s, R&B had been bowled over by the music it helped inspire, rock 'n' roll. Atlantic would become involved in that too, but its next creative surge came in the '60s with a new generation of soul singers, including Otis Redding, who always called Ertegun "Omelette" ("he just misunderstood"). Some felt that by the end of the '60s, the company had stopped being involved with black artists in any important way, and Ertegun doesn't deny it.
"I got more and more involved with rock 'n' roll artists," he explains, "especially the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the English acts -- Cream and Eric Clapton, and, later, Led Zeppelin, ELP, the Bee Gees, Yes" -- and, for 15 years, the Rolling Stones.
"In the meantime, the kind of rhythm and blues music that we'd been making, which was deeply rooted in the gospel and blues music that we loved, we remained with that. At the same time, Motown had started to make music that was much more modern, that had a different feel -- very urban, sophisticated but still deeply black. They got a large part of what had been our market."
Jerry Wexler moved to Miami and "our R&B product started to be watered down a little bit. We still had some very good artists and hits, but we weren't getting the new, young artists. We are now on a great campaign to rebuild our R&B image, as well as our jazz image, which we also let slide."
From the '60s on, the history of Atlantic is that of an extremely successful company. It can be told in terms of sales figures and critical successes and special moments and special relationships. Or it can be defined in the great distance between the first cramped offices at 56th and Broadway and the current ones at 75 Rockefeller Plaza.
The one constant is Ahmet Ertegun, an intriguing multicultural power and presence. One typical, if apocryphal, Ertegun story has him talking to a diplomat in French, then turning around to greet a passing blues guitarist with, "Say, home, what you know good?" All without losing a beat.
"Somehow I subsconciously must adapt myself to whatever situation I'm in," Ertegun says of this dichotomy, "but I'm not two different people. I may have to speak a little differently on occasions, but I think everybody does that."
He still has a hard time naming the point at which Atlantic stopped being small and attained its present stature. "We never felt that it had become a big business because in the record business you can never rest on your laurels. If you develop a great soap like Ivory, you can stay home and let the soap sell. We have to create a new product every day . . . You can't stop running."
Thirty years ago, Ahmet Ertegun considered letting the company go on while he went to Turkey for a couple of years. "But I couldn't leave it for two weeks because we had so much competition, and we had to keep the thing going. I still don't feel like we're anywhere safe because you don't know when your 10 top artists are going to suddenly stop selling records. So you've got to have 20 new ones coming up to take their place."
As 1985 comes to a close, Ertegun seems to be coming to terms with his company's place in the history of American popular culture. Atlantic has just released a 14-record collection that confirms the label's eminence in the pop field, particularly in the '50s, and again in the mid-'60s with such soul stylists as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and the Stax-Volt stable. The set contains 186 songs released between 1947 and 1974.
Ertegun has also been spearheading the drive to establish a legitimate Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame (the first 10 inductees will be honored at a New York dinner in early January, though a permanent site for the museum has not yet been chosen).
"Our aim is to, in a dignified manner, recognize the people who created the music which has become the most popular music of all time in the world," he explains. "Rock 'n' roll is a form of music which has been vilified and looked down on; however, it's a very vibrant and important American music."
You can't help feeling that, without Atlantic, the music might have been vibrant, but it wouldn't have been the same. The new collection certainly reinforces that.
"We did a thorough search on which were the bestselling records, the historically important records of various artists, records which, if they weren't big sellers, were an influence on other records that were made after that," Ertegun says.
"I'm very proud of that collection because it is the history of this company and of many years of my life."
Clearly, the man who built Atlantic Records has every right to be proud. But later, watching him listen to the rough playback of Charelle, his eyes closed in concentration, the barest hint of a satisfied smile edging from his mouth, you suspect Ahmet Ertegun is still a fan -- and that he wouldn't have it any other way.