Born Ahmet Munir ErtegŁn, 31 July 1923, Istanbul, Turkey
Producer / label owner.
Of all the independent record men of the 1940s and 1950s, Ahmet Ertegun was probably the most important, certainly in terms of longevity. His record company, Atlantic, initially no more than a part-time hobby, developed into a multinational corporation and is the only one of the independent labels from the rock n roll era to survive until the present day.
Turkish-born Ertegun came from a privileged background. His father held diplomatic posts in Bern, Paris and London (where 9-year old Ahmet had a life-changing experience when he saw Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway perform at the London Palladium) before becoming the Turkish ambassador to the United States in 1934. The Ertegun family moved to Washington, D.C., where Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi (1917-1989) fell under the spell of American jazz and blues. They built an amazing collection of some 15,000 78 rpm records, mostly obtained from second- hand record shops (in particular from Max "Waxie Maxie' Silverman) and during expeditions in which they went from door to door asking Afro-Americans if they had any old discs they would like to sell. Following the death of their father Munir Ertegun in 1944, Ahmet and Nesuhi chose to stay in the United States. Ahmet undertook post-graduate philosophy studies at Georgetown University before deciding to start his own record label. Having little experience in the business side of music, Ertegun felt he needed a partner and found one in Herb Abramson (1916- 1999), who had gained experience at the National and Jubilee labels and who shared Ahmet's taste in music.
Their small company, Atlantic Records, was incorporated in October 1947, with financial help from the Erteguns' family dentist, Dr. Vahdi Sabit. Operating from its cramped headquarters at New York's Jefferson Hotel, Atlantic had a difficult start. The Petrillo recording ban of 1948 affected the fledgling label, which started out releasing mainly jazz records that didn't sell. In April 1949 Atlantic had its first hit with Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" (# 2 R&B, # 26 pop), followed later in the year by "So Long" (Ruth Brown, # 4 R&B) and the instrumental "Cole Slaw" by sax man Frank Culley (# 11 R&B). Ruth Brown was discovered in 1948, but she was unable to record until May 1949, due to a serious car accident. Atlantic paid her medical bills and was rewarded, after a few unsuccessful follow-ups of "So Long", with the label's first number one, Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes" (late 1950).
Atlantic would develop into the most important R&B label of the 1950s. Essential were the contributions of arranger/songwriter Jesse Stone (1901-1999), who understood the importance of a danceable rhythm and engineer Tom Dowd (1925-2002), who recorded every instrument with extreme clarity. Important signings were The Clovers (1951), Joe Turner (1951), Ray Charles (1952), Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters (1953), LaVern Baker (1953), Ivory Joe Hunter (1954), The Coasters (1955) and Chuck Willis (1956).
Under the name Nugetre (Ertegun spelled backwards), Ahmet wrote a number of classic R&B hits, like "Chains Of Love" for Joe Turner, "Mess Around" for Ray Charles, "Don't You Know I Love You" for The Clovers and "What'Cha Gonna Do" for the Drifters.
In 1953 music journalist Jerry Wexler (1917-2008) joined Atlantic as a partner, after Herb Abramson had been redrafted into the US Army. For the two years Abramson was away, the label enjoyed unprecedented success : of the 70 singles that were released, 30 made the R&B Top 10 and some of them even crossed over to the pop charts. Upon his return to civilian life in 1955, Herb found a lot of changes at the Atlantic office. Jerry Wexler had taken over his production seat and his success meant that Wexler would be staying. Also straining relations in the office was the fact that Abramson had returned with a German girl friend, while his wife Miriam still worked in the same building as office manager. (They would soon divorce.) In order to maintain peace it was decided that a new subsidiary named Atco (ATlantic COmpany) would be established for Herb to run, but this proved only a temporary solution. In 1958, Ahmet and Jerry Wexler would buy out Abramson and his ex-wife (now Miriam Bienstock), and Dr. Sabit too. Nesuhi Ertegun, who had relocated from L.A. to New York, would join as a third partner. From 1955 on, Nesuhi oversaw Atlantic's jazz division and produced some of the most important recordings of the era, by Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Nesuhi also did production work for Ray Charles, Joe Turner, The Drifters and Bobby Darin.
Darin was Atlantic's first white rock n roll hitmaker. (Atlantic had tried to buy Elvis Presley's contract for $25,000 in 1955, but lost out to RCA.) Herb Abramson had brought Darin to Atco, but wanted to drop him after three flop singles. Ertegun intervened and produced Bobby's million-selling hit "Splish Splash". That success and the Coasters' "Yakety Yak" (Atlantic's first pop # 1) finally laid a solid financial base for the company in 1958, allowing Atlantic to expand considerably in the next few years. Responsible for "Yakety Yak" was the brilliant duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the first writer-producers to get a free-lance arrangement with a label, in October 1955. They would stay with Atlantic until 1963.
Though he was less directly involved as a producer, Ertegun continued at the helm of Atlantic in the 1960s and 1970s as the company conquered the realms of soul and white rock, from Aretha Franklin to Led Zeppelin, with phenomenal success. The Rolling Stones were added to the Atlantic roster in 1971. From that point their records were issued in the USA on their own Rolling Stones label, which was distributed by Atlantic. By that time Atlantic Records was no longer run as an independent. In 1967, the three owners of Atlantic : Ahmet, Jerry and Nesuhi were approached by Warner Seven Arts Corporation about selling Atlantic. Warner Seven Arts offered $17,500,000 in Warner stock plus high paying jobs at the new company for each of the senior Atlantic executives. They agreed to the sale. Atlantic/Atco Records, along with Warner Brothers/Reprise Records and Elektra Records, were to be operated as separate record companies under the ownership umbrella of the Warner-Seven Arts Corporation, later Time Warner. In 2004 Atlantic and Elektra were merged into a single label.
Ertegun served as Founding Chairman of Atlantic until his death. In 1987, Ahmet (along with Jerry Wexler, who left Atlantic in 1975) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which he himself was a founder.
On October 29, 2006, Ertegun attended a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, where he slipped and fell after leaving a restroom backstage, striking his head on the concrete floor. He was rushed to hospital, but slipped into a coma and died on December 14, 2006, aged 83. He was buried in his native Istanbul, next to his father and brother.
Ahmet Ertegun is a legend, a larger-than-life figure, blessed with impeccable taste and brilliant business acumen. Considering the fact that he entered the record business purely as a hobby, never expecting to make a living out of it, Atlantic has been an incredible success story. The label was at the heart of the rise of rock n roll in the 1950s and was also at the forefront of the transition to soul in the 1960s. Between 1955 and 1999, Atlantic scored 932 entries on Billboard's pop charts. Only Columbia, RCA and Capitol had more hits.
Books / acknowledgements :
Dik, April 2003
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