Ahmet Ertegun

December 15, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun, who died yesterday at the age of 83, had golden ears, a businessman’s mind and an eternal music fan’s heart. The son of a Turkish diplomat and a millionaire several times over thanks to his creation of Atlantic Records, Ertegun had plenty of polish and sophistication, but he could dissolve into an uncool fanboy when the moment warranted: his first words upon meeting Ray Charles were: “You are the fuckin’ end, you know that?” He was a jazzbo at heart, but he also loved blues, soul and R&B, and in pursuing what he loved he made himself wealthy, gave some of the greatest American music a lucrative home, and made all our lives a lot more interesting in the process.

It often takes outsiders to get American to appreciate the finer aspects of its own culture. Like the Chess brothers of Chicago and the Memphis-based Bihari brothers, Ahmet and his equally heavy-hitting brother Nesuhi were immigrants caught up in the artistry of black music. Ahmet Ertegun and the cohort he assembled — Tom Dowd, Herb Abramson and Jerry Wexler — gave Ray Charles his first hit records, showed Aretha Franklin the way to become the Queen of Soul, and gave Big Joe Turner the chance to shake, rattle and roll America. Of course, Ahmet never lost sight of his love for jazz: John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, among many others, recorded some of their finest music for the Atlantic label.

But Ertegun’s tastes ranged far and wide, which helped make Atlantic into a major record label. Most famously, he signed Led Zeppelin as it was rising from the ashes of the Yardbirds (bandleader Jimmy Page, a lifelong blues fanatic, insisted that the group be on the Atlantic label rather than its its rock and roll subsidiary Atco.)  It was Ahmet who persuaded Crosby, Stills and Nash to add Neil Young to their roster, and it was Ahmet who signed up the Rolling Stones when they launched their own label in the early 1970s. As the record industry became overrun with corporate weasels, Ertegun stood out as a gallant, larger-than-life figure. Even a career iconoclast like Frank Zappa respected Ertegun to name his third child Ahmet in his honor.

Ertegun honored the other great love of his life, soccer, by co-founding the New York Cosmos in 1971 and stocked it with stars like Pele.

Ahmet Ertegun was an old school record mogul who followed his own tastes and used his company’s clout to push developing artists into the market. The recording industry, and the world at large, will never see his like again. 

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