Ahmet Ertegun: The man behind the music

Tonight's Led Zeppelin reunion is billed as a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun. Here, Robert Plant and others tell Pierre Perrone why Atlantic Records' founder was so special
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Tonight's Led Zeppelin reunion at the 02 Arena in London is part of a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and the man who signed Zeppelin in 1968.

There are many Ertegun anecdotes. The most famous has the co-founder of Atlantic Records nodding off in a Los Angeles nightclub just as Mick Jagger agrees that the Rolling Stones will sign to the label, in 1970. That's negotiating skills for you. Others recall Ertegun telling Wilson Pickett that his guitarist was good, before discovering that the musician jamming on stage was a young Eric Clapton.

Ertegun changed the face of popular music; he was the first non-performer to be inducted into the Rock'*'Roll Hall of Fame, the organisation he helped to create in the mid-Eighties.

The son of a Turkish diplomat who was posted to Washington in 1934, Ertegun started Atlantic Records with his friend Herb Abramson, and a loan of $10,000 from his dentist, in 1947.

After becoming the R&B label par excellence in the Fifties, with acts like Stick McGhee, Ruth Brown and Ray Charles, the company discovered Bobby Darin, grew into the biggest US independent, and majored on soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding via its distribution deal with Stax.

Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros Seven Arts for $17.5m in 1967, but Ertegun stayed on as chairman and oversaw the label's move into pop and rock. Not content with signing the Young Rascals, Sonny and Cher and Buffalo Springfield, he looked to Britain and beyond, for talent.

As Plant testifies, British musicians had a special bond with Atlantic. "Before I knew Ahmet, he lit up my life. He played such an integral part in my musical maturing. From when I was a child, when I first heard 'Love Potion #9' by The Clovers, 'Drown In My Own Tears' by Ray Charles, he was there colouring my life, turning me further away from British, white, mainstream pop.

"Ahmet had no bias as far as music was concerned. He was up for everything. He knew that he'd been on the cusp, at the unveiling of not just a vibrant time but the turnaround of black music coming into the mainstream. He was able to strike up friendships with people from different musical zones."

The singer particularly treasures the time he spent making The Honeydrippers: Volume One mini-album of R&B covers with Ertegun, who reverted to the Nugetre pseudonym he'd used in his songwriting days to disguise his identity, just in case he decided on a diplomatic career later on. "He was always coming up with ideas while we were working. He'd start tapping on the console and going off on some swing or be-bop thing.

"I went out one night with Ahmet and Phil Spector and we started talking about vocals, of course. I was saying that the great thing about the late Fifties and early Sixties, with the melodies being quite strict and beautiful and sugar-coated, the only time the singer really started opening out was on the fade. So we spent the entire night getting thrown out of places because we were singing the hell out of 'Town Without Pity' by Gene Pitney. I could tell you a million of those silly moments of absolute glory, about his love of music, his obsession."

Ertegun's energy and passion for music endeared him to his artists, especially to the British contingent, as Phil Carson, who gravitated towards him through playing bass with Dusty Springfield and headed Atlantic's UK office for many years, explains.

"Ahmet really understood what it was that British bands were doing, and what they were doing, of course, was taking black American music, notably the blues, and changing it into what became rock music. He had such a deep understanding of that. It was easy for him to sign bands because all the groups that mattered loved what Ahmet had done before. Atlantic was the label where people wanted to be.

"Ahmet was educated in Europe, he could hang with the crowned heads, and at the same time be really naughty with Led Zeppelin and Pele. And he was completely hands on," stresses his long-time friend.

Paul Rodgers, the singer with Free and then Bad Company, also grew up on a diet of Atlantic releases. With Bad Company, he signed to Swansong, Led Zeppelin's Atlantic-distributed label, in the mid-Seventies. "Ahmet was a legend before I met him. His first words to me were: 'Nice band you got there, Paul.' He was a terrific person. I remember once, we were sitting in a very posh restaurant in London and there was a flower lady outside and the waiters all shooed her away. Ahmet saw this and walked out and bought all her flowers and came back in and distributed them among all the ladies in the restaurant, and I thought that was really sweet. He could speak with the good and the great, and then go to a jazz club down South, walk across muddy fields to see Ray Charles."

Right to the end of his life, Ertegun remained very much hands-on, as Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini, a recent signing to Atlantic, explains. "He certainly influenced the way my album was introduced to the American market. He picked out 'New Shoes'. He said: 'That sounds like a hit to me.'" Despite the difference in their ages, Nutini developed a special bond with Ertegun. "He was like a grandfather to me. He was quite a dapper man, very sleek, with the golden mustard-coloured jacket, and I liked that. It was the way my grandpa used to dress. But when you sat down to chat about what was going on, Ahmet was like a 25 year-old, he kept his finger on the pulse."

Ertegun fell backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in New York in October last year and died on 14 December 2006. He is the reason all the artists are coming together at the 02. "We wanted to raise awareness of Ahmet. It's a gesture towards the guy, a fond farewell," stresses Plant. "People really don't know that much about Ahmet. He was such a charismatic guy who could still convince you about every musical idea that he had, that was the spectacular thing. You didn't think: 'OK, this guy is 82, he did great stuff.' It was always in the present tense."

The documentary 'Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built' is out now on Warner Music Vision