Ahmet Ertegun

Founder of Atlantic Records whose signings included Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones
Click to follow

Ahmet Munir (Ahmet Ertegün), record company executive, producer and songwriter: born Istanbul 31 July 1923; founder, Atlantic Records 1947; married first Jan Holm (marriage dissolved), second Mica Banu Grecianu; died New York 14 December 2006.

Ahmet Ertegün was the most important figure in the record industry of the 20th century. When he started Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from his dentist, Vahdi Sabit, and $2,500 from his partner Herb Abramson, the three of them had no idea that the label would shape popular music over the next six decades.

In the Fifties and early Sixties, Atlantic became the leading US independent label for jazz and rhythm 'n'blues, recording Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Roland Kirk, before achieving mainstream success with Bobby Darin, Nino Tempo and April Stevens.

Then, having bought out Abramson's share of the company for $300,000 in 1959, Ertegün, with his older brother Nesuhi and the producer Jerry Wexler, built Atlantic into the biggest independent label in the United States. They distributed the Stax stable of Otis Redding and Booker T & The MG's, had a run of soul hits with Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin, and launched pop acts such as Sonny and Cher and the Young Rascals.

When in 1967 the company was sold to Warner Bros Seven Arts for $17.5m, Ertegün stayed on as chairman and subsequently signed Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Bette Midler and, most famously, the Rolling Stones, the last achieved while nodding off at a Chuck Berry gig at the Whisky a Go-Go in Los Angeles in 1970. "Mick Jagger hates people who are into high pressure, but this was the opposite," Ertegün recalled. "Here he was telling me that the Rolling Stones had decided to sign with Atlantic, and I had fallen asleep."

In the Eighties and Nineties, Atlantic increased its share of the market further with AC/DC, Chic, Phil Collins, Foreigner and Jewel. Ertegün became one of the prime movers behind the establishment of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1985 and was himself the first non-performer to be inducted, in 1987. He remained active in recent years, and oversaw the releases of Pure Genius: the complete Atlantic recording sessions 1952-1959 (2005), a Ray Charles box-set, as well as two soundtrack albums for the biopic Ray (2004) in which Jamie Foxx portrayed the singer, while Curtis Armstrong played Ertegün. When I interviewed him two years ago, Ertegün was keen to correct one point in Ray: "Ray Charles never called me Omelette: Otis Redding did. The director used that because he thought it was funny."

Born in 1923, he was the son of Mehmet Munir, a diplomat who was legal adviser to Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic, and who chose "Ertegün" when Atatürk decreed that surnames should be adopted by Turkish families. Ahmet grew up in a refined, cultured environment, in Switzerland, Paris and then London, and spoke French before learning English from a governess.

He was very fond of artists like Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt, while his older brother Nesuhi took him to see Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington at the London Palladium. "I had heard jazz on records but the sound of those bands live was unbelievable," he said. "It changed my life." When the boys' father was appointed ambassador to the United States in 1934, his sons relished the opportunity to collect jazz and blues recordings and organise the odd concert within the confines of the embassy.

When he was 14, Ahmet's mother, Hayrunisa Rustem, gave him an amateur recording machine on which he could cut acetate discs. The teenager played around with it, scribbled some lyrics and recorded himself singing along to an instrumental by Cootie Williams called "West End Blues".

When Mehmet Munir Ertegün died in 1944, his wife and daughter Selma returned to Turkey, but both Ahmet and Nesuhi decided to stay in the United States. By then, Ahmet Ertegün was studying classical philosophy at St John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, then at Georgetown University, though he was more interested in hanging out in nightclubs and record shops. "I was totally unemployable," he explained. "So naturally I decided to go into the music business."

In 1946, he met Herb Abramson, a jazz aficionado who acted as a talent scout for National Records. They became firm friends and together launched the short-lived labels Jubilee and Quality, with the Washington store owner "Waxie Maxie" Silverman providing the financing. In October 1947, Ertegün's dentist, Dr Vadhi Sabit - "a crazy guy, a big gambler" - bankrolled their next venture, though finding a name for the label proved problematic. Their first idea, Horizon, and the partners' next 15 choices had already been copyrighted, so Atlantic it became, as the East Coast's answer to the jazz label Pacific.

A strike by the American Federation of Musicians was looming, but Ertegün and Abramson managed to supervise the recording of 65 tracks before the year's end and issued half of them in 1948 just as the strike was beginning to bite and radio stations were starved of new product. "I realised right away that there were two important things," Ertegün remembered. "One, making a great record; two, getting it played on the radio. If you could do that, you could figure out the rest."

In 1949, Atlantic had its first national rhythm'n'blues hit with the risqué "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Stick McGhee. The label subsequently recorded the New Orleans boogie-woogie pianist Professor Longhair, the bluesman Blind Willie McTell and signed up the jazz/blues shouter Big Joe Turner whose "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was covered by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. "We were the smallest company in the world," Ertegün remembered.

We made whatever we could, a lot of records that weren't rhythm'n'blues; poetry, Shakespeare, a magic album for children, square-dance records, one-man bands.

For many years, Atlantic was literally a one-room operation in New York. In retrospect, it was miraculous that we stayed in business because it took distributors a long time to pay. But I knew the majors were not making enough of the kind of records the black market demanded.

Ertegün wrote "Chains of Love", Big Joe Turner's first Atlantic side, and "Don't You Know I Love You" for the Clovers but he played down his songwriting abilities and often hid behind the pseudonym "Nugetre" - his surname backwards - in case he decided to follow in his father's footsteps. "There has always been that other possibility, in the background, some kind of involvement with Turkey," he said.

I had to write songs, because we had no songs and the singers didn't write in those days. I'd get an idea, hum the song to myself and go down to Times Square where they had a record-making machine next to the slot machines. That's how I would remember it because I couldn't write it down or play it. Then I'd write out all the lyrics.

Ertegün also discovered Ruth Brown, who went on to become Atlantic's first big-selling artist with "Teardrops From My Eyes" and "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean". In 1951, Ertegün heard "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" by Ray Charles on Swingtime Records and decided to sign the singer and piano-player:

We had to get that man somehow and we managed to buy his contract. Swingtime didn't mind, because he wasn't selling any records. Ray was not a headliner before we signed him up: he toured with other bands.

But it wasn't a big gamble for us, because we knew we had a great artist who had the talent and who could play the kind of music that would reach and touch an American audience. And after he made his first few American hits, he became a big star in Europe, too. Atlantic's history is deeply tied in with Ray Charles. "What'd I Say" was the most exciting track that we ever recorded.

Ertegün wrote tracks like "Mess Around" and was very hands-on with Ray Charles, producing and directing the performer who became known as the Genius of Soul. Nevertheless Charles left Atlantic in 1959 when the label couldn't match the royalty rate and conditions offered by ABC Paramount. The two remained firm friends and Ertegün did re-sign Charles and release his True To Life album in 1977.

He did regret not upping the offer of $25,000 he made to Sun Records for Elvis Presley's contract in 1955. "I should have offered another $20,000 to beat out RCA," he said.

And I should have held out for a bigger offer when we sold the label in 1967. That was done at the insistence of Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi. They figured we were lucky for so long that it couldn't last and that we would eventually wind up losing everything. But otherwise, I wouldn't change a thing.

Ertegün recalled that Atlantic managed to tap into the white kids' market:

They would buy the Clovers, the Coasters, the Drifters and Clyde McPhatter. Our music was soulful, but it was also urban. The Atlantic sound, our production, had a much heavier backbeat and a swinging groove on all the records. It was, in fact, the music that grew into rock'n'roll.

Indeed, in the mid-Sixties, Ertegün moved into the rock market, with the West Coast groups Buffalo Springfield and Iron Butterfly. He struck up alliances and friendships with the British-based label owners Robert Stigwood and Chris Blackwell which enabled Atlantic and its Atco and Cotillion subsidiaries to license the Bee Gees, Cream with Eric Clapton and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and to make the RSO and Island acts household names in the US too. He also signed Led Zeppelin - "That first album had an earth-shattering impact. They are still Atlantic's all-time biggest-selling band," - and Yes to worldwide deals, issued the triple-set soundtrack to the Woodstock documentary in 1970 and licensed Genesis and Abba for the US as well. "We became known as the label that broke new bands in America," Ertegün stated.

He retained creative control and remained at the helm of Atlantic through the changing ownerships involving Kinney and Warner Bros Seven Arts, the creation of Warner Communications, and the subsequent merger with Time Inc to form the conglomerate Time Warner, Inc. In the Eighties, Atlantic signed the Who guitarist Pete Townshend and Fleetwood Mac vocalist Stevie Nicks to solo deals, sold 40 million records by Foreigner and broke INXS in the US, while the Nineties saw the label, with Ertegün still as co-chairman and co-CEO, become home to Stone Temple Pilots, Hootie and the Blowfish, Matchbox 20, Tori Amos, the Corrs and Brandy.

Ertegün produced Bobby Darin's 1958 breakthrough hit "Splish Splash" and the singer's version of "Mack the Knife" in 1959; he gave the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller a production deal; he worked with Phil Spector, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin; he suggested Neil Young join Crosby, Stills & Nash; and he told Phil Collins to make the drums louder still on his 1981 solo smash "In The Air Tonight". But his philosophy and modus operandi remained simple:

It is our job to create the environment where the natural ability of an artist can flourish. We are the vehicle which fosters that magical connection between artist and listener, and we can never lose sight of the fact that we are merely a conduit which opens the way for that connection to be made.

A dapper, gracious, witty man, with a raspy voice and a reputation as a bon vivant and playboy, Ertegün owned homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons, a villa in Bodrum on the Turkish coast, and an apartment in Paris. He preferred to arrive at his New York office in the early afternoon. He loved buying modern art, drinking vodka, giving and attending lavish parties and going to hear live music. He was a trustee of several charitable organisations, including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, to which Atlantic contributed $1.5m to help R&B singers and players who had been given a low royalty rate in the Forties and Fifties.

"It is a great life, this life of music," he said.

I never imagined that I would be able to earn a living from doing something that I enjoyed so much. When we started Atlantic, I thought we would make records for two or three years, and then I'd have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I'm very glad I was wrong.

Pierre Perrone