Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006)
The Greatest Record Man Of All Time
by Robert Greenfield
TCA Note: This is an excerpted version of the original article published in Rolling Stone magazine, January 25, 2007.
More than most in the $5 billion-a-year global industry he helped build from scratch, Ahmet Ertegun loved the rhythm and the blues. He loved the rock and the roll, jump and swing, and all forms of jazz. More than anything, he loved the high life and the low. When he died at the age of eighty-three on December 14th, about six weeks after injuring himself in a backstage fall at a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, the world lost not only the greatest "record man" who ever lived but also a unique individual whose personal and professional life comprised the history of popular music in America over the past seventy years.
Born in Istanbul on July 31st, 1923, Ahmet Ertegun might never have come to America, which he later called "the land of cowboys, Indians, Chicago gangsters, beautiful brown-skinned women and jazz," if the Ottoman Empire had not suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Allies during World War I. Occupied by foreign forces, the empire began crumbling in the face of an all-out rebellion led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former army major general who would become the father of modern Turkey.
In 1920, Ahmet's father, Mehmet Munir (he added the surname Ertegun in 1936), a graduate of Istanbul University whose father was a civil servant and whose mother was the daughter of a Sufi sheik, was sent by the sultan to persuade Ataturk to lay down his arms. Switching sides, Mehmet decided instead to become Ataturk's legal adviser. Two years later, Mehmet was sent to the international conference at which the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24th, 1923, setting the borders of modern Turkey and extending diplomatic recognition to the new republic.
In 1925, Mehmet was named minister to Switzerland and moved with his wife, Hayrunisa; his two sons, Nesuhi and Ahmet; and his daughter, Selma, to Bern. In rapid succession, Mehmet served as ambassador to France (where Ahmet first learned to speak French, the traditional language of the court in Turkey) and then to the Court of St. James (where Ahmet was taught English, which he spoke with a French accent, by a governess who had worked at Buckingham Palace).
In 1932, when Ahmet was nine, his older brother took him to see Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington at the London Palladium. "I had never really seen black people," Ahmet recalled, "and I had never heard anything as glorious as those beautiful musicians wearing white tails, playing these incredibly gleaming horns." Two years later, Ahmet was delighted to learn his father had been posted to Washington to serve as Turkey's first ambassador to the United States during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.
Expecting to be thrust into an America he had only experienced through music, Ahmet was sent instead to the Landon School, an all-boys institution run like a British public school. He then attended St. Albans, whose graduates include Al Gore and George H.W. Bush's father, Prescott. However, as Ahmet would later note, "I got my real education at the Howard." Located in the heart of the black district, the Howard was the nation's first theater built for black audiences and entertainers. At the Howard, the greatest stars of the day - Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton - performed. "As I grew up," Ahmet would later say, "I began to discover a little bit about the situation of black people in America and experienced an immediate empathy with the victims of such senseless discrimination. Because although the Turks were never slaves, they were regarded as enemies within Europe because of their Muslim beliefs."
In 1940, the year he enrolled in St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, Ahmet and his brother put on Washington's first integrated concert at the only venue that would allow black and white musicians to play on the same stage before a mixed audience: the Jewish Community Center.
On Sunday afternoons, the brothers turned the Turkish Embassy into an open house where visiting jazz musicians would jam together in a huge parlor. According to Ahmet, his father soon began receiving letters from outraged Southern senators, saying, "It has been brought to my attention, sir, that a person of color was seen entering your house by the front door. I have to inform you that in our country, this is not a practice to be encouraged." Mehmet responded by writing, "In my home, friends enter by the front door - however, we can arrange for you to enter from the back."
When Mehmet died in 1944, at the age of sixty-one, the family left the embassy. Ahmet and Nesuhi were forced to sell their collection of more than 20,000 records, which they had amassed by going door-to-door in the ghetto and hanging out in black record shops. Rather than return to Turkey to enter the diplomatic corps, the brothers decided to stay in America. Moving into an apartment near the embassy, Ahmet began doing post-graduate work in medieval philosophy at Georgetown University, but he spent most of his time at "Waxie Maxie" Silverman's Quality Music Shop, where he learned the retail end of the record business firsthand.
In 1946, Ahmet and his friends Herb and Miriam Abramson talked Waxie Maxie into putting up the money to start two labels: the gospel-based Jubilee, and Quality, which focused on jazz. After their first few records went nowhere, Waxie Maxie decided he wanted out. Somehow, Ahmet persuaded Dr. Vahdi Sabit, a Turkish dentist who had been a longtime family friend, to mortgage his home and loan Ahmet $10,000 to start his own label in New York. In 1947, Atlantic Records was born.
Because music publishers were not eager, as Ahmet said, to provide material to "a hole-in-the-wall company called Atlantic," he began writing songs himself. In a recording booth located in a Times Square arcade, he would make a vinyl demo of a song that he would then play for the artist in the studio. Using the pseudonym "Nugetre," his last name spelled backward, so he would not embarrass his family, Ahmet wrote "Don't You Know I Love You" and "Fool, Fool, Fool," which were hits for the Clovers in 1951.
In a nation reinvigorated by President John F. Kennedy's promise of a "New Frontier," civil rights became the predominant issue. "Soul lyrics, soul music," Ahmet would later say, "came at about the same time as the civil rights movement, and it's very possible that one influenced the other."
Unlike so many who made it big in the music business only to cash out by selling the companies they had infused with their own lifeblood, Ahmet held fast to the tiller. Until the end of his life, he was still in charge of what he had built from the ground up. That he died after falling backstage at a show by a band whom he truly loved is an ending too perfect for any self-respecting Hollywood screenwriter to have written. A year before he died, Ahmet told an interviewer how he'd like to be remembered: "I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music."
And while the fabulous manner in which he chose to live caused all those with whom he came into contact to love him madly, the real reason Ahmet will be remembered is because by dedicating his life to rhythm and blues, rock and roll, jump and swing, and every form of jazz, from Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles to the Drifters and Bobby Darin to Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Phil Collins, Tori Amos, Kid Rock, and Gnarls Barkley, Ahmet Ertegun gave people all over the world, many of whom still do not know his name, the soundtrack of their lives.