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How a Turkish ambassador’s son changed the music industry

How a Turkish ambassador’s son changed the music industry

The son of Munir Ertegun, the second Turkish ambassador to the USA, Ahmet Ertegun was born in Istanbul, in 1923. Before finally moving to the USA, Ahmet lived in Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom where his father worked as a diplomat for Turkish republic.

After moving with his father to the United States, Ahmet started frequenting performances by music icons like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald at The Howard Theater in Washington D.C. Eventually Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi Ertegun became involved in the local music scene, organizing concerts and inviting visiting musicians to gather at the Turkish Embassy on Sunday afternoons to play together.

Upon his father’s passing, Ahmet and Nesuhi chose to remain in the U.S. instead of returning to Turkey with their family. Ahmet worked at a local record store where he began to learn about the music retail business while finishing his studies at Georgetown University.

Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi found Atlantic Records in a cramped, ground floor office space in the worn down Jefferson Hotel on 56th Street in New York City. Four years after finding Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun signed Ray Charles.

Ahmet’s label Atlantic Records made its name with rhythm and blues by Charles and Big Joe Turner, but later diversified, making Franklin the queen of soul as well as carrying the banner of British rock with the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin, and American pop with Sonny and Cher, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Turkish singer Tarkan also received considerable help from Ahmet Ertegun. Through Atlantic Records, Tarkan had the chance to go global.

The new PBS documentary “Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built”, tells the amazing life story of Ahmet Ertegun who built Atlantic Records, one of worlds biggest and most influential recording companies. In it, legendary music executive Ahmet Ertegun recalls how he unleashed the wild side of Ray Charles by teaching him a number called “Mess Around.” It’s a giddy treat, listening to archival tape of the young pianist punching up the standard chords as his producer belts out the lyrics in a voice made for drunken karaoke and little else.

Ertegun wrote the song, but freely admits he lifted the melody from Cow Cow Davenport’s boogie-woogie classic “Cow Cow Blues,” written decades earlier. And when he explains how Charles took “Mess Around” and refigured it into the mega-hit “What’d I Say,” it’s with a sense of pride and not a drop of bitterness.

“That anecdote perfectly illustrates Ertegun’s role in music over the past 60 years and the reason everyone from Ben E. King to Bette Midler agreed to participate in this two-hour film, lovingly written and directed by Susan Steinberg.” Neal Justin of Star Tribune says. “Ertegun couldn’t play an instrument, wrote only a couple of songs that could be considered gems (most notably the oft-recorded “Don’t Play That Song”) and preferred designer suits that seemed as out of place in a rock club as a gorilla suit.”

But Ertegun was pop music’s bridge master, transporting the jazz and blues of Harlem’s heyday into the mainstream of `50s R&B, `60s soul, `70s rock and even modern rap through his label, Atlantic Records. He persuaded Ruth Brown to stop imitating Doris Day and get nasty; allowed Ben E. King to add strings and Latin beats to his unlikely first solo hit, “Spanish Harlem,” and encouraged Led Zeppelin to turn the blues up to 11. It makes perfect sense that he was the son of a Turkish ambassador, a job for which he was being groomed until the music of Louis Armstrong got the better of him. He spanned the space between the hip fringes (aka black music) and square society (aka Bing Crosby) and masterfully brought them together. Who but a diplomat could charm the Rolling Stones into signing a contract by dozing off during negotiations – a move, deliberate or not, that convinced Mick Jagger he wasn’t dealing with a pushy character?

Ahmet Ertegun

Ertegun’s acceptance of a wide range of styles kept Atlantic Records on top for decades, even if it soiled the label’s class-act reputation. Partner Jerry Wexler, interviewed at length in the documentary, pays high respect to his long-time friend but also makes it clear that the label’s commercial choices disgusted him and led to him leaving the company he helped found.

Too much time is spent on the divineness of Bette Midler, perhaps because she is the film’s narrator, while Ertegun’s last major discovery, Kid Rock, gets more praise than Bobby Darin. “You’re going to be bigger than Elvis Presley,” Ertegun remembers thinking the first time he saw Rock, who is sitting beside the aging maestro as the tells the story. It’s one of many star-studded chitchats recorded over the past four years as Ertegun took jaunts down memory lane with Phil Collins, Solomon Burke, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and other hall of famers.

Almost all get a gleam in their eyes as they talk about the wild and crazy days, yet few details are provided. It’s akin to two people sharing a private joke that you’re dying to hear.

Ertegun’s wife, Mica, shrugs off questions about her husband’s reported dalliances, saying she didn’t think people were built to be with only one person, and leaves it at that. When someone asks Ertegun if he ever did drugs, he takes a calculated beat and responds: “Well, I inhaled.” A more complete biography of Ertegun will have to wait. This documentary is as much about the history of rock music as it is about an ambitious executive. It’s telling that Ertegun died Dec. 14 after collapsing backstage at a Stones concert, just as this documentary was wrapping up. It conjures up the old show-biz adage about performing until the very end. If there’s anything Ertegun knew, it was the classics.

Ertegun who counted Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones among the stars signed to his label died on Dec. 14 at age 83, days after falling and suffering a head injury at a Rolling Stones concert in New York City. He later slipped into a coma.

He was buried at an ancestral family site near an Islamic religious lodge in Istanbul following a funeral service. Among those who said farewell to him was Kid Rock, Tarkan and Former president of Turkey Abdullah Gul.

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