Ahmet Ertegun: Reflections From A Music Icon

The late Ahmet Ertegun was the link, the most prominent executive of the modern-day music business who also was active at the birth of R&B, rock'n'roll and all the pop fashions since. What follows

Ahmet Ertegun was the link, the most prominent executive of the modern-day music business who also was active at the birth of R&B, rock'n'roll and all the pop fashions since. His death Dec. 14, 2006, at the age of 83, a loss in so many ways, also deprives the music industry of a wealth of memories of its own growth and development.

In 1997, to mark the 50th anniversary of Atlantic Records, Ertegun shared many of those memories with Adam White, who was then Billboard's international editor-in-chief. (White today is VP of communications at Universal Music Group International.) As part of this tribute to Ertegun, we present that interview, originally published in the Jan. 17, 1998, issue of Billboard.

1997. An autumn afternoon in New York. A young man approaches a curbside limousine as its passengers settle into their seats, and asks, "Do you still listen to new music, Mr. Ertegun?" Moments before, the co-chairman and co-founder of Atlantic Records had emerged from the darkened dugout that is CBGB, completing -- for that day, anyway -- a photo session with Annie Leibowitz.

"Yes," he answers, "but not tonight." His questioner is persistent: "Can I give you a tape?" "Give it to them," Ertegun says, waving toward a couple of Atlantic staffers. "I'll lose it." As the car pulls away, its other passenger has a question. "Does that pitch happen often?" Ertegun nods: "All the time."

1947. An autumn night in New York. Joe Morris, who has left Lionel Hampton's orchestra, assembles a new combo -- saxmen Johnny Griffin (tenor) and Bill McLemore (baritone), pianist Wilmus Reeves, guitarist George Freeman, drummer Leroy Jackson and bassist Embra Daylie -- to cut some sides for Atlantic Records, a brand-new company. The diskery's principals, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, prepare for another sleep-deprived night as they rush to beat the Jan. 1 strike of the American Federation of Musicians.

Between those two Manhattan autumns, Ahmet Ertegun has owned, operated, transacted and navigated Atlantic Records to the pinnacle of the modern record business. He and his erstwhile partners -- among them, Herb Abramson, Jerry Wexler and his brother, the late Nesuhi Ertegun -- did so with dedication and integrity, sophistication and street savvy. And by listening to new music.

Since the 1950s, generations of musicians, singers, songwriters and producers have traveled by the light of such Atlantic beacons as "Sh-Boom," "What'd I Say," "There Goes My Baby," "Respect," "For What It's Worth," "Stairway to Heaven" and "Good Times."

The beacon still shines. During an interview for Billboard's salute to a half-century of Atlantic Records, Ertegun rustled through the pile of cassettes on his office desk, then played one featuring the powerful pipes of a teenage newcomer. "Listen to that diction," he declares. "Perfect." Then he fingered a shrink-wrapped compact disc, factory fresh. "This is another of our new bands."

The Atlantic Records enterprise and Ertegun, who turns 75 this year, have been the subject of more volumes, magazine articles, newspaper reports and trade-press clippings than most people could imagine. Among the books: Bill Millar's pioneering "The Drifters," Charlie Gillett's admiring "Making Tracks," Justin Picardie and Dorothy Wade's affectionate "Music Man" and Jerry Wexler's intense "Rhythm and the Blues." Not to mention The New Yorker's celebrated "Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse" profile in 1978.

In those tomes and elsewhere are Ertegun anecdotes that have passed into music business lore: the youngster seeing Duke Ellington for the first time at the London Palladium and being captivated by the style and the music; the teenager "disappearing" in Harlem to hear night music, while the Turkish general who was supposed to chaperone him searched high and low; the driven competitor playing jokes on his peers in the indie-label wars of the 1950s; the Anglophile hearing Eric Clapton in a London club, thinking the musician was Wilson Pickett's guitarist.

Today, for Billboard, Ertegun is gracious and relaxed in discussing the music business of now and then and his part in it. Some recollections may have dimmed (was that $2,500 he offered for Ray Charles' contract, or $3,000?) while others remain as sharp and cool as any record by Clyde McPhatter or the Coasters. Many are endearing, like the admission that he recorded the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra in the 1940s because the bandleader's wife was "a beautiful girl" on whom he had a crush. Other reminiscences are wicked, as when he publicly embarrassed a talent manager during a NARM convention, because Atlantic's interest in the artist -- still a top-drawer attraction -- was used as leverage for a contract renegotiation with another label.

Still, the existence of many Ertegun chronicles is just as well. The man himself says he has no plans for an autobiography. "A lot of people have asked me to write a book," he says. "To do that, you have to take two years off. I'm not about to take two years off."

In the early years, did you and Herb Abramson model Atlantic Records on any particular company?

No, not really. Of course, we were the smallest company in the world, so all the [other] companies looked good to us. They all had one or two stars. I was hoping we could make records like Fats Domino or Amos Milburn or Charles Brown. But it wasn't easy. We made whatever we could.

We also made a lot of records that weren't rhythm and blues. We did an album -- albums in those days were collections of 78 rpm records -- of a book of poetry, "This Is My Beloved," which was very popular during the war. I had Vernon Duke, who was a friend of mine, write the score for that. [Alfred Ryder narrated.] That sold quite well.

We also had an idea to do Shakespeare on record, the whole library. We figured out that if each college bought one . . . [laughs] We embarked on that, doing the music and everything, with a large orchestra. We had Eva LeGallienne, a very famous American Shakespearian actress, and a couple of well-known British Shakespearian actors. They were all much older; Eva La Galleane was in her 60s, and she was playing Juliet. Of course, it didn't sell at all.

We had a magic album for children [with Burt Hilber]. By having the record hit accidental grooves -- parts one, two, three and four -- we had all these stories. There would be a different story every time you played it. On four records, you got 296 stories or something. That sold fairly well.

We made a square-dance record with Chubby Jackson, who had been a player with Woody Herman's band. We recorded a guy called Vince Mondi, who used to go around New York as a one-man band, playing drums, harmonica, guitar, all at the same time. We tried [sighs] a lot of things. Anything that was unusual. Many of those were Herb's ideas.

The sax seemed to symbolize much of what you were doing in R&B in the late '40s. There was Johnny Griffin in Joe Morris' band, Red Prysock in Tiny Grimes' group and Frank Culley.

That's what everybody was buying: simple sax riffs. That lasted for a while. The vocalists we had at the beginning were not very outstanding, then we hit a good string of them: Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown.

You wrote "Chains of Love" for Joe Turner in 1951. Was necessity the mother of invention?

Exactly. Because I'm not really a composer [chuckles]. I had to write songs because we had no songs, and the singers didn't write in those days. The music-publishing establishment didn't have any songs for us.

We had a group of writers: Danny "Run Joe" Taylor, Otis Blackwell, Rudy Toombs. They would come down, sit around. None of them played any instrument, but they would clap hands and sing, "I've got fever," or whatever. Miriam [Abramson] chased Otis out of the office because he asked for $10 for "Fever." That's how we didn't get that song.

We used to cut people in. I wrote "Chains of Love." [Harry] Van Walls played such a beautiful introduction that I gave him half the song. Five years later, he called me and said he was going to sell his half of the song for $200 or $500 or something. I said, "Please don't, it's something I gave you, and I don't want you to sell it."

He said he needed the money, so I said, "Well, I'll come down and see you." He was playing in Asbury Park or one of those New Jersey summer places, with some little R&B band, so I gave him $500 and bought it back.

Now people say he wrote the song and I put my name on it. He never wrote a song in his life -- lyrics, I mean. He was a beautiful pianist, still is. I'm going to record him, playing solo, just for fun.

How would you usually compose?

I'd get an idea, hum the song to myself and go down to Times Square where they had these arcades with slot machines and so on. They had a record-making machine: You could put in a quarter and sing. A little record came out.

That's how I would remember [a song] because, you know, I couldn't write it down, I couldn't play it. So I sang it [into the machine]. Then I'd write out all the lyrics, and have Howard Biggs or Jesse Stone or someone like that write down the chords. I'd sing the song to the singer, and the singer would learn it.

Sometimes, I'd make a [demo] record. In the case of Ray Charles, I'd make records of the songs so he would have the lyrics. Also, for Joe Turner, because Joe couldn't read.

Did it bother you when white pop acts covered your records? That's what happened with Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll."

What bothered me was when we couldn't get our records on white stations. We couldn't get any of the major stations to play "Sh-Boom" [by the Chords, in 1954]. I was going crazy, because it was a pop hit.

Then the Crew-Cuts made it; they were an unknown group of four Canadians, who just copied it exactly. It was like real discrimination. For once, I could feel what black people feel every day, because I was being discriminated against. The only reason [pop stations] wouldn't play our record was because the group was black.

Continued on page 2...