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
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What did it take to sign artists in the early '50s?
We'd sign them up to record for, say, eight sides a year. Which meant four records. We'd usually not release four in one year, but we'd release two or three. There was a minimum of [recording] eight sides a year. We'd sign them up with options. They would get a royalty, which was usually around 3% or 4%. The top royalty in those days was 5%; that was the top for everybody -- all the pop stars and everything. Not all of them got 5%; they would usually start with 2% and gradually go up.
That was 2% or 3% or 4% of retail, which was 75 cents, so it wasn't that much. You'd have to sell a lot of records to make any royalties. We followed the business practices of the day, and we were in line with all the other record companies. I'm talking about the majors. Many of the independents didn't pay anything at all.
We worked on very low salaries. All our artists made much more money than we did. We wouldn't take any money out of the company -- we didn't make enough to take out, because we needed all the cash to finance our growth.
The distributors would pay us three or four months after we delivered the records. But we had to pay on time to get pressings done, to get a discount. The later you paid, the more you had to pay. So we needed the cash for financing the two or three months between the time we paid and the time we got paid. We never borrowed money from the bank. I remember once when royalty time came, and we didn't have enough money to pay -- we were four partners at that time -- we all went to the bank and took out our personal money in order to pay royalties, because we always wanted to pay those on time.
And when you wanted Elvis Presley for Atlantic, you couldn't raise the money.
I tried to sign him up. Colonel [Tom] Parker needed $45,000, and we didn't have $45,000. Our biggest purchase of a contract was when we paid $3,000 to get Ray Charles from Jack Lauderdale [of Swingtime Records], through a booking agent, Billy Shaw, in New York. He knew of my enthusiasm for Ray, because I talked so much about him. Since we had so many artists Billy was booking, he thought that if Atlantic got the artist, he would be able to book him. So he was the middleman who told Jack Lauderdale that he thought he could sell the contract. Lauderdale, who had probably lost money with Ray Charles, was happy to get something out of it.
Had you seen Ray perform?
I never saw him live [at that time]. I met him after we signed the contract.
How was he to work with?
I thought we would do the same thing we did with Joe Turner or Ivory Joe Hunter or whoever: put them into the Atlantic thing. So we had Jesse Stone do the arrangements, I wrote a couple of songs. Ray had a few songs, and we got our usual band together.
But it didn't click right away?
It hit enough that Billy Shaw was able to book him. When he booked him, Ray got a band together. He made that band an instrument in the same way Duke Ellington made his band an instrument for his music. The whole orchestra became part of what he was saying. He had them play exactly what he wanted.
The first time I went to record him on the road, he said, "I've got the stuff, it's ready." Everything hit. Working with him, I learned so much about how to make a record. We go around, saying we produced Ray, [but] we were the producers in name. He was really self-produced.
Jerry and I made all the records, except the ones that Nesuhi made, "The Genius of Ray Charles," and some of the jazz recordings. "The Genius of Ray Charles" was maybe the greatest record of his career.
I love Ray Charles. He can still teach everybody a lot about how to make great music. Not necessarily how to make hits, but how to make great music. Of course, part of it is his incredible talent. Who are the greatest jazz singers in the world? Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles.
It's been well-documented that you and your brother Nesuhi were jazz record collectors while you were living in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s and 1940s, and that you used to organize concerts in the Turkish Embassy.
We had an integrated audience and a mixed black and white orchestra, a group of musicians, and we ran several jam sessions.
Did that integration cause a stir?
Not really, because we only had 700 or 800 people at those concerts. What caused a stir was when some Southern senators sent my father notes saying that it had been brought to their attention that black people were coming to our embassy, and that, in America, black people used the service entrance rather than the front entrance. My father replied that he grew up in a monastery, and that, in Turkey, beggars were allowed in the front entrance as well.
Anyway, it was a very exciting time. Jelly Roll Morton was in Washington, down and out, and Alan Lomax and his father brought Leadbelly out of jail. We had a group of friends in Baltimore and Washington who were jazz fans, and we had amassed a collection of some 20,000 or 25,000 jazz and blues records, and jazz music had become very much part of our lives.
How did you hear this music? On the radio?
Oh, no. In those days there were no stations playing jazz. There was one program, "Saturday Night Swing Session," which would have some sort of semi-Dixieland band once in a while, or Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald as guests. But there was very little you could hear on the air. What you would hear was dance bands. They would do remotes, so late at night, you could turn on the radio and they'd have a dance band playing, somewhere. Tommy Dorsey or Casa Loma, even sometimes black orchestras. You could hear some jazz on those. But mostly they were playing pop songs, the hits of the day.
I became good friends with Max Silverman, the man from whom we used to buy so many used records. [His] was a radio repair shop, a block away from the Howard Theater; they used to buy used records from jukebox dealers, and we'd go through those, a bunch of old records they'd sell for a nickel or a dime.
It was a very hot place, a place where people met and so forth. It was right in the center of Washington's Harlem. I used to go there every evening and actually work. I mean, I wasn't employed, but I used to help out Max. The shop closed around 11 o'clock at night, and then we used to go out to dinner.
I used to meet a lot of people in the independent record business, because they came by Max's to promote their records. I noticed that most of them didn't know a trumpet from a saxophone. They were ex-jukebox dealers, or people who had bought a piece of property somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, several blocks of factories, and found they had a [record] pressing plant.
Al[bert] Green of National Records was one of those: a paint maker from Chicago.
Herb Abramson worked for him, he was his A&R man. When we had jam sessions in Washington, Herb used to bring the musicians down from New York. We'd tell him who we wanted, he'd gather all these guys and bring them down on the train.
Hal Cook, who used to be the publisher of Billboard, told me he thinks that your grounding in retail was one of the reasons Atlantic survived in the early days.
Also, what we had was a complete knowledge of pop music from 1920 on. We listened to all those records. We listened to a lot of straight pop records, hoping to find a bit of Bix Beiderbecke or something. We listened to all the race records, so we knew the history of the music.
I remember one day -- this must be around 1941 -- John Hammond and George Avakian came to visit us at the embassy. The jazz world was so small that everyone knew everyone. They came down to hear some records they'd never heard, because we had very rare records -- we knew very obscure things about jazz. George, who was Armenian, looked very nervous. Many years later, he told me, "If my father had known I had been to the Turkish Embassy, he would have killed me."
With Herb Abramson, you started a record label before Atlantic.
When he was working at National, he used to come down to Waxie Maxie's to see how his records were doing, to promote and to get ideas about making records. So we decided we would start a label with Max Silverman, called Quality.
That was the name of Max's store, Quality Music Store; it later changed to Waxie Maxie's. We also started up a label called Jubilee, which was just supposed to make gospel records. We recorded a band called Ernie Fields, who had a vocalist of some following. We recorded Sister Ernestine Washington with the Bunk Johnson Orchestra. Records we thought were great ideas. But the Bunk Johnson Orchestra meant nothing to people, although they were important records. Didn't sell at all. Max turned off the cash supply, Herb somehow managed to keep Jubilee; he sold the name and the label to Jerry Blaine, who [later] became Atlantic's distributor, Cosnat. So that was the end of that.
I really had the bug to go into the record business. I approached several of my father's friends. Everybody laughed at the idea. I'd never had a job. Who was going to invest in some crazy kid who didn't have any background in business?
We had this Turkish dentist [Dr. Vahdi Sabit]. He mortgaged his house and invested $10,000. Then I got Herb Abramson.
Was Dr. Sabit a jazz fan?
No, he didn't know anything about music. He was like a family friend. He just took a chance; he was a gambler. I think he must have gotten over $2 million or $3 million over a few years [as an Atlantic partner]. He quit dentistry and moved to the south of France, gambled away all his money and died penniless.
How closely was he involved with the record company?
He became a partner. He wasn't difficult, but he insisted on getting a salary, which is how over the years he got quite a lot of money. But, eventually, we bought him out.