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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You hired Phil Spector as your assistant around this time.
When Leiber and Stoller made "Spanish Harlem" with Ben E. King -- his first solo record -- they brought the co-writer [Spector] to play guitar on the session. That's how I became friends with Phil. We're still great friends. He was an incredible personality, very different from anyone I've ever known. He was a young kid, but a great talent, obviously. When I went to California after that session, I looked him up and we started to hang out together. We both liked Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches, so we'd find different places in Hollywood to get them. We used to go out nightclubbing together and so forth. And then I asked him to become my assistant, so I guess it was his first job. We were always together, and we laughed a great deal together. All the music publishers were after us to record their songs.
Phil had a 45 rpm record player in his Thunderbird, so we used to tell these publishers that if they wanted to play their songs, they had to play them in the car. They would come down, get in the car, Phil would take off, doing 90 miles an hour. The two of us were in the front, we had the publisher in the back, and he'd say, "I don't give a shit if you don't record my song, let me out of the car." Great times.
Jerry Wexler was not crazy about Phil. It was fine when Phil was in California, but then he moved to New York. We were always together, but it broke up when I married Mica. Because when I married Mica, suddenly I wasn't available to go out every night. Phil was kind of left alone here, so he decided to go back to California. And he started his own record company, Philles, with Lester Sill.
Your best-known anecdote is probably the one about the time you heard Eric Clapton play at the Scotch of St. James, thinking he was Wilson Pickett's guitarist. Wasn't Cream signed to Polydor through a deal with Robert Stigwood?
PolyGram wanted to open up a distributing company in England. They weren't big enough by themselves, they needed another strong label. They made a deal with us, and we went with them [on the basis that] we would get first crack for the United States at any new artist they developed in England.
The A&R man was Robert Stigwood. At first, we didn't get along at all, because all the things he was recording were middle of the road, which were impossible to sell in America.
Did he know what he had with Cream?
He saw the excitement we felt. We knew we had a huge star in Eric Clapton. More than selling records, I was just enamored of the person because of his playing. He was also such a wonderful, nice guy, very intelligent, extremely sensitive.
Then Stigwood found this group called the Bee Gees, who had been in Australia. He co-managed them with Brian Epstein. I told Stigwood, "I want that group." At the time, Stigwood told me he had ambitions to become a theatrical producer and asked me if I could help him get English rights for American plays. One of my best friends, Michael Butler, had just put a show on Broadway with my help. Michael's father was a multimillionaire who somehow had more faith in me than in Michael's other friends, because I was the only one who had made his own fortune.
Anyway, I helped Michael get that play, "Hair," on Broadway. And I told him that he should give the rights to Stigwood for London. Having done that, I said to Stigwood, "Now we've got to have the Bee Gees." He understood. Stiggie has a great nose for music -- and not only music, a great feel for what could happen. He did terrific things.
Your ability to tap into the new rock coming from England was central to Atlantic's transition from an R&B-rooted label to a broad-based industry powerhouse. For instance, Led Zeppelin.
That was the result of our signing the Young Rascals. Steven Weiss represented the Rascals in the contract, and he was one of the toughest lawyers I had ever encountered. He made a terrific deal for them. Having done that, he liked us; we became very good friends. When Peter Grant came to America to make a deal for the "new Yardbirds," Steven Weiss was Grant's lawyer. So the man we complained about bitterly -- because of the tough deal we had to make for the Rascals -- became our friend. He became the man who brought us one of the greatest groups in the history of music, Led Zeppelin.
Grant was, in himself, a new breed of manager.
He defended [the group] as though they were his only children in life. He was a sensational manager; he built an aura of mystique around that group that still exists, oddly enough. I loved Peter, and we miss him [Grant died in 1995]. He was a person with a lot of personal problems. As a result, we had a lot of ups and downs, especially in the later years, after the group broke up. It became very difficult to deal with him.
You didn't mind?
Shall I tell you something? That's part of our game. We work with all kinds. Peter was a loveable person.
Loveable? He had a fearsome reputation, and he was also one of the first managers who changed the balance between artists and record companies and concert promoters.
That's true. He also kept you away from the artists.
Well, not so much. We genuinely became great friends. Now, I hated some of the tactics they used. They had a very, very embarrassing encounter with Bill Graham in San Francisco that was totally uncalled for. But they got carried away with their own success and power.
Were the Brits different, as a rule?
No, but they were characters. I loved Keith Moon, for example, even though the Who didn't record for us. I used to hang out with Keith, Jimi Hendrix, all that crowd in London. We went to the Revolution, the Speakeasy. We were out all night. It was a great time.
Did deals come out of those situations?
I became friends with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, even though they weren't recording for me.
When the Rolling Stones did eventually sign with Atlantic, one reason was supposedly that you fell asleep while talking to Mick at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles.
I wasn't pushy. Mick doesn't like pushy people. But we were friends. Then I met the toughest negotiator of all [representing the Stones], who also happened to be a close friend, Prince Rupert Loewenstein. He and Josephine are great friends of my wife and myself. Rupert is not really a music-business person. He is a banker. But we have so many friends in common.
Rupert would sit up all night and read that 400-page contract and annotate. He had a music-business lawyer, but he didn't let the lawyer make the deal, he made the deal. He made it by studying every clause. He actually read the contract and understood it perfectly.
I've never read a contract. I used to read the one-page contracts when Atlantic first started. We had these little forms that everybody used. RCA-Victor used them. I never sat down and read a 50-page contract. What do I have lawyers for?
Were you surprised when you heard Rupert was representing the Stones?
I was very happy to hear that, because they hadn't been well-represented. Rupert is a staunch protector, he's a man of principle. When he represents somebody, he does it in a very nice way with me. We don't yell at each other. It's very clear what we can do -- you can just go so far.
Look, in the end, we've been fair with one another. Otherwise, after two contracts with the Stones and 15 years, Rupert and Mick wouldn't have come back. Mick records for us as a solo artist. That wouldn't have happened otherwise.
That 1971 deal was a new benchmark in industry contracts.
At the time, it was the biggest contract ever made. The Stones had very big hits with us. We've had other groups that have sold more on one album or two albums, like Foreigner, and we've had the occasional bigger hit by some other group. But during that part of the Stones' career with Atlantic, they made some of the greatest records. Artistically, it's a phenomenal series of recordings, which are standards now in the vocabulary of rock'n'roll.
Some remarkable people have worked for Atlantic throughout its history.
I had the great luck of being involved with people of high ethical background. I must tell you, Miriam [Abramson] was an important person in keeping discipline at Atlantic Records, and keeping everything on the up-and-up. She ran the office, and none of us was inclined to run the office. She is unheralded, unrecognized, but if we hadn't had her in those developing years, the company would have folded. She also had very good taste in music. For example, she's the one who first played me Ray Charles records, the Swingtime records.
Jerry Wexler. Extremely honest, very straight. Not a person who would ever be involved in any fraudulent activity. Jerry Greenberg, the same. Doug Morris, he prides himself on setting an example for his sons. He's of the highest moral character. Sheldon Vogel, Val Azzoli, the same.
Do you regret Doug's departure? He was with you for the longest time.
Oh, yes. Doug Morris was one of the most important people in the history of Atlantic. He became a close friend, and, as I said before, he was a person of high moral character and meticulous in his relationships with people. He forged many great friendships with managers, artists. I know Pete Townshend loves him, for instance. And he is a genuinely nice guy, but very talented as a record man. He did the whole thing.
He wrote songs . . .
. . . worked for publishers, for small record companies, had his own label. And has a great ear. We both liked the same records, we disliked the same records. We had adjacent offices. Whenever he'd play something, I'd rush into his office, or he'd run into mine. There was a great camaraderie, so, of course, I was very upset to see him go.
But then, you know, that whole series of mishaps that led to the dismemberment of our [Warner] music group was unfortunate. It was a series of accidents which started, I guess, from bringing in people to the music business who were not from the music business.
That business has changed a great deal since the beginnings of Atlantic.
Yes, the business has changed. We're expected to do 15% better than the previous year, every year, and entertainment is not the kind of business where you can predict any outcome. So we can budget that we're going to do 15% or 20% better than last year, but it all depends on how well the records come out. And we have very little control any more over that, because we are not producing the records; we're just signing up the talent.
Yet you must feed the machine.
We can't always do it. We have three companies [in the Warner Music Group]. Not all of them may make that 15% every year. Sometimes we're down 30% or something, especially when you have a huge year which you can't possibly repeat because of the confluence of several great acts.
I have a [cigarette] box which somebody gave me: I call it Two Micks and a Nicks. When you have the Rolling Stones, Foreigner and Stevie Nicks at [Nos.] 1, 2, 3 on the charts [the week of Oct. 10, 1981], how can you repeat that the following year? And, of course, you don't have a new album by any one of those artists the following year.
I used to think it was a joke in these [corporate] budget meetings, and they'd say, "How are you going to do next year?" Someone -- the head of finance at Warner Communications -- asked, "What are you going to do to make it a better year?" I said, "You know what we're going to do? We're going to try to make more hits." What else is there to do?