Ahmet Ertegun: Reflections From A Music Icon (page 5)

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

Continued from page 4...

You once tried to buy Island Records, years before PolyGram acquired it.

Yes. We tried to buy two companies, Barclay in France, and Island. Eddie Barclay told us how much he was making. When our accountants went through the books, they discovered his accountants were telling him he was making a lot of money when, in fact, he was losing a lot. So he had to throw everybody out and bring in another fellow. That saved Barclay.

The company was one of Atlantic's first international licensees.

Nicole Barclay was a formidable lady. She started Barclay Records. She first came to see us in 1948 and made a deal with me. She was very good-looking, very sexy and she loved black musicians, insanely. She'd come to New York, stay at the St. Moritz Hotel, just a couple of blocks from my office. We made a deal that we would put out her records, and she would put out ours, which was a verbal arrangement.

Her husband was not at all on the scene. I didn't know who he was. She suggested that maybe next time she came to New York, she should stay with me instead of staying at the hotel, and save some money. And I think she did, one time.

But she was out all night, every night, in Harlem. The musicians loved her. She loved jazz. She recorded Dizzy [Gillespie], Oscar Pettiford and all the different people. It was wonderful, and doing business with her was great.

Attractive women show up in your life from time to time.

Thank God.

When did you meet Eddie Barclay?

I think his father owned a restaurant . . . then he had a band; he was a pianist who played in different places, and he was not interested in the record business at all. When [Nicole] started to have success, he arrived in New York. He asked me what I thought he could record that would sell. I said, "Why don't you record Django Reinhardt?" He said, "Great, will you make the [album] cover?" So we had an artist make a cover with Django. I was waiting for [Barclay] to send me the records; we sent him the cover.

One day, I was walking by the Liberty Music Shop on Madison Avenue, I looked in the window and I saw my cover -- and a Mercury imprint. Which gives you an idea what Eddie Barclay was like. Then we became great friends. I used to stay at his house in St. Tropez. We had wonderful times.

Eddie was a great gourmet. Always had a wonderful chef, who would prepare unbelievable meals of 15 courses. Eddie became a national figure in France. He was a great magnet, a great host, a great personality, so everybody wanted to be with him. He signed up most of the important French artists.

What happened with Chris Blackwell and Island?

We should have bought Island but, again, it was very hard to tell what they were making. I think we made a deal based on what Chris Blackwell said, but when [our accountants] went through, it wasn't quite what he said. Not that he was lying, but I'm not sure that he knew what was going on half the time.

It's hard to imagine you and Blackwell living under the same roof.

I'd very happily live under the same roof as Chris; he's one of my best friends. He's a music man with soul. He records things without any thought of whether it sells or doesn't sell. He loves music. You go to his house, he doesn't play you his latest Cranberries record, he plays you Miles Davis or Dinah Washington.

The contest to sign acts became very intense as the business exploded in the late '60s. CBS Records was very competitive, for one.

We were after the same people. Clive Davis was hot on every artist, all over the place. I'd see him at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I always had the big cabana and a party going on. He came with his pad, and would sit there in a thing by himself, taking notes. He was very . . . [pauses] working. But I got most of the groups.

Didn't you both compete for Led Zeppelin?

No, the only thing I remember competing directly with Clive over was Moby Grape, and he got Moby Grape. Didn't mean anything. I'm not aware of any other competition we had, although, in general, we were all looking for the same kind of artists. I kept running into him. We were friends.

But CBS had a bigger checkbook?

By this time, I had an unlimited checkbook.

How do you regard Clive today?

He's one of the all-time best record people, he's terrific. You know something? From having been a lawyer -- and there were a lot of others who were lawyers, accountants or whatever they were -- he turned out to really develop a great feel for music. He has a great talent as a song picker, a talent picker. Clive Davis is a great hitmaker.

A deal between you and David Geffen in 1971 produced Asylum Records. He was seen as a protégé of yours.

I got him in the music business; he was an agent before. He was an agent with incredible charm and unbelievably intelligent -- very smart, very focused. The first time my wife and I went to Europe with David, we were in London and went to an art dealer where I bought a lot of pictures. And Mica said to this dealer, "Sell this young man a good picture at a low price."

At that time, David had little or no money. We knew that he was going to be a huge success; he had the ambition and the talent. Ambition is not enough -- you must have the talent to be able to make it. This man sold David a Picasso that was, at the time, worth maybe $75,000; he sold it to him for $35,000.

Asylum was a joint venture with Atlantic at the beginning, and then it was acquired by Warner Communications in 1972.

It was a joint venture for two or three years. We'd bought Elektra, and [founder] Jac Holzman decided he would quit, retire. I suggested to Steve Ross that David would be the right person to run Elektra. So he took the Asylum artists over to Elektra and ran that for a few years until he decided he wanted to go into the movie business. Joe Smith took over Elektra. David went to work at Warner Bros. Films for a couple of years, then he decided he didn't like that anymore and started a label.

At one point, it was announced that Atlantic and Elektra were going to merge.

Yeah, we talked about that, but all the people who worked for me said they would quit. I wanted to do that [merger]. David is a great friend of mine, and he's very smart, and I knew that as a merged company, we would become a big power. And we should have done that. But I was talked out of it by my staff, the people directly under me.

Jerry Wexler wasn't keen on the merger.

Wexler had already showed signs of not wanting to continue, but Jerry Greenberg and Sheldon Vogel, they really didn't want it. I guess they were all hoping to take over my position eventually, and [the merger] would have negated any [such possibility] since David was much younger than me.

Why did you sell Atlantic Records in 1967?

That was done at the insistence of Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi. They wanted just to liquidate, to get out. They figured we were lucky for so long, that it couldn't last and that we would eventually wind up losing everything. They just wanted to get security. They had been considering an offer of $3 million or $4 million a year before.

From ABC-Paramount?

Yes. I just nixed that totally. But then, when this other offer came up, we were having some internal problems among ourselves. I could have bought them out, probably, but I didn't think that way at the time. I could have probably gone to a bank. But I also didn't want to continue without them. So, anyway, we sold. We sold, and . . . [long pause]

The price was $17 million. Everyone said you sold too cheaply.

Well, we sold for the highest offer we'd gotten that far. Too cheap or too little, it depends. I raised the price, you know. I didn't raise it enough. I could have raised it more, but you don't know at what point they're going to say, "Forget about it." If we'd gone the way of most labels after they sell [gestures down] . . . After we sold, we had a three-year [employment] contract. But what happened was that in the two or three years we were with Warner-Seven Arts before Kinney [Group] took over, we did extremely well. I signed the Rolling Stones. Maybe I wouldn't have given all that money to the Stones if it were my money.

By the time Steve Ross' [Kinney] group took over, I was finishing. He begged me to stay. I said, "No, I'm not staying. I'll start a new company. I don't work for people." "Well," he said, "you wouldn't be working for me, you'd be my partner." There was a lot of talk. What really happened is that he raised the ante. He kind of rebought the record company, he raised what we all were making.

We stayed on for a while. Jerry was very unhappy, in general. He didn't particularly get along with any of the corporate types. I had no problem with them; they gave us complete freedom. Nothing changed. Nobody came and said, "Don't sign this, do that, make more money." Nothing. So it was just like before, except that now we had an airplane and this and that.

Then the [employment] contract was running out. [Ross] was so anxious to make us happy, so he asked Nesuhi what we would like. Nesuhi said he'd like to have a soccer team. So we started the [New York] Cosmos. God knows how many million they lost on that, but Nesuhi and I had a great time. How many people get to do that? We said, "We'll get Pele, Beckenbauer." We knew the players.

Were any of the artists bothered when Atlantic was sold?

No, no. Nothing changed. Long and short? Every time contract time came up, everything went up. We got terrific deals. So we really made up a lot [for the original price] over the years. Jerry Wexler quit [in 1975], but he got a very good package. He had been the business person at Atlantic, making the deals and so on, looking after the promotion and all that, [but] he had become much more interested only in producing. He was getting like he wanted promotion just to work the records he produced. He didn't like the white artists. He threw out Crosby, Stills & Nash, little things like that. He didn't like the music.

It sounds logical that, by that time, Jerry might have gotten tired of the promotion game, the business. That didn't affect you?

I never did much of that [laughs]. I always let other people do that. I never came in in the morning, even in the very beginning. We worked late at night. That's what I liked, anyway. Somebody found a 1961 copy of Esquire in which Nat Hentoff wrote an article about Ornette Coleman. He quotes me, saying, "Ahmet Ertegun, who was much more at home at El Morocco than he is at the Five Spot . . ." Because I have a totally other life. Along with my love of blues and jazz and so forth, I also had a social life with my old friends, most of whom were international playboys. We ran around the world.

Hasn't that totally other life been the key to the continuity of you and Atlantic through these 50 years?

That I don't know. It's . . . [pause] I enjoy my friends. I have friends like Gianni Agnelli, who I've known for so many years. My wife has great friends, we have a different world.

Jerry Wexler once said, "Ahmet likes to spend time with all these stupid people." As quoted in that [1978] New Yorker piece. Well, you know, some of those people are stupid, but they're very nice. Some of them are not so stupid. Henry Kissinger's not so stupid. And there are many among that group who are people of achievement. And, of course, some of my artists are in that group, like Mick Jagger and Bette Midler, and they hobnob with the same kind of people. We have a big mixture of friends.

Many people in the record business do not.

I never really spent evenings going out with other people in the business. I don't have anything against them. On the other hand, all they do is talk about how many [records] were sold, what's happening with this or that record. When I leave, I just go to my other world.