The Atlantic Story

Ahmet Ertegun's era defining label

When Ahmet Ertegun died in December 2006 not only did Atlantic Records lose its Founding Chairman but the music world was robbed of a true original; an innovator, a pioneer and a gentleman, he was the well-respected and adored benefactor of hundreds of artists and colleagues. As the label he created this year celebrates its 60th anniversary we take a reverential look back on the highs and lows of the house that Ahmet built.

The story begins in Istanbul, 1923, as the renowned Turkish diplomat Mehmet Munir announces the birth of his son Ahmet. A decade later, as the President decrees that all Turkish families must adopt surnames, the patriarch chose ‘Ertegun’ as their suffix. It means “living in a hopeful future”.

Bequeathed a privileged upbringing, Ahmet followed his family around the embassies in Switzerland, Paris and London until finally settling in Washington, D.C. His serious intentions of academia and following his father into a diplomatic career were hampered somewhat by his now obsessive interest in music. A love of jazz and blues inspired a student Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi to stage jazz concerts by the likes of Lester Young and Sidney Bechet in Washington, while the city’s Quality Music Shop fed their vinyl addiction and was where Ahmet could watch record distributors at work. In an age before the recording industry was a serious business, these agents laxly sold their wares, mostly unacquainted with their product. The young Ertegun took note, privately aspiring to do better.

Fellow jazz collector Herb Abramson was six years Ahmet’s senior. Experienced in A&R, promoting and production, he had also tried his hand at his own label, which made him an ideal person to approach when Ahmet’s own aspirations became similarly grand.

At the end of 1947, with the backing of a wealthy dentist friend, the pair set up Atlantic Records in New York. “When I first started the label, I thought we’d make records for two or three years and that would be it,” Ahmet later said. “We did it for one main reason – we wanted to make the kind of records that we would want to buy. First and foremost, we were having great fun, and we never imagined that we would be able to make a real living out of doing what we loved so much.”

The first years of Atlantic were musically if not financially lucrative, their signings eclectic and thriving in the label’s jovial ethos. They had vocal groups, pianists, jazz stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, blues singers Sonny Terry and Leadbelly, but the real success was coming from their rhythm and blues artists Joe Turner and Ruth Brown, whose hits eventually earned Atlantic’s nickname “the house that Ruth built”.

Ahmet was involved in all aspects of his artists; signing them, producing them, even writing their songs. In 1953, Abramson was drafted into the army and, looking for a suitable partner, Ahmet brought in friend Jerry Wexler, a writer at Billboard magazine and assumed originator of the term ‘rhythm and blues’. Wexler would later buy Herb out. Two years later, Nesuhi came on board to head the jazz division, releasing albums by Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane.

Throughout the Fifties, Atlantic was at the forefront of the teenage revolution as rock ‘n’ roll – ostensibly black music sold to white kids – gripped the States and opened the doors to R & B’s increasing national popularity. Big Joe Turner’s Atlantic hit ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ kick-started the uprising when Bill Haley and his Comets covered it, then Ray Charles’ breakthrough brought the label further triumph, and when Elvis Presley’s Sun Records contract expired in 1955, Atlantic’s hefty proposition was surpassed by RCA Victor, thus narrowly missing out on the Pelvis. As the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll subsided and the pop market started to saturate the charts, Ahmet’s signing of Bobby Darin scored the label huge hits with ‘Splish Splash’ and ‘Mack The Knife’ and earned Atlantic their first Grammy Awards.

In 1960, Jerry Wexler established a relationship with the small Memphis label Satellite, forging a deal to handpick records and artists for Atlantic’s releases. Satellite soon became Stax, and Atlantic benefited greatly from the association, manufacturing and distributing Stax records and using their funky vibey studio and house band – Booker T & The MGs – for their own purposes. They would go on to reap huge rewards as soul music boomed in the Sixties and Stax struck gold with Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett – brought to Stax by Wexler. Soul giant Solomon Burke applauded “I learned a great deal from Atlantic. Atlantic taught me how to walk in this life of music, it taught me how to fall and how to get myself back up.”

On a roll, Wexler rescued a damsel in distress from a flagging career on Columbia Records, realising a genius when he saw one, thus beginning Aretha Franklin’s incredible rise and rise on Atlantic to become the undisputed Queen of Soul.

Meanwhile, as The Beatles stormed America and paved the way for guitar bands, Ahmet focused his attentions on the emerging rock scene. He guided Sonny and Cher to stardom, signed The Young Rascals, Cream, and in 1966 acquired Buffalo Springfield, which included Stephen Stills and Neil Young, two artists whose friendships and relationships with Ahmet would last for many years and who would benefit greatly from his sage-like advice and benevolence.

One year later, Wexler and the Erteguns agreed to sell Atlantic to Warner Seven Arts, losing their impressive independent status, yet with Ahmet retaining creative control of the label he’d developed and prospered.

Having left Buffalo Springfield, Stephen Stills came to Ahmet with his manager David Geffen and asked to be released from his contract so he could sign to Columbia with his new band. Ahmet refused, and instead suggested the band come to Atlantic, and in the process obtained Crosby, Stills and Nash (and eventually Young), the megastar supergroup of the late Sixties. “The relationship with Atlantic Records was always a personal one,” said Graham Nash. “Our friend and mentor, Ahmet Ertegun, was our main contact at Atlantic and our relationship was based on mutual respect. He is a fine musician, singer and producer.”

Geffen, seriously impressed by Ahmet’s business protocol, followed his lead and established Asylum Records (through Warners and financed by Ahmet) and later Geffen Records, soon to earn him his billions.

We were having great fun, and we never imagined that we would be able to make a real living out of doing what we loved so much.

When Warner Seven Arts was bought over by the Kinney Corporation, a corporate business whose fortune was made from parking lots and funeral parlours, it brought Warners and Atlantic together, bestowing Ahmet a high-ranking role in the enterprise. Frustrated at his own lack of control and diminishing influence, Wexler left the company in 1975 to concentrate on his own productions. They purchased Elektra Records and the resulting triumvirate WEA was competing with the leading major labels. Skilful and prescient chiefs expertly headed each division – Elektra (The Doors, Love) had Jac Holtzman, Warner Brothers (Joni Mitchell, James Taylor) had Mo Ostin and Joe Smith, and Atlantic had Ahmet.

Ahmet’s smooth-talking skills paid off in 1971 when he won The Rolling Stones. Having previously secured Led Zeppelin, Ahmet continued his Anglophile assault by courting Mick Jagger and setting up Rolling Stones Records through Atlantic. “Rolling Stones Records was a licensing deal”, Jagger later said, “not a real record label for other artists. It gave us at least the image that we were independent.” In turn, Ahmet served as the introduction Jagger craved into the jet-set elite of New York’s socialites (Ahmet’s great asset was being able to schmooze with high society as well as getting down and dirty backstage with his acts), while the Stones benefited from recording in Atlantic’s Muscle Shoals studios, adding an authentic swampy Southern flavour to ‘Sticky Fingers’ and beyond.

Throughout the Seventies, Ahmet reigned over the Warners successes and acted as a patron and mentor of Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Bette Midler, The Allman Brothers, The Bee Gees, Genesis, Foreigner, Chic and AC/DC.

Atlantic flourished through the Eighties with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and INXS, with Ahmet’s status as the industry’s esteemed treasure confirmed as he was elected into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. By the end of the decade however, the label lost the Stones and in 1989 Ahmet’s beloved brother Nesuhi died. The dawn of the Nineties saw Ahmet elevated to Chairman, while he oversaw En Vogue, Stone Temple Pilots, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Kid Rock, Tori Amos and the phenomenal US success of Hootie and the Blowfish. It progressed through the decade specialising in not allowing Atlantic to become a niche label, and proving its abilities across musical genres. This was not unnoticed, and Ahmet received heaps of plaudits and decorations for his efforts, even being bestowed the honour of a ‘Living Legend’ by the US Library of Congress in 2000. Most recently, Stateside signings Jet, Missy Elliot, Bloc Party and Jewel are all maintaining Atlantic’s legacy.

Last October, aged 83, Ahmet fell down stairs backstage at a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theatre, Manhattan, and subsequently slipped into a coma. He died in December and ended one of the most inspirational and influential careers that revolutionized Twentieth Century music. He was cutting-edge yet absolutely sophisticated, and praise was countless and glowing. Keith Richards said of him, “With Ahmet, you weren’t dealing with some hood or lawyer or shyster, which is quite often what you get in the record business. You were talking on level terms with Ahmet. He was intimately involved with what came out under his name.” He continued, “Until the day he died, his whole thing was to be involved with musicians. His love of the music, his joy from it, stayed with him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been backstage at the Beacon… It was full circle. And that touches me.” Mick Jagger simply added, “I will miss him so much.”

Atlantic will go on to make further waves in music, but it will never again benefit from their most passionate connoisseur who lived his life immersed in his trade and who gained the respect of his artists and peers for his style, wisdom and panache.

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