AMERICAN MASTERS "Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built"

AMERICAN MASTERS "Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built"

Fri, 09/03/2010 - 7:00pm

Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006)

For the last half-century, Ahmet Ertegun was hip-deep in R&B and rock 'n' roll. Follows his remarkable career and its impact on the evolution of popular musical.

“I think it’s better to burn out than to fade away… it’s better to live out your days being very, very active — even if it destroys you — than to quietly… disappear…. At my age, why do you think I’m still here struggling with all the problems of this company — because I don’t want to fade away.”
Ahmet Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun, a young Turk - literally - with an immigrant's passion for the African-American music he heard in the rigidly segregated Washington, DC, nightclubs of the 1940s, recognized that "all popular music stems from black music, be it jazz or rock 'n' roll or rap." He exported these unique sounds to England, where they merged with the European sensibility, and then imported that fusion back across the ocean. "The Atlantic Sound," which sprang from the small record label Ertegun co-founded in 1947, was a revolutionary new genre, single-handedly influencing the future direction of contemporary music. Ertegun wrote music, produced music, defined careers and changed lives. "He found Ray Charles, he introduced Eric Clapton to Aretha Franklin, he fell asleep on Mick Jagger," says Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in AMERICAN MASTERS "Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built" encoring Friday, September 3 at 7 p.m. on PBS World (cable 524/DT21.2).

Ertegun recorded hours of interviews for the film, over a period of four years. He suffered what would be a terminal injury, falling backstage at a private Rolling Stones concert in October, and died December 14, 2006, at age 83.

Once asked by the online magazine Slate what he wanted for his legacy, Ertegun responded, "I'd be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music."

"Ahmet Ertegun is someone I greatly admired and held dear. His indisputable influence, combined with a passionate love of music and a unique aesthetic, altered our cultural landscape," said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS, a five-time winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series. "We'll never forget him because we'll never stop listening to the music he introduced to the world. He was a true American Master."

Since Ertegun was such a prized raconteur, writer/director Susan Steinberg structured the film around a series of specially filmed conversations between Ertegun and some of the greatest names in rock, blues and jazz, including Robert Plant, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler and the late Ray Charles in his last filmed interview. Artists who were also close personal friends, such as Mick Jagger, relived significant events from their mutual experiences for the film.

"The program is conceived as both a tribute to Atlantic Records -- perhaps the most influential independent music company of our time - and to the man himself," said Steinberg. "When we began this film four years ago, none of us could have anticipated that Mr. Ertegun's sudden and tragic death would cause the program to stand as an epitaph to a man whose energy, passion, good taste and love of music so enriched the world."

From the time he trudged through a Delta swamp in search of Professor Longhair to his recording of contemporary artists like Kid Rock and James Blunt, Ertegun never lost the character and integrity he inherited from his father, the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. His older brother Nesuhi -- an intellectual who hung out at the Hot Club in Paris with jazz greats Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli -- introduced Ertegun to jazz. Once in Washington, DC, the teenagers would spend countless hours digging through old vinyl in Waxie Maxie's Quality Music Shop and scouring the black neighborhoods for obscure records. Eventually, they acquired 25,000 records, the largest collection of jazz and blues in the world.

Ertegun moved to New York and together with Herb Abramson started Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from his dentist. By the mid 1950s, Atlantic had become the country's preeminent R&B label, producing hits by such artists as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker and the Drifters. The "Atlantic Sound" -- a boogie-based, sax-led band arrangement that became an integral part of rhythm and blues -- grew into a phenomenon that swept across the nation and the world. In England, young musicians would buy records just because the Atlantic label was on the sleeve. They would grow up to become members of groups like the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin and Genesis.

The Ertegun brothers and their partner, Jerry Wexler (Herb Abramson left Atlantic in 1958), sold the Atlantic label to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts in 1967 for $17 million. Ertegun retained control of the company, but enjoyed the financial backing of a huge corporation.

Throughout his career, Ertegun earned a reputation for respecting artistic individuality, vigilantly nurturing careers and turning performers like Bobby Darin into chart-topping stars. At the same time, he earned the admiration of the young blues musicians who were the rage. The emerging artists were attracted to Ertegun because he knew more than anyone else about black music -- and he could party with the best of them.

"I think Ahmet had this feeling for music and never got in the way of the music, never, at no point from start to finish," says Ray Charles in the film. "As opposed to most record execs, Ahmet is different. He knows his music."

In the early days of Atlantic, unable to find great R&B material for his emerging artists, Ertegun took pen in hand and wrote songs himself. Often writing under the pseudonym Nugetre (Ertegun spelled backwards), he penned more than 60 songs, many of them hits, including the Clovers' "Fool, Fool, Fool" and "Lovey Dovey," Big Joe Turner's "Chains of Love," Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" and Ray Charles' "Mess Around," later featured in the Academy Award-winning movie Ray. In the mid 1950s, he attracted the groundbreaking producing and songwriting talents of the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who created many hits for the Coasters and the Drifters.

In the 1960s and early 70s, wise to the enormous potential of the exploding British rock scene, Ertegun became one of the only independent American record producers who opened offices in London. He was known to have access to a black style from the streets and to a white style from somewhere beyond Bendel's. This winning combination endeared him to young British musicians, and he signed such great artists as Cream with Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Yes and the Rolling Stones.

By the time he was 47, Ertegun was the greatest rock 'n' roll mogul in the world. He had turned a small record label into a major record company, applying his own aesthetic to the music and musicians in a way that influenced the entire creative field. Along with his brother and Jerry Wexler, Ertegun kept the company thriving. Over the years, Atlantic's roster included everyone from Phil Collins; Buffalo Springfield; Solomon Burke; Roberta Flack; John Coltrane; Otis Redding; Wilson Pickett; Foreigner; and Kid Rock to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Sonny & Cher; Stevie Nicks; Manhattan Transfer; Bobby Short; Charles Mingus; Chic; Tori Amos; Jewel; and Rob Thomas.