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POP MUSIC

Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun looks back on his storied career, signing Clyde McPhatter, vying for Elvis, watching the Beatles slip by, discovering Eric Clapton . . . : The Hits, the Misses

May 24, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is the Times pop music critic

NEW YORK — One way to convey Ahmet Ertegun's preeminence in the music business is to point out that he built Atlantic Records over the last five decades from a $10,000 investment into a multibillion-dollar operation.

Another way is to name all the great artists who have been on the Atlantic roster, including nearly two dozen Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin (see list, Page 72).

Or you could underscore Ertegun's standing as the most respected executive ever in the record business by simply noting that he is the person who both David Geffen and Phil Spector wanted to be.

"He was certainly my role model and one of the most charming people I know . . . a man who would have been successful at anything he tried," says Geffen, the entertainment industry titan who was an artists' manager before Ertegun talked him into starting his own label in the early '70s. "I both love and respect him."

"He is . . . both the quintessential friend and business executive" the reclusive Spector --a one-time Ertegun assistant who became arguably the most brilliant record producer ever, thanks to such '60s hits as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin"'--wrote earlier this year in a Billboard magazine salute to Ertegun.

The son of a Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Ertegun started Atlantic in 1948 with Herb Abramson, largely to pursue his love of jazz and blues. Abramson left the company in he '50s, but Ertegun assembled an invaluable new team that included his brother, Nesuhi, who specialized in the label's jazz roster, and Jerry Wexler, who produced many of Atlantic's classic soul recordings.

Atlantic quickly became part of a landmark group of scrappy, independent labels, along with Chess and Sun, that championed R&B and/or country music, the outcast styles that forged the rock highlighted by the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that many in the record industry feel has been lost in this age of conglomerate control.

Of those early grass-roots labels, only Atlantic has survived.

Ertegun, 74, sold the company to what is now Time Warner in 1967 for $17 million, but he continues to serve as co-chairman and co-CEO of Atlantic, which had its biggest year ever in 1997. Val Azzoli, who has been co-chairman and co-CEO since 1996, says, "Ahmet's vision founded this company, and his spirit has defined it for five decades. His inspiration underlies everything that we do. . . ."

One reason for Atlantic's long reign is that, of the early entrepreneurs, only Ertegun adjusted to the changing musical currents, embracing Memphis soul and English rock. Ertegun's ear for music has been matched by his eye for executive talent. He has brought to the company a long line of respected industry figures, including Doug Morris, who is now chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group.

But much of Atlantic's legacy--which is being widely feted this year on the occasion of its 50th anniversary--also is due to Ertegun's personal charm. Though a man of immense sophistication (he and his wife Mica have been A-list names in New York high society for years), Ertegun has always been able to relate to artists on both personal and professional levels. Who else can count both Henry Kissinger and Mick Jagger among his closest friends?

Among his many talents is his storytelling. Some people will swear that Ertegun tells stories as masterfully as Bob Dylan writes songs--and the following anecdotes, just a fraction of the ones he spun during an interview in Atlantic's Manhattan offices, give you a sense of the way Ertegun's passion for music, his competitive instincts, his humor and his good fortune combined to make him as big a star in the industry as any of his acts.

In the spirit of the industry he helped pioneer, Ertegun's stories about the label's early days are presented in the form of a "greatest hits" album--complete with track titles and estimated listening times.

ATLANTIC'S FIRST BIG HIT (1:02)

This big record distributor in New Orleans called me one day in 1949. He was looking for a blues record that was selling so fast he couldn't keep them in stock. It was on some obscure label and he asked if I could help him find it. He wanted 10,000 copies.

Now that floored me: The most he had ever ordered of any of our records was 25 copies!

I had never heard of the label, but I told him that if he'd send me a copy of the record, we'd go into the studio and make an exact copy. The record turned out to be "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by someone named Stick McGhee.

Now the only two blues singers in New York at the time were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. So, I called Brownie . . . and it turned out Stick was his brother.

So, Brownie put me in touch with Stick and I asked him if he's under contract to anybody. As soon as he said "no," I got him into the studio and we made our version of "Spo-Dee-O-Dee."

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