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Ahmet Ertegun: 1923 - 2006

His Atlantic Records shaped pop music

December 15, 2006|Geoff Boucher and Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writers

Ahmet Ertegun, the Turkish ambassador's son whose ear for the culture of black America would make his Atlantic Records a legendary fount of 20th century popular music, died Thursday. He was 83.

Ertegun had slipped into a coma after suffering a head injury in an October fall backstage at a Rolling Stones show celebrating the 60th birthday of former President Clinton. Ertegun never recovered from the severe trauma of the injury, said Dr. Howard A Riina, the attending neurosurgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and died with his family at his bedside.

Ertegun was a true titan of the music industry across decades -- his upstart Atlantic label became the home of R&B music in the 1950s with Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, the Drifters and the Coasters and then triumphed on new turfs in the 1960s and 1970s with signature acts such as Aretha Franklin; Led Zeppelin; Cream; Yes; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and Sonny & Cher.

But more than a mogul, Ertegun was a passionate connoisseur of music who was beloved by many of his artists and peers for his personal panache and his encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially jazz and rhythm and blues.

"Ahmet had as much fun as any man alive," Stephen Stills of CSN&Y said Thursday. "He started out doing what he loved, and he did it all his life. He also brought America's black and white cultures together through music and helped cure the cancer of racism we had on our hearts."

Ertegun was a founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and remained chairman of Atlantic Records until his death. He was also an enthusiastic presence at concerts and industry events, such as the Stones' performance for Clinton at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan.

News that he had died brought an outpouring of sentiment from veterans of the music industry. And, even for a business circle inured to hyperbole, there was a strong consensus that an era had come to an end with the death of Atlantic's architect.

Ertegun started Atlantic Records in 1947 with a fellow jazz fan, Herb Abramson, as a partner and with a $10,000 loan they got from a family dentist. The label became a 1950s sensation by delivering earthy R&B and lively jazz that corporate labels were too slow or too timid to embrace.

"He was a visionary.... He was one of the great personalities of our time, moving from Jagger to Kissinger, from Ray Charles to Brooke Astor," said Clive Davis, the founder of Arista Records who now heads J Records and is chief executive officer of BMG North America. "His passion for music was singular, and his contribution to our musical heritage was second to none."

Ertegun's legacy was spun not only in platinum and gold records but also in the careers of others who looked to Atlantic as the template for independent label success and to Ertegun as a charismatic hero.

David Geffen, the billionaire entertainment mogul, said Thursday that it was at Ertegun's advice that he first launched his own label. Geffen said Ertegun's personality was as potent as his business acumen. "He loved musicians, he loved music, he loved life.... He was a lot of fun, a real raconteur," Geffen said. Of his friend's storytelling, Geffen said: "He was elegant and raunchy."

In the music-industry book "Hit Men" in 1991, author Fredric Dannen described Ertegun as a winking and worldly player: "He had Great Record Man written all over him. He was jaunty, and bald, and had a goatee.... He could order a bottle of wine from a headwaiter in perfect French, then turn to his jazzman dinner guest and slip into black jive. Ertegun was one of the original characters of the record business, but the one with the most class."

He was born July 31, 1923, in Uskudar, a dense suburb of Istanbul that lies on the Bosporus. The family didn't take the name Ertegun until 1936, when President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed that all Turkish families should adopt surnames. The future mogul's father, a lawyer and diplomat named Mehmet Munir, chose "Ertegun"; it means "living in a hopeful future."

Passion for music

It was his mother, Hayrunisa Rustem, who gave Ertegun a passion for music.

"If it hadn't been for the mores of Turkish society, she probably would have been a star," he once wrote. "She had a beautiful voice, played every instrument by ear, was a terrific dancer and loved music. Wherever we were, she always bought all the popular hits of the day: Josephine Baker, Mae West, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, among many others, so we always had a lot of music in the house."

His father's assignments took the family throughout Europe during the 1920s and to London in 1931. There, at age 9, Ertegun's elder brother Nesuhi took him to see Cab Calloway's Orchestra at the Palladium. "Then we went to hear Duke Ellington," Ahmet Ertegun recalled later. "It was an incredible experience for me."

The family odyssey led to Washington, where Ertegun expected to find "cowboys, Indians, Chicago gangsters, beautiful brown-skinned women and jazz."

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