Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun, the Founder of Atlantic Records, Was Made Wealthy by African-American Artists

Obituary: Ahmet Ertegun

It was one of the curious facts in the history of modern popular music, that rhythm and blues and jazz - the sound of poor black urban America - were given a mass market by two middle-class immigrants from Turkey.

Ahmet Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in 1947, and his brother Nesuhi joined him later as vice-president of the company.

Along with his partner Herb Abramson, a native New Yorker, Ertegun developed Atlantic into a powerhouse of rhythm and blues, jazz, soul and rock.

Among the talents Ertegun was responsible for nurturing and developing were Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, the Coasters, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin.

Ahmet Ertegun was the son of the Turkish ambassador to the US, who, although born in Turkey, grew up in Washington DC.

He fell in love with jazz at an early age and, together with Nesuhi, later befriended many great jazz artists including Duke Ellington and Lena Horne.

Devil's music

Ahmet learned the recording business from Max Silverman who ran a radio programme playing new work from independent record owners.

His love of music extended to rhythm and blues and Ertegun could see a huge untapped market.

Black music in the 1940s was called race music. Blacks and whites were segregated and black music was dubbed the Devil's Music by many in the white community.

But the 1940s was a vibrant decade for black music as the sexually-charged rhythms of the dance hall were combining with emotionally-charged gospel.

"We had a good feel for where the music was going," Ahmet Ertegun said shortly before his death. "Our target audience at the beginning was the black audience which understood the music that they liked."

Atlantic Records began in a tiny apartment in New York City, and recorded some 65 titles within their first year.

But after disappointing initial sales, he and writer Jessie Stone, decided to head south to try to gain an insight into what the people there were listening and dancing to on a night out.

Ertegun and Stone realised that the sophisticated Atlantic output required more soul. They added a pinch of country blues to their recipe and had their first hit with Stick McGhee's Drinkin' Wine Sop-Dee-O-Dee.

Their first major star, though, was Ruth Brown, known then as Little Miss Rhythm. Her combination of rhythm and blues, blues and jazz caught the imagination and Atlantic Records became known as The House that Ruth Built.

In 1953, a writer on Billboard Magazine and soon-to-be producer, Jerry Wexler, bought into the company and, with the help of engineer Tom Dowd, the hits began to roll. The labelled hired jazz-oriented session men to create the "Atlantic Sound".

Jazz catalogue

Atlantic signed up other acts like Big Joe Turner, the Clovers and the Drifters. But their most important and influential signing was Ray Charles who was a major attraction on that informal black touring network known as the Chitlin Circuit but who had yet to sell many records.

Under Atlantic, Ray Charles was to become one of the world's biggest and best-known black performers.

Nesuhi Ertegun, who had married Marili Morden owner of the Jazzman Record Shop in California, also joined Atlantic as the third partner, and developed the label's jazz catalogue.

Nesuhi produced many of the great jazz artists of the day including John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus and Ornette Coleman. Later, he was to help Atlantic as a global company.

In 1955 came a disappointment that proved to be bigger than they realised at the time when Atlantic lost out to RCA on the contract for a young white singer named Elvis Presley.

By now, black music's raunchiness and feelgood nature was attracting a growing white audience and Atlantic was able to exploit the increasing popularity of so-called "crossover" artists, who appealed to both sections of society.

Music, in turn, made segregation harder to enforce as whites joined
blacks at concerts.

By the 1950s, Ahmet Ertegun would often produce his artists. He even wrote songs under the pseudonym Nugetre, an anagram of his name, including Sweet Sixteen and Chains of Love.

In the following decade, Jerry Wexler was responsible for bringing acts like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to the forefront of American pop as Atlantic rivalled the Memphis sound of Stax Records, a label it eventually took over.

In the '70s and '80s, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and Dire Straits were among the biggest names to grace the Atlantic label.

Ahmet Ertegun also personally negotiated with Mick Jagger to distribute the Rolling Stones recordings. Indeed, it was backstage at a Stones concert in October that Ertegun suffered his fatal fall.

Ahmet Ertegun remained at the helm of Atlantic Records even after the company was merged with Elektra and the Warner Music Group Corp.

In 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum announced that its main exhibition hall would be named after him.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/12/15 00:23:57 GMT

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