Ahmet Ertegun, RIP


A key figure in twentieth-century music has died:

Ahmet Ertegun, the music magnate who founded Atlantic Records and shaped the careers of John Coltrane, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many others, died today in Manhattan. He was 83.

A spokesman for Atlantic Records said the death was the result of a brain injury suffered when Mr. Ertegun fell backstage at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on Oct. 29 as the Rolling Stones prepared to play a concert to mark former President Bill Clinton's 60th birthday.

I better get this out of the way quickly: Look! Another Clinton-linked death!

OK, here's my serious reaction: Ertegun was more famous than most people on the business side of pop music, in part because he was so memorably played in Ray by Curtis "Booger" Armstrong. But his significance is a lot larger than that.

Some people have a romantic notion that commerce and art are always at loggerheads and that the role of the music industry is to suck all the soul out of its product. And there's enough corruption, mediocrity, and protectionism in the business to give that notion some staying power. But there are also businessmen who really care about the music they sell, who go out of their way to nurture their artists' talents. There's a reason why music fans speak reverently not just of their favorite performers, producers, and writers, but of the enterprises that allowed them to flourish, from FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

Atlantic grew to be a lot bigger than Sun, but it was no less vibrant. If I was forced to choose between a world without Atlantic's soul catalog and a world without Motown, I'd throw Berry Gordy overboard in a heartbeat—and I like Motown.

Ertegun, who was a producer and songwriter as well as an executive, got his start as a record collector, not a record magnate. Everything I've read about him indicates that he was a genuine music fan; that he was interested not just in getting rich by giving the public what it wanted but in doing good by giving the public what it didn't realize it would like. Indeed, like any canny entrepreneur who loves what he does, he saw those two interests as one and the same. He liked jazz, rock, blues, and soul, and because of that, he helped give the rest of us a chance to like the music too.

And when he didn't like it, he might let someone else make the dough. Here's my favorite Ertegun story, from the critic Dave Marsh:

[Jackson Browne's] musical rewards are not always obvious—Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records famously couldn't hear it at all, even when David Geffen implored him to sign Browne because "there was a fortune to be made." "You start a label," Ahmet said, "you make the fortune." So Geffen started Asylum Records, and he not only made a fortune, his label, with Browne and the Eagles, became the center of California rock in the Seventies.

To sign Ray Charles, and to refuse to sign Jackson Browne—Ahmet Ertegun was a man with taste.