Music

Ahmet Ertegun, RIP

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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.

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  1. The Ray Charles Atlantic recordings are pretty much essential to understanding the last 40 years of music in addition to being unmatched. Take all of the parts of soul that you like over the last 40 years and distill it and that is Ray Charles. It is just the good parts. I would throw all of Motown over the side for Ray Charles alone.

    Don’t forget, Atlantic also signed Led Zepplin to an enormous contract before they had so much as recorded a note.

    Atlantic brought an unmatched level of technical expertise and musicianship to blues and soul in the 1950s. If you listen to say the Chess Records, they sound like they were recorded in a bathroom with a playskool mike compared to the Atlantic recordings.

    Ertegun was a giant of 20th Century Music.

  2. Jackson Browne eventually did become more than just a more boring and depressing Bruce Springsteen, so give him a little credit for that. Though, he is clearly less than a bug on the shoe of Ray Charles, and I’m not a big Ray Charles fan.

    Weird Al doesn’t appear to be too fond of Atlantic, at least regarding his “You’re Pitiful” parody.

  3. Along with his brother Nes, Ahmet Ertegun could officially be considered “The Shit”, along with their oft-selected cohort, producer Tom Dowd. Lost amidst the flurry of obits for Ahmet is the Atlantic Records contribution to the world of jazz music, including (arguably, I guess) the best John Coltrane records and undoubtedly the best Mingus ever scratched to vinyl. If there’s a God (and there isn’t), Ahmet and Nesuhi are turning Him onto their giant record collection right now.

  4. I’m still trying to add up who has a larger body-count: Clinton or the Stones.

  5. And some people have the romantic notion that commerce and art were not always at loggerheads and that the role of the music industry has not always historically been to suck all the soul out of its product. Sure there’s enough corruption, mediocrity, and protectionism in the business, over the last 20 years, to give that notion complete acceptance with respect to the way things have gone since the late 1980s. But there used to be businessmen who really used to care about the music they sell, who used to go out of their way to nurture their artists’ talents. There’s a reason why music fans used to 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.

    Hope to speak ill of the dead, but what has Ahmet done for me lately? That Stones concert had a lot of artistic merit somehow? I’m skeptical.

    If you want to find somebody who still cares about the art of music, the way Ahmet Ertegun did in the 70s before consolidation ruined everything, then please visit:

    http://www.farceswannamo.com

  6. “hope to speak ill of the dead” should have been –hate to speak ill of th dead– whoopsy.

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

    Comparing those two, there must be a “Doctor, My Eyes” joke kicking around here somewhere.

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

    I have been trying to parse why Clinton wanted him out of the picture since I had heard that he slipped into a coma. Really though, who stands to gain? I think Geffen may be the real culprit.

    In all serious, what a great man. We are richer for having had him.

  9. “But there are also businessmen who really care about the music they sell, who go out of their way to nurture their artists’ talents.”

    Please make the following corrections:

    are=were, care=cared, sell=sold, go=went

  10. Please, everyone always pisses on the current generation of music while praising the past. Frankly, with the exception of punk, I find most of the rock music of the 70’s to be utter crap

  11. First, I like both Ray Charles and Jackson Browne.

    I don’t think the fact that Ahmet Ertegun signed one but not the other establishes that he was “a man with taste”. If anything it showed that his ear for winners could be a bit tinny at times. I quote one paragraph from the New York Times obituary:

    “His instincts were not impeccable. He lost out on chances to sign the Beatles and Elvis Presley. But in an industry in which backstabbing is commonplace, Mr. Ertegun was admired as a shrewd businessman with a passion for the creative artists and the music he nurtured.”

    As Mrs. Mia Wallace told Vincent Vega, everyone is either a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan (deleted scene, Pulp Fiction). I guess she was wrong.

  12. I also like Jackson Browne and Ray Charles.

    For every Ahmet Ertegun who gave a damn and was an admiring, perfectionist consumer of his own product, there are a thousand record company execs and minions who earn the industry its well-deserved, general reputation for greedy, parasitic, cutthroat, tone-deaf scumminess. As a commercial radio DJ in the 1970s and ’80s, I encountered industry denizens of the latter type routinely, and can attest to it all. Ertegun may have been a diamond in all that rough (and by “rough,” I mean manure), but even his considerable contribution was not nearly enough to redeem the industry in the eyes of anyone who wants artists to get their due and fans to get true value for money. Will we see his like again? Given the current state of the music industry, CAN we ever see his like again?

    I completely agree about the technical quality of Atlantic recordings and pressings. The people running the studio and disc manufacturing operations were true pros. I enjoy listening to old Atlantic hits, in part, for their excellent production values.

    Some people are saying that Sonny and Cher and the Bee Gees were with Atlantic (and in that case, some have asked, why couldn’t Ertegun embrace Jackson Browne and the Eagles, too?). It is important, however, to note that those acts weren’t orginally signed to Atlantic, but to ATCO, which was the label that Atlantic used for its non-blues, non-soul, non-jazz acts, as well as several of its “B-list” and novelty artists, much as NBC Universal now spins off “genre” TV series to USA network or the SciFi Channel. That said, I really don’t understand why the acts Ertegun rejected at Atlantic couldn’t have been accommodated via ATCO. Maybe he was more into letting Geffen show his own guts and get his own glory. It all worked out in the end, as all the Atlantic “rejects” nevertheless ended up under the same corporate umbrella as Atlantic. Such are the ironies of the music biz.

  13. 1. My husband has pretty much every note Atlantic ever pressed to vinyl in his collection and there aren’t even many so-so numbers there. It’s either a real jewel or excellent. Ahmet, I’m drinking a toast to you as soon as I get off the antibiotics.

    2. Jackson Browne wins some kind of award for putting the bleakest lyrics to the most cheerful tunes. I suppose it’s sort of in the Irish ballad tradition, with dance tunes about the potato famine and British oppression, but still. Ertegun gets more points for not wanting to increase the number of people suffering from clinical depression.

    3. The Ghoulish Part. I suppose it’s just being sick during December — see above re “antibiotics” — but we’ve had Peter Boyle and Ahmet Ertegun die this week. Any bets on who’s third? (I’m getting better and I’m not famous, so I’m not in the running.)

  14. First of all, ya’ll can ease up on the Jackson Browne thing. I’m not a Jackson Browne fan, so I made a little joke. Obviously a lot of people do like Browne and that whole ’70s California rock sound, otherwise Geffen wouldn’t have done so well selling that sort of music. The point of the story isn’t just that I like Ertegun’s taste, or that I like it in this instance at least (I was wondering how long it would take someone to post that bit about Elvis and the Beatles), but that the market allowed someone else who had an ear for another sort of music to serve another set of consumers.

    And yes, the music business is sleazy as hell. But even if every major were utterly beyond hope, I could reel off plenty of indie labels run by businesspeople who clearly love music and want their artists to develop their talents. The trouble isn’t commerce; it’s a particular set of commercial (and legal) institutions.

  15. i wonder if Swift had any reason to know that it had all these undocumented workers around.

  16. Is there a more tiresome trope than “x rather than y, therefore he had taste”? Surely not.
    EVERYONE has taste. We only accuse others of lacking in taste when their taste differs from ours. And if that’s all one is trying to communicate, one might as well, post ‘neener neener’ and be done with it.
    So, not it wasn’t even a joke. Nor was it tasteless, nor even ‘classless’. But it does display an amazing lack of care or precision in the author’s thought processes.
    Bah humbug on it all.

    no hugs for thugs,
    Shirley Knott

  17. Is there a more tiresome trope than “x rather than y, therefore he had taste”? Surely not.
    EVERYONE has taste. We only accuse others of lacking in taste when their taste differs from ours.

    I must have missed the part where I accused Geffen of lacking taste.

    Anyway, I’m checking in to say something I forgot to add last time: Jeff P. wins the thread. Well done.

  18. Jesse Walker | December 15, 2006, 2:05pm | #

    And yes, the music business is sleazy as hell. But even if every major were utterly beyond hope, I could reel off plenty of indie labels run by businesspeople who clearly love music and want their artists to develop their talents. The trouble isn’t commerce; it’s a particular set of commercial (and legal) institutions.
    =============================================

    You could say much the same thing about politics in this country: the trouble isn’t politics; it’s the Democrat and Republican oligarchy, and the legal institutions that said oligarchy has established to protect itself from any effective competition. But right there, you’ve accounted for the lion’s share of American politics. The Libertarian Party could, for example, win thousands or even tens-of-thousands of local, “non-partisan” offices across the country, and still be counted as an also-ran, while the Demos and GOP continued to stick their noses into people’s everyday lives and vacuum out their wallets on a regular basis.

    Back to the music industry, my hat is off to all the indies: may they and their artists enjoy the journey because, statistically speaking, that will be the bulk of their reward.

    Maybe, in Ertegun’s honor and memory, we should identify the laws that Libertarians would need to repeal (or, I’d wager, the far smaller set of laws that Libertarians would need to enact) in order to improve the music industry situation on behalf of the artists, craftsmen, and consumers…?

  19. “Please, everyone always pisses on the current generation of music while praising the past.”

    Who does? This statement is about as true as monkey balls on Uranus.

    (Unless, of course, you are using “current generation” to refer to this week’s top 40 list versus Atlantic Records’s entire catalog, in which case I’d have to say, no shit, Sipowicz.)

  20. Should Jackson Browne get some props for giving us so many chances to hear David Lindley?

  21. Should I praise Ertegun for sticking with AC/DC even though they didn’t sell squat until “Highway To Hell”, or should I curse him for butchering their early catalog?

  22. Ahmet not only promoted and produced music, he also made it. He wrote “Chains of Love” and “Sweet Sixteen”, a pair of blues ballads so fine that they became standards in the repetory of not only Big Joe Turner, the Boss of the Blues, but also of B.B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy. And, by the simple act of reverse spelling, he came up with the pseudonym, A. Nugetre, which could hardly sound more rhythm and bluesy.

    And that’s Ahmet shouting out “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” in the background of Turner’s rendering of that classic, along with fellow record executive Jerry Wexler, and the song’s author, Jesse Stone.

    I don’t think David Geffen did half as much.

    On the other hand, he damn well knew that Led Zeppelin stole all those songs from Willie Dixon. The Leds knew it too.

  23. David Lindley did work with Jackson Browne, that’s right!

    I hereby almost forgive Jackson Browne for boring the piss out of me at an anti-death penalty concert at the Ryman in Nashville a few years ago. The bastard spent more time tuning his damn guitar between songs than he spent playing. What the f–k are techs for? You can’t f–king afford to pay a guy to tune one guitar while you play another? You can’t walk over to the goddamn grand piano and play one of the many songs that made you famous on the GODDAMN PIANO?!

    David Lindley is one of the most entertaining and talented musicians working. If you get the chance, go see him. If he doesn’t break out the Jimmy Stewart impression on his own, yell out for it. I can’t tell if he likes that or not, but it sure is funny to hear Jimmy Stewart swear up a storm.

  24. Ahmet (along with his brother and Jerry Wexler) are directly responsible for my all-time favorite music: the Atlantic R&B of the fifties and pre-Beatle sixties. Next time you hear, say, the Drifters singing There Goes My Baby, think of Ahmet and thank him for his great “ear”…

  25. While I applaud Mr. Merritt’s perspicacity, supra, I think he’s a bit too dismissive of Atco. It was, after all, the home of the Coasters, of Ben E. King’s solo work, and of Otis Redding’s prot?g? Arthur “Sweet Soul Music” Conley. This makes up for a whole lot of Buffalo Springfield, if you ask me.

  26. CGHill | December 16, 2006, 10:41am | #
    While I applaud Mr. Merritt’s perspicacity, supra, I think he’s a bit too dismissive of Atco.
    =====

    I wasn’t being dismissive, just telling you what the label’s intent and rep were when I was a practitioner in the slimy music biz. A great many things that were dismissed — or at least marginalized into “genre” status — in their own time were found by later generations to have great value. Your mention of the Coasters and King illustrates that fact. Atco also had Blind Faith, Clapton, and other music legends in their stable. I think the first time I was ever conscious of the ATCO label was one night when I was at a pizza party for the local cable TV origination crew in Modesto in the early 1970s. The pizza was Shakey’s Hawaiian; the music was Vanilla Fudge: The Beat Goes On. The label: ATCO. Good times.

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