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Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary co-founder of Atlantic Records, died Thursday. He was 83.
Ertegun, who continued to hold the title of founding chairman at Atlantic Records Group, had been in declining health since injuring his head in a fall Oct. 29 at a Rolling Stones show held in President Clinton’s honor at New York’s Beacon Theatre. He was placed in an induced coma and hospitalized, and never completely recovered from his injuries. He died at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Ertegun was one of the driving forces behind Atlantic, which grew from a humble independent label recording jazz and R&B acts to one of the country’s top rock labels. The company helped develop the careers of acts as diverse as Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Ertegun will be buried in a private ceremony in his native Turkey, said Bob Kaus, a spokesman for Ertegun and Atlantic Records. A memorial service will be conducted in New York after New Year’s.
Born July 31, 1923, in Instanbul, Turkey, Ertegun was the son of diplomat Munir Ertegun. As a youth in London, where his father was ambassador to the Court of St. James, Ertegun was taken by his older brother Nesuhi to see concerts by Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, beginning his lifelong love affair with jazz. Later, as a student in Washington, he grew even more absorbed in the black music scene.
In 1946, Ertegun started up a small jazz label, Quality Records, with Max Silverstein, owner of Washington’s Quality Record Shop, and jazz record collector and National Records A&R man Herb Abramson. The imprint flopped, but, undeterred, in 1947 Ertegun and Abramson started a New York-based company, Atlantic Records; the company was bankrolled with $10,000 from Vahdi Sabit, Ertegun’s family dentist.
Atlantic began by recording jazz artists such as Joe Morris and Tiny Grimes; it wasn’t until 1949 that the label scored a major hit with “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” a jump R&B tune by Sticks McGhee, brother of bluesman Brownie McGhee.
Atlantic soon became one of the reigning R&B labels in America, thanks to a potent talent roster, some of it recruited by former Billboard staffer Jerry Wexler, who joined the company as a partner in 1952; its sure sense of what made a hit song, with many of the tunes crafted by such writers as Jesse Stone and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; and the clarity of its recordings, engineered by Tom Dowd, a one-time nuclear physicist and visionary technician. In 1955, Ertegun and Wexler bought out Abramson’s stake in the company.
Through the ’50s, Atlantic reached the top of the charts with a run of R&B hits — most of them recorded by Dowd at the label’s 56th Street offices, which doubled as a studio at night — by such acts as Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown and vocal groups the Drifters, the Coasters and the Clovers. Most notably, the label lured blind singer-songwriter Ray Charles away from the smaller indie label Swingtime; Charles’ gospelized R&B laid the groundwork for ’60s soul, and he became the company’s most reliable hitmaker through the end of the decade.
Ertegun also played a behind-the-scenes creative role in some of Atlantic’s hits, albeit a poorly disguised one: As “Nugetre,” he took writing credit on such tunes as Turner’s “Chains of Love” and “Sweet Sixteen” and Charles’ “Mess Around.”
Music mogul Quincy Jones called Ertegun “definitely one of the pioneering visionaries in this whole scene.”
“He was a very 360-degree person. He loved to have a good time. He knew how to party, which is my kind of guy, and he knew how to work. He knew how to look into the future and how to execute to bring it to fruition,” Jones said Thursday.
An elegant, urbane figure, Ertegun could hold his own with street-level musicians, hipsters of all stripes and Washington’s elite. It was an attribute that made him not just a marketer of black music but a part of it, Wexler said.
“The transition between these two worlds is one of Ahmet’s most distinguishing characteristics,” he said.
Ertegun once said: “We had some pop music — we had Bobby Darin … and we developed other pop artists such as Sonny and Cher and Bette Midler and so on. But we had been most effective that set a style as purveyors of African-American music. And we were the kings of that until the arrival of Motown Records, which was long after we started.”
Ertegun didn’t ignore his first love: jazz. Under the direction of brother Nesuhi, who joined the label as a partner in 1955, Atlantic built a formidable jazz roster. It recruited such prime movers of the post-bop movement as saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and had a fruitful relationship with the volatile bassist-composer Charles Mingus. But Atlantic also released popular albums by chamber-jazz unit the Modern Jazz Quartet and in the ’60s issued best-selling pop-jazz sets by flutist Herbie Mann and the team of keyboardist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris.
Atlantic also favored such noted cabaret artists as Bobby Short and Mabel Mercer and had resounding success with Bobby Darin’s pop stylings.
The ’60s proved to be a bountiful decade for Atlantic. The label established a distribution relationship with Memphis’ Stax Records, which brought such hit-making soul acts as Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs under Atlantic’s aegis. The company also signed Aretha Franklin, who had previously languished at Columbia Records; with sensitive direction from Wexler and producer Arif Mardin, she produced a long string of soul hits for the company. Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke also crafted major soul chartbusters there.
In the mid- and late ’60s, Atlantic became a force in the lucrative rock marketplace. The label signed such homegrown acts as Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash and brought English supergroups Cream and Led Zeppelin to chart prominence. Ertegun was the key man in bringing the Rolling Stones’ custom label to Atlantic for distribution.
“If Atlantic had restricted itself to R&B music, I have no doubt that it would be extinct today,” Wexler said.
In 1967, Atlantic Records was acquired by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for $17.5 million. Ertegun would remain on board in an executive capacity for the remainder of his life — in the process weathering innumerable changes of the guard at Warner Music Group, Atlantic’s parent company today. (Wexler exited the company in the mid-’70s; Nesuhi Ertegun died in 1989.)
In 1971, the Ertegun brothers undertook a nonmusical role: They founded the New York Cosmos, the glamour team in the fledgling North American Soccer League. Although the league was not ultimately a success and folded in 1984, it helped broaden interest in the sport among U.S. fans. Soccer’s biggest international star, Pele, came out of retirement to play for the Cosmos from 1975-77.
Although his activities in the later years of his tenure at Atlantic involved less hands-on work, Ertegun helped develop such significant acts as Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, ABBA, Foreigner and Genesis, among others.
He had a gift for being able to pick out what would be a commercial smash, said the late producer Arif Mardin, who remembered one session where he was working with the Bee Gees on an album — but was unsure of what he had produced.
“Then Ahmet came and listened to it, and said, ‘You’ve got hits here, you’ve got dance hits,’ ” Mardin once said. “I was involved in such a way that I didn’t see the forest for the trees. … He was like the steadying influence.”
During the past two decades, Ertegun was regularly visible on the dais at music industry events held in his honor. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; the Cleveland museum’s main exhibition hall bears his name. His honors from the Recording Academy included a Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement in 1993 and the first President’s Merit Award in 2005.
Ertegun was the subject of a 1990 biography, “Music Man: Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records, and the Triumph of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” by Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie. He offered his own version of the label’s history in the lavish 2002 coffee table book “What’d I Say: The Atlantic Story.”
He was portrayed by Curtis Armstrong in “Ray,” Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biographical film about Ray Charles, and Tayfun Bademsoy took a brief turn as Ertegun in Kevin Spacey’s 2004 Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea.”
“He cared first and foremost about the artist and the music — much more than the business,” Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates said. “He believed that if the artist was true to him or herself, good business would follow. Sadly in today’s atmosphere, this isn’t the case. But, during Ahmet’s days of influence it was.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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