Interrogating Ahmet Ertegun
The Atlantic Records founder on Ray Charles, Islamic fundamentalism, and his own hipness.
In 1947, Ahmet Ertegun, the 24-year-old son of a distinguished Turkish diplomat, borrowed $10,000 from his dentist and, with his older brother Nesuhi and another friend, formed Atlantic Records. Over the next 50 years, Ertegun would discover, sign, popularize, and/or produce Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding—who called him "Omelette"—Bette Midler, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Cream, the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin, the Coasters, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Roberta Flack, the Spinners, the Allman Brothers, Genesis, Foreigner, Pete Townshend, Stevie Nicks, Buffalo Springfield, the Blues Brothers, Tori Amos, and Phil Collins, among others.
Earlier this month, the 81-year-old Ertegun was honored with the first Grammy Industry Icon Award. He has also been depicted in two recent Hollywood films, Ray and Beyond the Sea. Balding with owl glasses, Ertegun is a dapper Buddha, wearing a starched white shirt with French cuffs and gold links. He carries a wood cane for a wobbly hip. While fielding congratulatory phone calls in his raspy, rummy voice, he talked about his twin passions: music and Turkish politics.
Slate: Congratulations on your Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
AE: Actually, it's called the President's Icon Award. I always thought I was an iconoclast. But now they've made it an icon.
Slate: You must have won a fair share of Grammys.
AE: I have a few Grammys. I already got what they call the Trustees Award.
There are a couple of Grammys I didn't get because they weren't giving [producers] them at the time. I produced "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin, [which] won the record of the year but there were no producer credits in those days. It was announced that I had produced the record and Bobby thanked me on TV.
Slate: How did the son of a diplomat end up starting a rhythm and blues record company?
AE: When I was about 8 or 9 years old, in 1932, Nesuhi took me to hear Cab Calloway and later Duke Ellington at the Palladium in London. I had never really seen black people except I had seen pictures of great artists like Josephine Baker—whom I spent a few days with before she died. And I had never heard anything as glorious as those beautiful musicians, wearing great white tails playing these incredibly gleaming horns with drums and rhythm sections unlike you ever heard on records. In those days, they recorded the drums and the bass very, very softly so it wouldn't break the grooves of the 78 rpm records. So I became a jazz fan quite early and never went off the path thereafter.
Slate:You had this 50-year relationship with Ray Charles. … What did you think of the actor [Curtis Armstrong] who played you in Ray?
Ann Louise Bardach has written the "Interrogations" column for Slate and is the author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington,to be published in April, and CubaConfidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana.
Photograph of Ahmet Ertegun courtesy Atlantic Records.