Ahmet Ertegun's Legacy.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 15 2006 1:26 PM

Ahmet Ertegun's Legacy

The Atlantic Records founder in his own words.

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and a major force in American music, died yesterday at the age of 83. The son of a prominent Turkish diplomat, he was born in Istanbul and raised in Europe—before founding a recording empire with his brother in New York City. Last year, he recounted the highlights of his career in a Slate "Interrogation" by A.L. Bardach, which is reproduced below. Asked what he hoped his legacy would be, he replied: "I'd be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music."

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.

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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?

AE: I'll tell you first, I think he's a good actor. I think Taylor Hackford wrote a very true description of the feeling that existed between Ray Charles and myself and made a terrific movie. However, you must realize that I'm not the kind of shy little guy as portrayed in the film. I don't care what the man looks like or anything but it should have been somebody hip.

At the time I went after Ray Charles, no one was looking for Ray Charles. Ray Charles had made some records but they didn't sell. In 1949 or '50, I heard "Baby, Let me Hold Your Hand" once and I said this is the most fabulous singer alive today. A booking agent named Billy Shaw said to me, "We have Ray Charles but we can't book him as a headliner. Do you think you can make hit records with him?" and I said, "I know I can make hit records with him." Now you must realize that I was the only one who thought so.