Ahmed Ertegun: The Sultan of Atlantic Records

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I am fortunate to have bought a great Herman Leonard photo of Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday party, 1949, at the Down Beat club in New York City.  She’s singing in front of a classic microphone, and Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman are sitting in the table just in front of the stage.  If you look carefully you see a bespectacled man in the back.  That person at the bar was Ahmet Ertegun, founder and president of Atlantic Records.

Like many other great record industry impresarios, he came to American jazz as an outsider:  he was born in Turkey, then spent a decade living in England and France.  His peripatetic youth resulted from his father’s being the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, an important position considering Turkey’s strategic geopolitical location.   Like Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff who founded the Blue Note jazz empire (they fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s), they had an outsider’s perspective on the greatness of American jazz music that was often lacking in America.

Ertegun (1923-2006).  He died not of old age but from a fall while attending a concert.   He came from money, sometimes sending his Rolls Royce to pick up his artists.   His first American home was a mansion on Washtington’s Embassy Row;  houseguests included Cary Grant, heiress Barbara Hutton, and other celebrities.

He heard Duke Ellingon in London as a teenager and that sealed his fate.  After moving to New York, he haunted record stores like Quality Radio Repair Shop, which specialized in black music.    He frequented the Howard Theatre, and the Apollo in Harlem.    Legend has it that an underaged Ertegun once ventured alone into Harlem’s Plantation Club, somehow managing to get in, met trumpeter Hot Lips Page, who took him to an after-hours rent party where the great stride pianist James P. Johnson was playing.   It was a tea party—the slang back then–and Ertegun got his first taste of reefer.

Ahmet Ertegun produced remarkable records.  He loved R&B, producing classics from The Clovers, Laverne Baker, and countless others.  He signed Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding (who called him “Omelet Ertegun”.    He is a legend.

A few years ago a large coffee table appeared called What’d I Say:  The Atlantic Story 50 Years of Music. I also  just learned from the latest issue of Stereophile that there is a 2011 biography of the industry titan, The Last Sultan:  The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun.