Saturday, December 16, 2006

Death of a Music Man

Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, died Thursday. Although he was 83, he died not from old age but from an injury suffered when he fell at a Rolling Stones concert in October. Guest of honor at the concert was Bill Clinton who was celebrating his 60th birthday. Ahmet always traveled in the best circles.

I worked for Atlantic Records in the early 1970s as their west coast publicity man. But my experience with Atlantic goes back to the 1950s when I listened to 45s and 78 rpm records with their distinctive red and black, and yellow and black, labels: Ray Charles, the Clovers, Arthetha Franklin, Big Joe Turner. Ahmet, together with his partners, producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd, were legends to me, and I felt honored to meet and work with them.

Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi, who was in charge of the jazz side of the label, producing everyone from John Coltrane to the Modern Jazz Quartet, were sons of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. and grew up in Washington, DC, where they frequented jazz and blues clubs in the black ghetto when they were teenagers. Atlantic was started with a loan from their dentist and they recorded musicians in their business office after hours, pushing the desks back and bringing in a tape recorder to improvise a studio. In the 1960s, Ahmet recorded Sonny and Cher on his Atco subsidiary and signed British artists like Cream with Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees, and Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones made some of their classic recordings for Atlantic, and Ahmet helped put together Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

I remember driving around LA with Ahmet in a rented convertible, dropping in on musicians who had a song or a tape they wanted the man to hear. Always impeccably dressed, he was almost bald, wore a goatee, and his voice had a high nasal rasp that was unforgettable; it was less of a Turkish accent then a ghetto whine, and he spoke like a hipster. Ahmet cultivated "ears" and I was proud to be one of them, although I never discovered anyone that he signed. Peter Tork in his post-Monkees days was a non-starter. I tried and failed to get him to hear Holly Near, and when I sent a tape of Barry Mannilow's first record to New York it was rejected by an underling who said he was "not hip enough" for Atlantic Records. Mannilow had been Bette Midler's accompanist and she, making a name for himself in the New York bath houses, had been our most hip acquisition. Ahmet signed Judy Mayhan, a California singer with an angelic voice whom I worked hard to promote. She didn't make it but her backup band did. Led by Lowell George, they called themselves Little Feat. But they were signed by Warner Brothers, not Atlantic. I took Lowell to a wild birthday party for Led Zeppelin's drummer John Bonham, and I remember him cringing in the corner when Zeppelin's road manager Richard Cole started throwing guests into the pool, including me and George Harrison. Ah, the daze!

In 1973, Atlantic celebrated it's 25th anniversary by flying the entire company to Paris for a birthday celebration. Ahmet and Nesuhi were the hosts. Stéphane Grappelli played dinner music. I stayed up on speed for three days and went to visit Jim Morrison's untended grave at the Pére Lachaise cemetery with Ian Dove from Billboard Magazine. I got to know Wexler better during my five years, off and on, with Atlantic, and I was in awe of the talents of Dowd, a pioneer with four-track (and more) recording, whose career is profiled in a wonderful documentary, "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music." He could hear sounds from musical instruments beyond the range of human ears and blend them together beautifully.

The Erteguns, Wexler and Dowd sold out to the corporate giants long ago, but kept their hands in. Wexler, a homegrown intellectual who began as a writer and made his reputation with Aretha, lives in Florida and the last I heard he was still talking about music if not recording it. When I heard of Ahmet's death and the circumstances, all I could think of was: Way to go! I hope the Stones were playing one of their hits when he fell.

For more about Ahmet, read the New York Times story here.

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