Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, the maestro of music moguls who introduced the world to some of the finest blues, jazz and rock acts of the past 50 years, died Thursday, almost seven weeks after falling at a Rolling Stones concert in New York. He was 83.
Ertegun, who signed, produced and/or collaborated with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane and Led Zeppelin, slipped and hit his head backstage at the Oct. 29 Stones show at the Beacon Theater. He was put into an induced coma before being taken to the hospital. His condition had stabilized, but he remained in the coma and was taken off life support Monday.
Still with Warner Music Group, he held the title of founding chairman of Atlantic Records, the label he created with Herb Abramson in 1947. They soon were joined by his brother, the late Nesuhi Ertegun, and later by journalist Jerry Wexler.
A pivotal force in popular music whose artists were often revolutionary, Ertegun was a beloved figure who once was dubbed “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll mogul in the world.”
In the 1950s, Atlantic blossomed into a prominent home for some of America’s most important rhythm and blues performers — starting with Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker — and jazz artists (Charles Mingus, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman). Around the time the label was sold to Warner Seven-Arts in 1967, Ertegun was shaping the label as home for a new breed of rock acts, signing the Bee Gees, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills & Nash and Led Zeppelin, among others.
The son of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Ertegun was born July 31, 1923, in Istanbul, but left Turkey at the age of 2, spending most of his childhood in Berne, Geneva, Paris and London. He came to the U.S. with his older brother in 1934, moving to Washington, D.C. His father was Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. until his death in 1944. Both brothers were avid collectors of jazz recordings.
In the late 1930s the brothers were promoting jazz concerts for multiracial audiences long before it was culturally acceptable.
“We’d invite Ellington, Basie and Lester Young to lunch at the embassy and afterwards there’d be an informal jam session,” Ertegun once told the Washington Post.
Atlantic Records, the name taken as a contrast to Pacific Jazz, began as a one-room operation in New York with $10,000 borrowed from Ertegun’s dentist Vahdi Sabit and some additional funding from co-founder Abramson, an exec with National Records. At the time, Ertegun was still in graduate school at Georgetown, majoring in philosophy.
The first song Atlantic issued, on Nov. 21, 1947, was “Rose of the Rio Grande” by the Harlemaires.
Atlantic had its first hit in early 1949 with “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee. The brothers traveled to New Orleans in the late 1940s to look for talent and recorded Professor Longhair, which convinced them to incorporate the New Orleans sound into their recordings. Label’s session men could not re-create a New Orleans sound, but in the process of trying they created a boogie-based, sax-dominated style that was dubbed the Atlantic Sound.
Wexler joined Atlantic in 1953 and helped bolster the label’s R&B side; he also helped Ertegun buy out the two initial investors.
The label gained national notoriety through Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman,” a No. 1 R&B hit in early 1955. Charles would have 23 top 20 singles during his Atlantic tenure from 1954 to 1960. That Ertegun allowed Charles to record with his own band in Georgia instead of with session musicians in New York — the industry standard at the time — set him apart as a label owner and that m.o. would work well for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and other soul singers down the road.
Label’s early stars included the Drifters (featuring Clyde McPhatter), Ben E. King, Charles, Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner. Ertegun later signed and turned around the career of Franklin, who had been languishing at Columbia, and Pickett.
In the early 1950s the Erteguns started other labels — Cat and Atlas — acquired another, Spark, to use as the foundation of Atco Records and gave an indie production deal to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had written hits for the Drifters, Coasters and Elvis Presley.
In the early days of Atlantic, the already bald and bearded Ertegun was practically a one-man show, producing, writing songs and promoting the label’s roster. Atlantic struggled because many radio stations wouldn’t play African-American performers and many of the label’s recordings were covered by white performers who then had hits, “Sh-Boom,” “This Magic Moment” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll” being prime examples.
Most of the early recordings also were produced by Ertegun and Wexler; Ertegun even sang backup on songs like Joe Turner’s recording of “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”
His unerring ear also extended to songwriting. Some of Atlantic’s early recordings were written by him under the pseudonym A. Nugetre (Ertegun spelled backward).
One of his first pop hits came when he took over working with Bobby Darin from Abramson, who had grown frustrated with the singer’s first three recordings for Atco. One day in 1958, Darin thought he had written two hits and took one, “Early in the Morning,” to Decca; Atlantic got the second one, “Splish Splash.” The novelty number impressed Ertegun, but he had only allotted 90 minutes in the studio to record the tune. Darin became the white pop hitmaker the Erteguns had sought, branching out as a pop crooner and making a mint for Atco with “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.”
While Atlantic had a reputation for paying better songwriting and performance royalties than other labels, it was a royalty spat that led to Ertegun splitting with Leiber & Stoller and their young protege Phil Spector. Leiber & Stoller attempted to merge their Red Bird Records with Atlantic in 1964, but failed.
As popular R&B started coming from the Motown label and rock hits were either from the Beach Boys or British Invasion bands, Ertegun turned to the Rascals on the East Coast and a West Coast duo that had been under Spector’s tutelage, Sonny & Cher. Nesuhi, meanwhile, had moved deep into jazz with Coltrane, Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet, while Wexler was aligning Atlantic with recording studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala. That paved the way for Atlantic to take over the Stax label and its roster, led by Otis Redding, whose albums eventually were released by Atco.
In July 1966, Ertegun signed Brit supergroup Cream to the label and soon thereafter the label inked the Sunset Strip acts Buffalo Springfield and Iron Butterfly.
But in October 1967, while Atlantic was still trying to break new rock acts and see which stars it could bring over from Stax, Wexler persuaded Ertegun to sell the company to Warner Seven-Arts for $17.5 million. A year later, Atlantic’s sales hit $45 million and Wexler and Ertegun attempted unsuccessfully to buy back the company. Company was sold again in 1969, to the Kinney Corp., and CEO Steve Ross persuaded Ertegun to stay on as chairman-CEO of Atlantic.
Ertegun, after selling his interest, inked the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin, Derek & the Dominos, J. Geils Band, Dr. John and Crosby, Stills & Nash and made it one of the prime rock labels of the late ’60 and early 1970s. (Ertegun also persuaded CSN to add Neil Young to the band for a tour.)
Staying true to his roots in the early 1970s, he also signed and recorded acts that sounded nothing like the hitmakers of the day: Bette Midler, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway and the blues team of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Ertegun also inked and championed Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short.
In 1970, when the Rolling Stones’ Decca contract had expired, Ertegun and Mick Jagger hashed out a deal for Atlantic to distribute the newly formed imprint Rolling Stones Records. Atco handled distribution for the first three years, with Atlantic taking over from 1973-85. The Stones, who released “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” “Some Girls” and “Tattoo You” during their Atlantic tenure, also wanted the label to be used for solo projects and to sign other acts, but most of those efforts did little but drain Atlantic’s coffers.
Besides setting up the Stones deal, Ertegun also financed a label to be run by David Geffen, Asylum Records, which quickly became the hotbed of Southern California rock with the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell on the roster. It became a subsidiary of Atlantic in ’73.
In 1990, Ertegun started to share his chairman job with Doug Morris, who orchestrated a number of acquisitions that kept Atlantic at the industry fore. Morris ankled in 1995, replaced as co-chairman by former Rush manager Val Azzoli. After AOL Time Warner sold Warner Music Group in late 2003, Ertegun was given the title of founding chairman, Atlantic Records.
Aside from music, the Ertegun brothers co-founded the New York Cosmos soccer team and were instrumental in bringing in soccer legends such as Pele to play for the team in the 1970s.
He was also key in the creation of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was inducted in the hall’s second year. The rock hall currently counts 22 acts that either got their start or hit their artistic peak while at Atlantic or Atco, the most of any label. (By comparison, Motown has nine and Columbia/Epic has 13.)
In 2005, the Recording Academy made Ertegun the first person honored at the President’s Merit Award Salute to Industry Icons. The Library of Congress honored him in 2000 as a living legend.
He is survived by his second wife, Mica, doyenne of her own interior design firm, whom he married in 1961. He will be buried in a private ceremony in his native Turkey. A memorial service will be conducted in New York after the new year.
(Richard Natale contributed to this report.)