When somebody finally looked up from all the corporate mergers that affected the music industry, Ahmet Ertegun had become a demi-god, the one man in the tune biz with ears, integrity and a belief in supporting the artist. A businessman yes, but he was the one guy who could read a ledger sheet and write a tune, not to mention sign artists whose work would stand the test of time. Ertegun got his due in the last two decades of his life, and PBS’ “American Masters” profile dusts off his pedestal to make sure no one forgets about the important stars he inked to the indie label he founded in 1947 with a loan from his dentist.
“Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built” tells the Ertegun story in fawning fashion through a multitude of clips — Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Chris Blackwell, Bette Midler and others are seen in conversation with the man, and Midler narrates the docu with an air of breathless reverence. It’s the Ahmet story for the most part, but when it comes to a fork in the road, “Atlantic” loses focus; it wants to tell all of Ertegun’s visible and flashy life in the ’70s; chronicle the path Atlantic took after it was sold to Warners; and let Jerry Wexler tell his side of the Atlantic story.
Ertegun is as important a mogul as the record industry has ever seen. He came from a strict, well-to-do background as the son of an ambassador from Turkey; his jazz fanaticism was his way of railing against the system. Funniest story in the piece is Ertegun telling how, as a seventh grader visiting Manhattan, he made his way to Harlem, got into a jazz club, grabbed a date and went to a rent party and finally got back to his family after sunrise.
He parlayed his love of jazz into hiring top jazz players of the day to perform at his parents’ home in Washington, D.C. Following college, he refused to go into a family-approved business, and insteadcreated a label to record black American music. With his brother Nesuhi and partner Herb Abramson, they signed Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, and quickly had hits.
Ertegun unabashedly says he was the guy who knew what the record-buying public wanted. This sixth sense would lead him to Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Midler, Collins and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. His track record made the Rolling Stones want to work for him.
One fascinating tidbit does emerge: Clearly Ertegun did not want to sell Atlantic to Warner Seven Arts. As an example of how low a price they received, within two years of acquiring Atlantic, Warners had made all its money back from a single property — the film and soundtrack rights to Woodstock. Proof that the Atlantic execs didn’t always have their eye on the ball, there’s an air of “who knew” surrounding their involvement with the festival.
As is the case with American Masters, there are no dissenting voices and no honest-to-the-bone discussions of nefarious business practices such as payola or underpaying royalties to musicians. Atlantic Records played it cleaner than anyone else, we’re led to believe, and that is due to Ertegun. The music industry has never seen another champion of artists like Ertegun and the doc certainly drives that point home well.
But there’s a disturbing note at the end of the special that suggests the filmmakers were not completely paying attention. Steve Winwood is seen performing “Georgia on My Mind” using the Ray Charles arrangement at a concert tribute to Ertegun and Atlantic. It has become Charles’ signature song, but Atlantic didn’t release the record, ABC Paramount did. And if there is one decision Ertegun might have wanted to have back, it was allowing Charles to leave Atlantic and go to ABC Paramount, where he promptly hit with “Georgia.”
For a man who was able to figure out that Ray Charles should stop imitating Charles Brown, that Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page had commercial potential playing blues-based rock and that the Laurel Canyon was about to become the epicenter of 1970s singer-songwriters, he deserves a more truthful sendoff.