One of the greatest record men of his generation and a powerfully important figure in the development of R&B, soul, and rock & roll, Ahmet Ertegun was one of the founders of Atlantic Records, arguably America's most important post-war record label. Atlantic was a champion of rhythm & blues as it evolved from what was called "race music" and began taking its place in the mainstream, and when R&B spun off rock & roll, Atlantic was one of the few labels to remain on the cutting edge of both sounds through the '50s into the '90s. While popular music changed dramatically over the course of his lifetime, Ertegun remained a major player in the music business and a trusted ally to his artists up until his death in 2006.
Ertegun was born in Istanbul, Turkey on July 31, 1923. His father, Mehmet Munir, was a highly influential political figure in his native land, and in the '30s he served as Turkey's ambassador to the Court of Saint James in England. Ahmet's older brother Nesuhi had already fallen in love with American music when he learned that Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington would be playing a concert at the London Palladium; nine-year-old Ahmet tagged along and was quickly mesmerized by the sounds of authentic jazz. In 1934, Ertegun's family relocated to Washington, D.C. when Munir was named the Turkish ambassador to the United States. Ahmet and Nesuhi became regular patrons at Washington D.C.'s Howard Theater, where the leading jazz and blues stars of the day performed, and they began amassing a large collection of 78s. In 1940, Ahmet became a student at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, and with Nesuhi's help he began staging jazz concerts on campus; they insisted that the performances be racially integrated, and they were held at the campus' Jewish Community Center, the only venue willing to host both black and white patrons. After Munir died in 1944, Ahmet and Nesuhi opted to stay in the United States, and while Ahmet pursued a graduate course in medieval philosophy at Georgetown University, his principle interest remained in music. In 1946, Ahmet and some friends launched two independent record labels, Quality and Jubilee, which failed to get off the ground. After one of his partners walked away from the enterprise, Ahmet persuaded a family friend, dentist Dr. Vahdi Sabit, to put up the $10,000 he and Herb Abramson needed to start a new label, and in 1947, Atlantic Records was born.
In 1949, after a shaky start, Atlantic scored its first hit with "Drinkin' Wine Spo-De-O-Dee" by Sticks McGhee, and they signed their first consistent hitmaker that same year, Ruth Brown. Atlantic soon added Big Joe Turner and the Clovers to their roster, and in 1952, they signed Ray Charles; Ertegun, who wrote songs under the pseudonym A. Nugetre, penned one of Charles' first hits for Atlantic, "Mess Around," as well as several top sellers for Brown and Turner. In 1953, Herb Abramson joined the Army, and Jerry Wexler, a producer and A&R man who had joined the term "rhythm & blues" during a stint working at Billboard Magazine, came aboard in his absence. Together, Ertegun and Wexler turned a successful independent label into one of music's biggest success stories, thanks to Wexler's keen studio skills, Ertegun's business acumen, and the near infallible ear for talent that they shared.
In 1955, Abramson returned to Atlantic after completing his hitch in the Army, and he was put in charge of Atco Records, a new subsidiary that would focus on the sounds Ertegun called "cat music," uptempo music that appealed to young (and increasingly white) listeners. With a year or two, no one was calling it "cat music" as rock & roll became the accepted description. Atco began enjoying a long strong of hits with the Coasters, and the label expanded its base further when Nesuhi came to Atlantic to head up their jazz division, where his signings included John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Charles Mingus. Atlantic also demonstrated they could market more pop-oriented music with Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash," but R&B continued to be the label's calling card. In 1958, Abramson left the label, and Ertegun and Wexler bought out Dr. Sabit (his $10,000 investment returned him over $2.5 million), making the two men the sole owners of the label.
As the '50s gave way to the '60s and R&B matured into soul music, Atlantic entered its golden age; while the departure of Ray Charles in 1959 was seen as an insurmountable obstacle by some, within a few years the label was scoring substantial hits with Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, and Percy Sledge, and tapped into a rich vein of Southern soul when they partnered with Stax/Volt Records, bringing Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG's, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, and the Mar-Keys into the Atlantic fold. Ertegun and Wexler's masterstroke came in 1967, when they signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic after an unsuccessful run at Columbia. Franklin's first single for Atlantic, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," was a smash and not only jumpstarted her career, but proved Atlantic could succeed where one of America's biggest labels had fumbled.
As they became one of America's strongest labels for soul, R&B, and jazz, Ertegun began expanding the label's roster of white rock acts and hit paydirt with Sonny & Cher, the Rascals, Cream, and Buffalo Springfield. Ertegun's two greatest coups in rock came first in 1969, when on the advice of Dusty Springfield he signed a new hard rock act called Led Zeppelin, and in 1971, when after ending a long and contentious relationship with the British Decca label, the Rolling Stones chose to start their own label and Ertegun signed them to a manufacturing and distribution deal with Atlantic.
In 1967, Wexler and Nesuhi began to question Atlantic's long-term stability after several large independent R&B labels began having serious financial troubles, and at their urging, Ahmet agreed to sell Atlantic Records. Warner Bros.-Seven Arts paid $17.5 million for the company, with the money divided among the three principles; Ahmet then shrewdly announced they intended to leave their management positions when their contracts ran out, and the label's new owners opted to hire them back, allowing them to continue to profit from the label after earning a healthy windfall. Ahmet, well known for his luxurious lifestyle and large circle of celebrity friends, continued to guide the label through the decade, assuming primary control after Wexler left the company in 1975. In the '80s and '90s, Ertegun pushed the label's focus toward rock and pop acts, including AC/DC, Phil Collins, Debbie Gibson, Tori Amos, and Stone Temple Pilots, but the label remained profitable, and Ahmet kept an eye on the label's historic legacy as one of the founders of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a major contributor to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a group that sought to help musicians recover unpaid royalties (though Ertegun's participation came after a public war of words with Ruth Brown, who claimed Atlantic had underpaid her for years). In 1996, Ertegun began scaling back his day-to-day responsibilities at the label due to health issues, and while attending a Rolling Stones concert at New York's Beacon Theater in 2006, he slipped and fell, striking his head on the floor. He was taken to the hospital and soon fell into a coma. With his family in attendance, Ahmet Ertegun passed on December 14, 2006.