In 1998, Yves Beauvais, then Atlantic's A&R man in charge of jazz and soul reissues, asked if I'd write an essay for a box set the label planned for its 50th anniversary. I said I'd do it, if I could write about the label in terms of how it reflected one man's vision-that man being, of course, Ahmet Ertegun. As I remember, I said he was a greater visionary than Sam Phillips and Berry Gordy--and I'd be glad to defend the statement today, because it's true. Ahmet's vision lasted much longer, for one thing, and it extended to a much more diverse body of music, for another.
The project soon enough morphed into notes for the anniversary concert program and then, if I remember right, just vanished-nothing at all ever came out, at least not with my piece. But it's especially memorable for me for two reasons.
The first is that, as I embarked on the piece, doubts about the premise crept in. There was Jerry Wexler, there was Tom Dowd, there was Arif Mardin, there was Nesuhi, Ahmet's elder brother. All those people, and a few more, were indispensable to the story. But when I went back and surveyed the story of the label, it was Ahmet's imprint on all of it. It wasn't just that he produced the first hits by Ruth Brown and Ray Charles, or that he signed the Rolling Stones and made the deal that gave the label Cream, or that it was his continual interest in black dance music, from "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" to "Le Freak" that sustained the label after that, for as long as it had an identity. (It doesn't any more but neither does anybody's else's label.) Others came and went. Ahmet remained, and as long as he remained, Atlantic had a unique focus on the world of music. It was all touched by his sense of elegance, raunch and grace.
The second reason is that when Ahmet read the piece-which I obviously wrote to make sure he'd know how I felt about what he contributed to music-he went to Yves and said, "This is good stuff. Maybe we should offer him more work and he'd get off our back about the royalty shit." Yves explained that it didn't work that way.
What I had to say-and say, and say, and say--about the disgraceful treatment of Atlantic artists on royalty issues irritated the fuck out of him. Once, a few years ago, we were in the middle of a splendid interview for the PBS roots music TV series. He told me the story of how he'd found Stick McGhee to sing "Drinkin' Wine," by calling up his friend Brownie McGhee, who said, "Hell, that's my brother." He told me about Nesuhi taking him to his first jazz concert, in London when Ahmet was 12, and how what impressed him most was how loud the music was, and how much of early jazz and blues recording was simply about trying to capture the physical impact that music had live. (I would not have written my latest book, about a career on stage, without that conversation.) He told a bunch of stories I've heard before and you might have too, about Ray and the rest. He told a hilarious story about why he didn't like signing singer-songwriters, which ended up with a French promoter refusing to book Sonny and Cher because Bob Dylan's incomprehensibly wordy show had bored Paris beyond further endurance.
He broke off in the middle of the interview to deliver a chastising lecture about how the business was in the old days. Basically, he tried to rationalize why Ruth Brown wound up cleaning windows and LaVern Baker ended up running a bar on a military base in the Philippines. Well, he didn't actually get down to cases, because there wasn't any justification for how those lives got lived, for what Atlantic did to and didn't do for its veteran artists.
The record business is a nasty place and the people in it have to create callouses where there should be none in order to survive in it. Thirty years ago or something like that, I wondered aloud if he'd miss Nat Weiss, his good friend, who was taking his Nemperor label from Atlantic to CBS for distribution. "He'll miss the billing," said Nat. Both of them laughed, 'cause it was true.
But when my wife left her job at Atlantic because she'd hit a glass ceiling, and wound up making more money in a job she hated, the situation was resolved by Ahmet simply walking up to her after an Eric Clapton concert and saying, "I think it's time that you came home." Later, when she got fired, very unjustly, he couldn't fix it but he did give her everything she asked for in the way of compensation (and I will always believe that he made sure that the jackass who fired her paid with his job not long thereafter).
I know how much Ahmet loved the music. In the mid-70s, he barely paid attention at various receptions the label held. For one of them, I made up some tapes of music from the label's glory days: Aretha, Otis, Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, Ray (always Ray), Drifters, Clovers, Coasters, Ruth, LaVern, the MGs.if you don't know the list, you can get the highlights from every other obituary. Ahmet came to the event that evening and he not only stuck around, he regaled a bunch of us with another great set of stories about making that music, hearing it for the first time, trying to get the world to hear it.
So the man wasn't perfect. But the music is. In the greatest era of American music that has ever been, Ahmet Ertegun took his passion and brought that music into the world-the whole world, not just black America, not just America, for that matter--and showed the rest of us how great it could be. The music lasted. So should his memory.
Fred Wilhelms writes:
As it will probably come as no surprise, I had a much harder time than most reconciling what Ahmet accomplished with what was done to artists with his full knowledge. I particularly hated that I had to essentially beg him have Atlantic pay benefit contributions to AFTRA for LaVern after her stroke to keep her coverage active.
This, however, is my best Ahmet story:
In 1995, I attended the R&B Foundation Pioneer Awards dinner in Los Angeles. As luck would have it, I was seated between Sam Moore and Charlie Thomas of the Drifters. Across from us was Ahmet.
Charlie was telling us that he never knew the Drifter's "White Christmas" was used in "Home Alone" until he went to see the movie, and that he never saw a dime of the license fee. I told him and Sam to look under the table at Ahmet's feet. They both ducked under the tablecloth. Ahmet, of course was wearing some gorgeous custom-made slipons.
"See those shoes, Charlie?" I said. "There's your "White Christmas" money."
They started laughing while their heads were still under the table. It caught Ahmet's attention. Sam looked at him across the table and said "Omlet, Charlie wants his shoes." Ahmet had no idea what he was talking about, and Charlie and Sam collapsed again in laughter.
During the evening, Sam tells the story of Charlie's shoes to Junior Walker and Lloyd Price. Both of them tell Ahmet that Charlie wants his shoes. By the end of the night he is completely befuddled by the people coming up and telling him that Charlie wants his shoes.
A couple months later, I had to call him to get another contribution made for Lavern. He wouldn't agree until I told him what the business was about Charlie's shoes. I told him. He didn't think it was funny.