Saturday, December 16, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun

Dave Marsh writes:

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.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Tackling the News from New Orleans

Daniel Wolff writes:

Let's see if we can make any sense out of three of the top stories in the New Orleans Times-Picayune this morning. I think of them as kind of pincer attack -- maybe in the shape of a trident? -- that point out where the city's heading.

First, there's a story about how small many of the reimbursements turn out to be from the federally funded "Road Home" program. Title: UNHAPPY ENDINGS. You can read the whole thing here.

But the quote I've pulled is from the grown-up son of middle-class, octogenarian parents who received a letter saying the only money they'd receive for their totally destroyed, $200,000-plus house, was a little over $500.

"My concern is, the people we need in this city are going to say, 'Screw it,' and leave," said Alan Rubin, a Metairie resident who bristled with anger during a recent visit to his parents' ungutted home. "If they don't have time to do this thing right the first time, when are they going to find time to do it?"

We could credit these screw-ups to bureaucratic blunder, but it's also possible that delayed, miniscule payments are meant to do exactly this: residents say screw it, leave, and the new New Orleans gets built -- by developers, not homeowners.

From there we go to an article called: MILLIONS EARMARKED TO CREATE HOUSING. You can read the whole thing here.

Seems there's a fast approaching deadline for the city to use federal housing credits or lose them. So the city passed a plan to create housing, which includes tearing down the former low income housing units and replacing them with "mixed-use." That is, mostly middle income rental apartments with some low income units available. The effect of that will be .... ah, you'll see below: "get rid of concentrated poverty." Note the phrasing. Put this way, the new plan won't get rid of poor people, just poverty.

Clarence Williams, 40, a former resident of the St. Bernard development, cried as he told the housing agency his story. A former maintenance worker at Ochsner hospitals in New Orleans, Williams has found work in Baton Rouge, but he can't find an affordable apartment. He said he wants to move back to New Orleans, where he used to spend $40 a month for his subsidized apartment, but he hasn't been able to find anything for less than $800 a month. He said he has been forced to spend many nights in his pickup truck.

Williams said he doesn't oppose the creation of mixed-income developments, but he asked the housing agency where he is supposed to live if all of the public housing units are demolished to make way for them.

"I don't understand how a building can survive something like a hurricane and then you want to tear it down," Williams said.

State Treasurer John Kennedy said he also questions the wisdom of handing out so many tax credits to mixed-use developments. The agency approved about $56 million for mixed-income projects Wednesday, almost three-quarters of the total.

Kennedy said the agency was merely taking its cues from the Blanco administration, which has pushed mixed-use projects as a way to rid New Orleans of the concentrated poverty that has plagued it for decades.

"Will it work? If we ever get something built, we'll find out," Kennedy said. "But we have to do something or we are going to lose those credits."

Finally, in the same paper, an article called $15 MILLION GUTTING EFFORT GETS UNDER WAY to be found here.

Below the headline, it explains: "N.O. program to help seniors, low-income residents obey law." The new local law is that you have to gut, secure and maintain flooded homes. There are 9,000 homes targeted for gutting. You may recall that this was mostly being done by volunteers from agencies like Acorn and Common Ground. Now, the city's hired outside contractors to do the work for those who qualify under HUD guidelines. So, the city guts your home for you (if you're poor and/or old), but there isn't money to rebuild. The gain? See quote below.

Oh, and some of the money will also go to demolishing houses: the city has declared some 17,000 have to come down.

"It's good for the person in this house, and that one," City Planning chief Tony Faciane said, pointing to the houses under renovation on both sides of the one being gutted on Pauline Drive. "It just gives everyone else a little encouragement to keep going."