Ahmet Ertegun, who helped define American music as the founder of Atlantic Records, a label that popularized the gritty R&B of Ray Charles, the classic soul of Aretha Franklin and the British rock of the Rolling Stones, died Thursday at 83, his spokesman said.
Ertegun remained connected to the music scene until his last days — it was at an Oct. 29 concert by the Rolling Stones at the Beacon Theatre in New York where Ertegun fell, suffered a head injury and was hospitalized. He later slipped into a coma.
“He was in a coma and expired today with his family at his bedside,” said Dr. Howard A. Riina, Ertegun’s neurosurgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Ertegun will be buried in a private ceremony in his native Turkey, said Bob Kaus, a spokesman for Ertegun and Atlantic Records. A memorial service will be conducted in New York after New Year’s.
Ertegun, a Turkish ambassador’s son, started collecting records for fun, but would later became one of the music industry’s most powerful figures with Atlantic, which he founded in 1947.
The label first made its name with rhythm and blues by Charles and Big Joe Turner, but later diversified, making Franklin the Queen of Soul as well as carrying the banner of British rock (with the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin) and American pop (with Sonny and Cher, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and others).
Today, the company, part of Warner Music Group, is the home to artists including Kid Rock, James Blunt, T.I., and Missy Elliott.
“Ahmet Ertegun was a true visionary whose life’s work had a profound impact on our cultures musical landscape, as well as around the world,” said Neil Portnow, president of The Recording Academy.
It began with jazz
Ertegun’s love of music began with jazz, back when he and his late brother Nesuhi (an esteemed producer of such jazz acts as Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman) used to hang around with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the clubs of Washington, D.C.
“My father was a diplomat who was ambassador to Switzerland, France and England before he became ambassador to the United States, and we lived in all those countries and we always had music in the house, and a lot of it was a kind of popular music, and we heard a lot of jazz,” Ertegun recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “By the time we came to Washington, we were collecting records and we amassed a collection of some 25,000 blues and jazz records.”
Ertegun parlayed his love of music into a career when he founded Atlantic with partner Herb Abramson and a $10,000 loan. When the label first started, it made its name with blues-edged recordings by acts such as Ruth Brown.
Despite his privileged background, which included attending prep school and socializing with Washington’s elite, Ertegun was able to mix with all kinds of people — an attribute that made him not just a marketer of black music, but a part of it, said Jerry Wexler.
“The transition between these two worlds is one of Ahmet’s most distinguishing characteristics,” Wexler said.
Black music was the backbone of the label for years — it was Atlantic, under Wexler’s production genius, that helped make Franklin the top black female singer of her day.
“We had some pop music — we had Bobby Darin ... and we developed other pop artists such as Sonny and Cher and Bette Midler and so on,” said Ertegun. “But we had been most effective that set a style as purveyors of African-American music. And we were the kings of that until the arrival of Motown Records, which was long after we started.”
But once music tastes changed, Ertegun switched gears and helped bring on the British invasion in the ’60s.
“If Atlantic had restricted itself to R&B music, I have no doubt that it would be extinct today,” Wexler said.
Instead, it became even bigger.
A gift for picking hitmakers
In later years, Ertegun signed Midler, Roberta Flack and ABBA. He had a gift for being able to pick out what would be a commercial smash, said the late producer Arif Mardin, who remembered one session where he was working with the Bee Gees on an album — but was unsure of what he had produced.
“Then Ahmet came and listened to it, and said, ‘You’ve got hits here, you’ve got dance hits,”’ Mardin once told the AP. “I was involved in such a way that I didn’t see the forest for the trees. ... He was like the steadying influence.”
One strength of the company was Ertegun’s close relationships with many of the artists — relationships that continued even after they left his label. Midler still called for advice, and he visited Franklin’s home when he dropped into Detroit.
“He cared first and foremost about the artist and the music — much more than the business,” Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates said. “He believed that if the artist was true to him or herself, good business would follow. Sadly in today’s atmosphere, this isn’t the case. But, during Ahmet’s days of influence it was.”
His friendships extended to the younger generation, too, including Kid Rock and Lil’ Kim.
Besides his love of music, Ertegun was also known for his love of art, and socializing. It was not uncommon to find him at a party with his wife, Mica, hanging out until all hours with friends.
Although he was slowed by triple-bypass surgery in 2001, he still went into his office almost daily to listen for his next hit.
Music mogul Quincy Jones called Ertegun “definitely one of the pioneering visionaries in this whole scene.”
“He was a very 360-degree person. He loved to have a good time. He knew how to party, which is my kind of guy, and he knew how to work. He knew how to look into the future and how to execute to bring it to fruition,” Jones said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
Finding those hits were among the most wonderful moments in his life, he said.
“I’ve been in the studio when you go through a track and you run down a track and you know even before the singer starts singing, you know the track is swinging ... you know you have a multimillion-seller hit — and what you’re working on suddenly has magic,” he said. “That’s the biggest.”