He was best known as the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, and for discovering and championing many leading rhythm and blues and rock musicians. He also wrote classic blues and pop songs, and served as the chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and museum, located in Cleveland, Ohio. Ertegun has been described as "one of the most significant figures in the modern recording industry." In 2017 he was inducted into Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame for all his great work in the music business.
He was also a significant figure in fostering ties between the U.S. and Turkey, his birthplace. He served as the chairman of the American Turkish Society for over 20 years until his death. He also co-founded the New York Cosmos soccer team of the original North American Soccer League.
Born in 1923 in Istanbul, Turkey, to an aristocratic Turkish family, Ertegun and his family, including elder brother Nesuhi, moved to Washington, D.C. in 1935, with their father, Munir. Munir served as the second Ambassador (after Ahmet Muhtar Bey, his predecessor between 1927 and 1934) of the then-young Republic of Turkey to the United States of America. Prior to his appointment as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Turkey to Washington, Munir was Ambassador of the Republic to London for two years, from 1932 to 1934.
Ertegun's mother was Hayrünnisa, an accomplished musician who played keyboard and stringed instruments. She bought the popular records of the day, to which Ertegun and his brother listened.
His older brother Nesuhi introduced him to jazz music, taking him at the age of nine to see the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras in London. When Ahmet was 14, his mother bought him a record-cutting machine, which he used to compose and add lyrics to instrumental records.
Ertegun's love for music pulled him into the heart of Washington, DC's black district where he would routinely see such top acts as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Although he attended Landon School, an affluent all-male private school in Bethesda, Maryland, Ahmet would joke "I got my real education at Howard"—Howard University being a historically black college. Despite his affluent upbringing, Ertegun began to see a different world from his affluent peers. Ertegun would later say: "I began to discover a little bit about the situation of black people in America and experienced immediate empathy with the victims of such senseless discrimination, because, although Turks were never slaves, they were regarded as enemies within Europe because of their Muslim beliefs."
The brothers also frequented Milt Gabler's Commodore Music Shop, assembled a large collection of over 15,000 jazz and blues 78s, and became acquainted with musicians such as Ellington, Lena Horne and Jelly Roll Morton. Ahmet and Nesuhi staged concerts by Lester Young, Sidney Bechet and other jazz giants, often at the Jewish Community Center. In this period of racial segregation, it was the only place that would allow an ethnically mixed audience and mixed band. They also traveled to New Orleans and to Harlem to listen to music and develop a keen awareness of developing musical tastes.
Ertegun graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis in 1944. In November of the same year, Munir Ertegun died. In 1946 President Harry Truman ordered the battleship USS Missouri to return his body to Turkey as a demonstration of friendship between the US and Turkey. This act also served as a show of support to counter the Soviet Union's potential political demands on Turkey. At the time of his father's death, Ahmet was taking graduate courses in Medieval philosophy at Georgetown University.
Soon afterward, the family returned to Turkey to stay. Ahmet and Nesuhi stayed in the United States. While Nesuhi moved to Los Angeles, Ahmet stayed in Washington and decided to get into the record business as a temporary measure to help him through college.
In 1946 Ertegun became friends with Herb Abramson, a dental student and A&R man for National Records, and they decided to start a new independent record label for gospel, jazz, and R&B music. Financed by family dentist Dr. Vahdi Sabit, they formed Atlantic Records in September 1947 in New York City. The first recording sessions took place that November.
In 1949, after 22 unsuccessful record releases, including the first recordings by Professor Longhair, Atlantic had its first major hit with Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee". The company expanded through the 1950s, with Jerry Wexler and, later, Ertegun's brother Nesuhi on board as partners. Hit artists that recorded on Atlantic included Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, The Clovers, The Drifters, The Coasters and Ray Charles.
Like the Erteguns, many independent record executives were from immigrant backgrounds, including the Bihari and the Chess brothers. The Ertegun brothers brought a jazz sensibility (and many jazz artists) into R&B, successfully combining blues and jazz styles from around the country. Atlantic helped challenge the primacy of the major labels of the time by discovering, developing, and nurturing new talent. It became the premier rhythm and blues label in a few years and, with the help of innovative engineer/producer Tom Dowd, set new standards in producing high-quality recordings. In 1957 Atlantic was among the first labels to record in stereo, and in 1958 introduced 4-track and later, 8-track taped multitrack recording.
Ertegun himself wrote a number of classic blues songs, including "Chains of Love" and "Sweet Sixteen", under the pseudonym "A. Nugetre" ("Ertegun" backwards). The songs were given expression first by Big Joe Turner and continued in B.B. King's repertoire. "Chains of Love" was a popular hit for Pat Boone. He also wrote the Ray Charles hit "Mess Around", with lyrics that drew heavily on "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie". He was briefly listed as "Nuggy" in the credits before changing to "A. Nugetre". Ertegun was part of the shouting choral group on Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll", along with Wexler and songwriter Jesse Stone. He also wrote "Ting A Ling", a 1956 hit for The Clovers that was covered by Buddy Holly. "Fool, Fool, Fool", another Clovers song was a hit for Kay Starr. His "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" was recorded by Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, and in an international version by Adriano Celentano.
The lyrics of "Lovey Dovey" by the Clovers were used to a different tune by Steve Miller in his hit "The Joker". Other Nugetre rhythm and blues hits include "Whatcha Gonna Do" by The Drifters, "Wild, Wild Young Men" by Ruth Brown, Ray Charles's "Heartbreaker", "Middle of the Night" by The Clovers, "Ti-Ri-Lee" by Big Joe Turner, and "Story of My Love" by LaVern Baker. All of these were originally recorded for Atlantic Records. He also wrote "Missä Olit Silloin (Dawn in Ankara)" for Finnish singer Irina Milan as Ahmet Ertegun.
On 6 January 1953 Ertegun married Jan Holm (née Enstam), a Swedish-American actress, fashion model, and set designer, who was the daughter of Carl Enstam and the former wife of Walter Rathbun. She and Ertegun had no children and divorced in about 1956.
In 1961 he married Ioana Maria "Mica" Grecianu, the former wife of Stefan Grecianu and a daughter of Gheorghe Banu, a Romanian doctor and statesman. Mica later became a well-known interior designer, a co-founder of the decorating firm MAC II. The couple had no children.
In the 1960s, Atlantic, often in partnerships with local labels like Stax Records in Memphis, helped to develop the growth of soul music, with artists such as Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Ertegun helped introduce America to The Rascals when he discovered the group at a Westhampton nightclub in 1965 and signed them to Atlantic. They went on to chart 13 Top 40 singles in four years and were elected to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Ertegun heard Led Zeppelin's demo and knew they would be a smash hit after hearing the first few songs, and quickly signed them. Atlantic Records also held the rights to recordings by Stephen Stills and, after negotiating with David Geffen who, in turn was negotiating with Clive Davis at Columbia Records to transfer the rights to David Crosby and Graham Nash to Atlantic Records, he signed Crosby, Stills and Nash and convinced the trio to allow Neil Young to join them on one of their tours, thereby founding Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Ertegun initially had no desire to sell Atlantic, but his partner Jerry Wexler was nervous about the label's future and after convincing Ertegun's brother Nesuhi of his position, Ertegun eventually conceded and they sold Atlantic to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1967 for $17 million in stock, although Wexler later admitted that, because of assets like the rights to the hit movie Woodstock and the accompanying record, the deal paid them less than half of what the label was actually worth. Wexler had seen the other 1950s independent record labels disappear with the waning popularity of rhythm and blues, and said only Ertegun's foresightful adaptation of signing white rock musicians turned out to be the basis of Atlantic's continued success. Four years later, the Ertegun brothers took some of the money and co-founded the New York Cosmos Association football (soccer) team of the North American Soccer League. They were instrumental in bringing soccer legends like Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer to the club. They transformed the Cosmos into a "dream team".
When Atlantic became part of the Kinney conglomerate in 1969, and later part of Time Warner, Atlantic Records continued with Ertegun at the helm, and although he was less directly involved as a producer, he wielded considerable influence in the new conglomerate. He continued to produce some rock acts, such as Dr. John and The Honeydrippers. He also used his considerable personal skills in negotiations with major stars, such as when The Rolling Stones were shopping for a record company to distribute their independent Rolling Stones Records label. Ertegun personally conducted the negotiations with Mick Jagger, successfully completing the deal between the Stones and Atlantic, when other labels had actually offered the band more money. He took a personal interest in the progressive rock band Yes, and took a strong stand with bassist Chris Squire on the direction of the 90125 album. He encouraged Squire and the group to make sure the album produced a hit single, which it did with Owner of a Lonely Heart.
In 1987 Ertegun was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, of which he himself was a founder. In the late 1980s, with the support of Bonnie Raitt and others, he provided $1.5 million to help establish the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to award money to underpaid blues artists. The Foundation's establishment arose from a lengthy battle by Ruth Brown and other Atlantic artists to obtain unpaid past royalties from the company; other record companies later also contributed. Among early recipients of payments were John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Ruth Brown and the Staple Singers.
Ertegun received an honorary doctorate in music from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1991, and was awarded the Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1993. At the tenth annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Dinner in 1995, it was announced that the museum's main exhibition hall would be named after him.
The United States Library of Congress honored Ertegun as a Living Legend in 2000. With brother Nesuhi, he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented Ertegun with the first "President's Merit Award Salute To Industry Icons". He was also a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.
In addition to being a seminal figure in the history of popular music, Ertegun was also a prominent philanthropist dedicated to enhancing relations and cultural understanding between the United States and his native country, Turkey. As the chairman of The American Turkish Society, he introduced numerous American dignitaries, business leaders, investors, and artists to Turkey and garnered U.S. support for Turkey. Following the devastating earthquake near Istanbul in 1999, Ertegun was instrumental in the success of the Society's Earthquake Relief Fund, which raised over $4 million for Turkey's rebuilding efforts, particularly in education. Ertegun also encouraged the Society's education and arts and culture programs and made possible countless gatherings with prominent government and business leaders including Henry Kissinger, Turgut Ozal, William Clay Ford, and Rahmi Mustafa Koç.
After Ertegun's death he was succeeded in the role of chairman of The Society by Murat Köprülü. At Ertegun's Memorial Service, Köprülü stated that, "The Society will deeply miss Ertegun and honor his legacy by intensifying its efforts to meet the ever-important mission of bringing the two countries closer." In addition to his endeavors at The American Turkish Society, Ertegun funded the Turkish studies departments at Princeton and Georgetown universities. In 2008, the Ahmet Ertegun Memorial Scholarship, established by the American Turkish Society, was officially announced and is designated for music students of Turkish descent to study at the Juilliard School.
At the age of 83 on October 29, 2006, Ertegun attended a Rolling Stones benefit concert at the Beacon Theatre for the Clinton Foundation, which was attended by former US President Bill Clinton. Prior to the show Ertegun was backstage in a VIP social area that was known on the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang Tour as the "Rattlesnake Inn" when he tripped and fell, striking his head on the concrete floor. He was immediately rushed to the hospital after the fall (the Rolling Stones' performance that evening was captured by Martin Scorsese in the documentary film entitled Shine a Light). Although Ertegun was initially in stable condition, he soon took a turn for the worse. This announcement was made by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, during the band’s induction into the UK Music Hall of Fame on November 14, 2006. Ertegun slipped into a coma and died on December 14, 2006, with his family by his side, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center. In the Genesis documentary Come Rain or Shine, Ertegun is seen a couple days prior to his accident visiting the band (longtime Atlantic label artists) in New York in October 2006.
Ertegun was buried December 18 in the Garden of Sufi Tekke, Özbekler Tekkesi in Sultantepe, Üsküdar, İstanbul, next to his brother, his father, and his sheikh great-grandfather Şeyh İbrahim Edhem Efendi, who was once the head of the tekke in his native Turkey. At the garden were hundreds of mourners, including his wife Mica, members of the Ertegun family, Turkish dignitaries, and various entertainers.
A memorial service for Ertegun was held in New York on April 17, 2007. A large part of the evening was given over to musical performances. Wynton Marsalis opened the tribute with the jazz standard "Didn’t He Ramble", Eric Clapton and Dr. John performed "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee", and other performers included Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Sam Moore, Stevie Nicks, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Phil Collins.
Another informal salute to him took place in Los Angeles on July 31, 2007, the anniversary of his birth. The tribute took place at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Several of his friends shared anecdotes about their experiences with him and the assembled gathering then saw a special screening of the American Masters documentary Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built. Among those who paid tribute to Ertegun in person were: Solomon Burke, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Keith Emerson, Peter Asher, Spencer Davis, the film's producer (and longtime friend) Phil Carson, Taylor Hackford and event producer Martin Lewis. Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, came to America after a 20-year hiatus to attend the ceremonies.
The Martin Scorsese film "Shine a Light" about The Rolling Stones concert held at the Beacon Theatre in New York contains a dedication to Ertegun and Andrea Corr's solo album Ten Feet High is dedicated "To the memory of Ahmet Ertegun".
In honor of the barriers the Ertegun brothers broke during their time in segregated Washington, the current Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, hosts a series of jazz concerts at the historical residence on Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C. The “Ertegun Jazz Series,” in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, revives the brothers’ legacy of bridging cultures and bringing people together with one common objective: celebrating music. In that same spirit, Ambassador Tan is opening the doors of his home to residents of D.C. from various backgrounds – Members of Congress, Administration officials, academia, the media, business leaders, and others.
Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-off show in a tribute to Ertegun at the O2 Arena in London on December 10, 2007. It remains one of only four times the band's surviving members have reunited since drummer John Bonham's death in 1980 (the other three being the 1985 Live Aid concert, the 1988 Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert—which featured Ertegun present—and their 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). It remains their only full concert since their official break-up in 1980.
The band headlined a bill that also included Paolo Nutini, Mick Jones of Foreigner and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings who supported their acts, and additionally shared the stage with them. The show was held to raise money for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, which pays for university scholarships in the UK, US and Turkey. The show had been scheduled for late November but had been postponed by two weeks because of Jimmy Page fracturing a finger.
Ertegun's collection of modernist works is now housed at The Baker Museum in Naples, Florida. The collection includes works by Oscar Bluemner, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Werner Drewes, John Ferren, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Albert Swinden; Ertegun's alma mater, St. John's College, presented an exhibition of works from this collection in 2015.
Ertegun has been represented several times in popular culture. In Ray, the biopic of Ray Charles, he is portrayed by Curtis Armstrong. In Beyond the Sea, the biopic about Bobby Darin, he is played by Tayfun Bademsoy.
In 2017, Dorothy Carvello alleged that Ertegun tried to remove her underwear and groped her under her shirt at a public event in 1987. Her forthcoming book “Anything for a Hit” tells of her experiences.
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