One of the most influential and ground-breaking figures associated with modern musical recording, Ahmet Ertegun was born in 1923 in Istanbul, Turkey. His father, Munir Ertegun, was a distinguished legal counsel and diplomat for the Turkish Republic and served as Turkey’s official ambassador to Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom before being appointed ambassador to the United States in 1934. Ahmet, along with the Ertegun family, moved to Washington, D.C. the next year. Ahmet graduated in 1944 from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. Soon after the death of his father, the Ertegun family returned to Turkey, but Ahmet and his older brother, Nesuhi, remained in the U.S.
A music enthusiast
Always having an interest in music, Ahmet’s first exposure to popular music occurred in London at the age of 9 when Nesuhi took him to see Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. A lifelong fascination with music was born, and when his mother presented him with a record-cutting machine at 14, Ahmet quickly taught himself how to add his own lyrics to instrumental tracks. The brothers, fascinated by this wonderful and (to them) exotic music, discovered a record store and began assembling a collection of jazz and blues records which eventually numbered more than 15,000.
Atlantic Records was born
Quite by accident, Ahmet made the acquaintance, in 1946, of Herb Abramson, an A&R (Artists and Repertoire) employee at National Records. Both shared a love for the same type of music, and in 1947, bankrolled by the Ertegun family dentist, they founded Atlantic Records in New York City. Enjoying very little success initially, the fledgling label finally scored their first national hit with “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee in 1949. Atlantic’s hits were still sporadic, but as the 1950s progressed, the label continued to grow, both in employees and talent. One of the most significant additions occurred in 1953, when Jerry Wexler joined Atlantic as a partner. Wexler, who as a writer had coined the phrase, “rhythm and blues,” proved to be invaluable in spotting and recruiting new talent. During this period, Atlantic signed and introduced musicians such as Ray Charles, The Coasters, The Drifters, Joe Turner and many others.
Atlantic continued to flourish into the ’60s, a period which saw Atlantic at the forefront of the birth of “soul music.” Working in tandem with various regional record labels (most notably Stax Records in Memphis), Ahmet and Atlantic were instrumental in the discovery and recording of legendary soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Ben E. King and Wilson Pickett. Ahmet was also responsible for such acts as Cream, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Young Rascals.
Ahmet found Led Zeppelin
One of Ahmet Ertegun’s greatest legacies however, was his insistence that Atlantic sign a virtually unknown British band called Led Zeppelin and get them into the studio immediately. Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham) went on to become one of the most innovative, influential, and certainly most successful recording acts in history. It’s estimated that they have sold in excess of 300 million records world-wide, and have been called the “greatest rock and roll band of all time.”
Although Ertegun sold his part of Atlantic Records in 1967, he remained a vital and influential figure in the music industry. Brought back by Time Warner (who’d purchased the label) to oversee the recording division, Ertegun proved that he’d not lost his touch, playing a pivotal role in the label’s acquisition of another legendary rock group, The Rolling Stones.
It was at a Rolling Stones benefit concert in 2006, when Ertegun, now age 83, tripped and fell backstage, seriously injuring himself. Although he was soon announced as having become stabilized from the accident, he suddenly slipped into a coma, never to regain consciousness. On December 14, 2006, Ahmet Ertegun died at a New York hospital.
Nearly a year later, on December 10, 2007, one of Ahmet Ertegun’s greatest success stories, Led Zeppelin, who’d disbanded in 1980, headlined the Ahmet Ertegün Tribute Concert, held at London’s O2 Arena. For the Ertegun Tribute show, The band set a Guinness World’s Record by receiving twenty million ticket requests for the concert.