Everyone agrees on one thing: Ahmet Ertegun was far and away the most important behind-the-scenes figure in Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Soul history. A visionary and true pioneer, his enthusiasm for Jazz and R&B was boundless, and his contributions to this art form throughout the last half of the 20th century are unprecedented. Soul, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Jazz, and even Rock ‘n’ Roll prospered under the auspices of his singular ability to spot, nurture, and produce talent as founder of Atlantic Records in 1948.
There’s an overused cliché about never seeing the likes of a person again. But there’s no other way of describing the void left with Ertegun’s passing. Whenever his name was announced in attendance at any music industry function, a standing ovation automatically occurred, evidence of the love and respect he commanded from people from all walks of life.
Shortly after disembarking in the United States as a young Turkish immigrant, young Ahmet fell under the sway of the Jazz and Blues that formed the rhythmic backdrop to big city night life. His lifetime dream would be realized when he founded Atlantic Records in 1948 (in partnership with Herb Abramson). Ertegun never looked back.
The list of artists Ahmet introduced reads like a "who’s who" of American music. The majority were black artists who would alter the way we listened to music, names like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, the Clovers, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Big Joe Turner.
The sound Ertegun developed at Atlantic was unique, incorporating elements of those Blues and Jazz styles heard in such urban centers as Chicago, Kansas City, and especially New Orleans. He possessed a God-given talent for knowing exactly how to tailor these various threads for acceptance by a mainstream audience without watering down their vitality and authenticity in the least.
Furthermore, Ertegun played a key role in directly fashioning the finished product, especially during Atlantic’s formative years when he also doubled as composer and producer. He also assembled the best New York musicians as Atlantic session players, and by 1954 the strains of Ray Charles’ "I Got A Woman" and Joe Turner’s "Shake Rattle & Roll" were starting to radically alter the popular perception of commercially viable music, and that, in turn, opened many doors for Rock ‘n’ Roll’s eventual emergence into mainstream acceptance.
Atlantic Records became the most successful Rhythm & Blues label of the 50’s, but equally significantly, it was at the cutting edge of the Soul music explosion throughout the 60’s and into the 70’s. In a complicated partnership with Stax Records, Atlantic Records through the efforts of Jerry Wexler (who assumed a partnership with Ertegun after Abramson was bought out) helped popularize such artists as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and of course, the Queen Of Soul Aretha Franklin. These artists would sell millions of records, ensuring that Atlantic would be one of the few independent label to survive that turbulent decade.
With the $17 million received in 1967 for the purchase of Atlantic Records by Warner Brothers-7 Arts, the Ertegun brothers (Ahmet & Nesuhi) now had the financial clout to sign emerging Rock superstars, like Led Zeppelin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The music was changing but Atlantic kept flourishing, and chances are if you’ve bought any titles during the last 50 years or so, several bear the Atlantic imprint. Ahmet Ertegun helped change the course of American music. Back in the forties, when faced with the alternative of returning to Turkey in the diplomatic services corps or staying in America and cultivating his love of Jazz, Blues and abetting their acceptance in unrivalled ways, he did not hesitate to make the wise choice. And for that, anyone who cares about music owes Ahmet Ertegun an eternal debt of gratitude.