Ahmet's interest in music began at a very young age after discovering artists like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington while living in London. Upon moving with his family to the United States, Ahmet frequently attended performances by icons like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald at The Howard Theater in Washington D.C. It wasn't long before Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi Ertegun soon became involved in the local music scene, organizing concerts and inviting visiting musicians to gather at the Turkish Embassy on Sunday afternoons to play together.
Upon his father's passing, Ahmet and Nesuhi chose to remain in the U.S. instead of returning to Turkey with their family. Ahmet worked at a local record store where he began to learn about the music retail business while finishing his studies at Georgetown University. In 1946, he partnered with friends Herb and Mariam Abramson and the owner of the local record store where he had been working to found two record labels specializing in Jazz and Gospel music. After the failure of these two labels, Ahmet, with the financial support of Dr. Vahdi Sabit, a longtime family friend and dentist, started his own independent label called Atlantic Records with Herb and Mariam Abramson in 1947.
"We started Atlantic simply because we wanted to sign a few artists whose music we liked, and make the kind of records that we would want to buy." - Ahmet Ertegun.
Atlantic Records originated in a cramped, ground floor office space in the worn down Jefferson Hotel on 56th Street in New York City. Ahmet signed his first major artist, Ruth Brown, to the label in 1949. Ruth scored major hits for Atlantic Records with the 1950 song "Teardrops From My Eyes" and "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" released in 1953. Ahmet began writing music himself under the pseudonym "Nugetre" due to a lack of interest from major music publishers in the early years. He penned the songs "Don't You Know I Love You" and "Fool, Fool, Fool" which went on to become hits for the Clovers in 1951.
Ahmet signed Atlantic Records' definitive artist, Ray Charles, in 1952. He encouraged Charles to pursue an edgier sound and inspired him to develop a playing style that would eventually define boogie-woogie piano and skyrocket Charles to fame. Atlantic Records quickly earned a reputation as a groundbreaking independent label, pioneering R&B, and jazz recordings by artists such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and more.
In 1953, Herb Abramson temporarily left Atlantic Records to serve in the military. Ahmet brought on Jerry Wexler, the Billboard writer who coined the term rhythm and blues, to assume Abramson's duties in his absence. Wexler quickly became Ahmet's close friend and critical part of Atlantic's ensuing success. The label moved to 234 West 56th Street where it operated as an office by day and a recording studio by night. Ahmet, Wexler, and a brilliant young audio engineer named Tom Dowd would move the office furniture out of the way and roll in the recording gear which included the third eight-track recording machine ever made at that time. It was here that they recorded numerous hits including The Drifter's "Save The Last Dance For Me".
When Herb Abramson returned from the Army in 1955 he was made head of the Atco, an Atlantic Records subsidiary label, which boasted artists like Bobby Darin and The Coasters. Herb Abramson departed Atlantic Records three years later after failing to produce any significant hits with Darin. Ahmet and Wexler were able to raise money to buy out their partners' shares of the business and became the sole owners of Atlantic Records along with Ahmet's brother Nesuhi. Ahmet took Bobby Darin under his wing and encouraged him to adjust his sound to appeal to viewers watching American Bandstand, a television show that had become immensely popular at the time. Ahmet and Darin hit the studio and recorded what would be two of Darin's biggest hits "Splish Splash" in 1958.
Success with Darin prompted Ahmet to pursue other, more commercial pop acts. Ahmet and Wexler recognized that Atlantic's audience was expanding to include young, white teenagers from the midwest. Popular artists like Elvis Presley were re-imagining classic R&B and Blues songs alongside old Gospel standards and the demand for Atlantic's style of music was skyrocketing. This was the dawning of a new age for Atlantic Records as Ahmet began spending more time in Los Angeles pursuing pop artists while Wexler continued tending to the R&B, blues, and soul music that he was more comfortable with. Atlantic's success provided Ahmet with the lifestyle of a successful record executive, going from club to club, drinking and dancing well into the early hours of the morning with famous celebrities, models, writers, and musicians.
With the 1960's came many changes for Ahmet, Atlantic Records, and the rest of the world. Ahmet met Ioana Maria Banu, known as Mica by her friends, and the two fell desperately in love and were married in April, 1961. The popularity of soul music surged with the dawning of the civil rights movement and Atlantic got busy releasing music recorded by Wexler and Dowd with iconic artists like Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin. Ahmet, meanwhile, continued pursuing pop acts for Atlantic Records, soon signing Sonny and Cher and rock act Buffalo Springfield.
At Wexler and Nesuhi's urging, Ahmet and company decided to sell Atlantic Records to what would become Warner Music Group in 1967. Fortunately for Ahmet, Warner requested that he, Wexler and Nesuhi still be involved in the company and Ahmet was able to negotiate a new deal on their behalf. In 1970, after a dramatic and intense courtship, Ahmet signed The Rolling Stones to Atlantic Records following the band's commitment to Decca. With the 70's came some of Atlantic Records definitive rock & roll releases from rock icons Led Zeppelin, Yes, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Cream, and Bad Company.
Jerry Wexler left Atlantic Records in 1975 with his protege Jerry Greenberg taking over his responsibilities. Wexler's departure devastated Ahmet who had considered Wexler to be one of his closest friends and business partners.
Ahmet was still cranking out hits at Atlantic Records with artists like Rush, Genesis, AC/ DC, Twisted Sister, Skid Row, Debbie Gibson, and Phil Collins in the 1980's. In 1983, Ahmet helped establish the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Jann Wenner, the founder and editor of Rolling Stone, Jerry Wexler, Seymour Stein, Allen Grubman, and Bob Krasnow. They approved plans for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum to be constructed in Cleveland, Ohio. Ahmet was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
In 1991, Ahmet received an honorary doctorate in music from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and was awarded the Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievements in 1993. By the mid 1990's Ahmet began to ease up on his official involvement at Atlantic Records. When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum finally opened its doors in Cleveland, Ohio in 1995 it was announced that the main exhibition hall would be named in Ahmet's honor. He was honored as a Living Legend in 2000 by the United States Library of Congress and, in 2005 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Ahmet with the first ever President's Merit Awards Salute To Industry Icons.
"I think it's better to burn out than to fade away" - Ahmet Ertegun.
In December 2006, at the age of 83, Ahmet Ertegun passed away after succumbing to injuries he had sustained from an accidental fall while attending a Rolling Stones benefit concert at the Beacon Theatre. Ahmet was buried in the Garden of Sufi Tekke in Istanbul alongside his brother, father, and his great-grandfather. There was a memorial service for Ahmet in New York in April, 2007 that featured special performances by Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Solomon Burke, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Stevie Nicks, and Phil Collins. Led Zeppelin reunited to perform at a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun at the O2 Arena in London in December, 2007. The show raised funds for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, an organization that provides scholarships to universities in the UK, US, and in Turkey.
I think it's better to burn out than to fade away. It's better to live out your days being very, very active, even if it destroys you, than to quietly disappear. At my age, why do you think I'm still here struggling with all the problems of this company because I don't want to fade away.“ Ahmet Ertegun, AMERICAN MASTERS Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built.
Ahmet Ertegun dedicated his life to supporting and promoting the artists who made the music that he loved. His impact on Atlantic Records, its artists, and the music industry is measured not only by his numerous accolades and awards but by the testimony of all those who knew and loved him, those who had the privilege of working and partying with the legend himself. From the rhythm and blues, gospel, and soul music that helped fuel the modern civil rights movement to the rock & roll, rap, and hip hop of the modern era, Ahmet has shaped the soundtrack for generation after generation.
Mural by Erik den Breejen: Ahmet Ertegun, 2014. 20 x 23 foot mural commissioned by Atlantic Records for their new headquarters in NYC. The image is made of painted lyrics to over 100 Atlantic hits spanning 65 years.