Ahmet Ertegun was a true visionary in the music business -- largely by being a fan of music. Although he was technically a "suit," he was a fan first and foremost. This fact defined his business instinct. Atlantic Records became one of the most important and successful record companies in history. From the beginning, if a record was graced by the famous Atlantic label and logo, the music within its grooves was bound to be magical. The Atlantic label remains a stamp of virtually guaranteed musical quality to this day. Atlantic's roster is truly mind-blowing, and it's impossible to list all of the artists here. Ahmet Ertegun's extraordinary career and the 60th anniversary of Atlantic is covered in 2007's fascinating two-hour, warts-and-all documentary DVD Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built. The documentary -- written, directed, and co-produced by Susan Steinberg and narrated by Bette Midler -- was first broadcast on PBS as part of its American Masters series, which is produced by Thirteen/WNET New York. The non-stop parade of rare and classic clips, live performances, and studio sessions from Atlantic's legendary artists will make even casual music fans' jaws drop. Featured interview subjects, many of whom reminisce with Ahmet Ertegun himself, include Chris Blackwell, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, David Geffen, the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, Foreigner's Mick Jones, Kid Rock, Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Wynton Marsalis, Paolo Nutini, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Jann Wenner, and Ahmet Ertegun's wife, Mica Ertegun.
It all started because Ahmet Ertegun and his older brother Nesuhi Ertegun, the privileged sons of Turkey's ambassador to the United States, were obsessive fans of black American music -- jazz and blues -- from the time they were children. Ertegun and partner Herb Abramson co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947 after securing a $10,000 loan from Ahmet's dentist. (Nesuhi eventually joined the company, too. He died in 1989.) In less than a decade, Atlantic was the leading R&B label and home to such stars as Charles, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, and many others. Ahmet was also a songwriter who often provided material to Atlantic artists. It's important to know that the Atlantic story has not all been smooth sailing. There were periods of struggle and uncertainty. The mainstream pop success of Bobby Darin helped the company survive. Abramson ultimately left Atlantic while two other legends became an important part of the story -- producer Jerry Wexler and producer/engineer Tom Dowd. What helped Atlantic truly prosper was Ahmet's embrace of white British rock bands weaned on black American blues and R&B, specifically Cream, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. Wexler was more of an R&B purist, and he didn't like the company's direction and left in 1975.
Ahmet eventually sold Atlantic to Warner Bros., yet he remained founding chairman and could deftly negotiate with the new corporate bosses and maintain a leadership role. But Dowd, who died in 2002, complains bitterly about executives who wouldn't know the difference between a bank note and a musical note. Atlantic was also part of the dark underbelly of the music business, as both prey and predator. During lean times in the '50s, the payola culture in radio was a problem for the cash-strapped company; pioneering disc jockey and infamous payola poster boy Alan Freed is skewered for his treatment of Atlantic. Yet by the late '80s, Atlantic itself was being cornered and criticized by classic R&B stars such as Ruth Brown for unpaid royalties. Not only was payola a stain on the early days of rock & roll, so was the common practice of withholding artists' royalties, particularly black artists' royalties. Ahmet would admit he felt responsible for underpaying royalties. To help right this wrong, recalculated royalties were paid, and Ahmet provided a huge donation to create the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Several interviews and performance highlights from the Montreux Jazz Festival honoring Ahmet in 2006 are also included. Sadly, Ahmet Ertegun died on December 14, 2006, at age 83, two months after suffering severe injuries when he fell backstage at a Rolling Stones concert. Without Ahmet and Atlantic Records, popular music as we know it would not even exist. Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built is a fitting tribute to a man just as famous and influential as the artists and the music he loved.