The Ahmet Ertegun story could have been remembered differently. Picture it: A suave foreigner comes to the United States and makes it in the record business by persuading urbane and sophisticated African-Americans to sound more primitive and raw. He makes millions as a "suit," which is the way musicians have derisively referred to record execs over the years.
Based on that sketchy overview, you would expect to hear that executive remembered as an exploiter of talent, another cultural colonizer using up performing artists as if they were diamonds ripped from the earth. But that's not the way the Ahmet Ertegun story ended, nor is that his legacy.
Instead, Ahmet Ertegun is rightly being celebrated on this day after his passing for his ability to tap into the rich vein of soul music - in all the meanings of the word "soul" - that existed in R&B, pop, jazz, and funk music. When he encouraged raw performances from artists on Atlantic Records, he was bringing out a genuine and dynamic thread in American musical culture: the electric, the wild, the erotic, the playful, the casual. The free.
Because that seems to be what Ahmet Ertegun found in American music when he came to this country as a diplomat's son: Freedom. His joy in the freedom he found, and his eagerness to share it with the world, transformed culture and music.
Atlantic Records was the Id of American music - the wild untrammeled spirit, that dark and celebratory place where life is driven by impulse and not by calculation. Pop music has always had its geniuses of the Ego, too, its entrepreneurs and architects of a more calculated creation. They also produced some great music - at Motown, in the Brill Building, and in the Los Angeles hitmaking factories of the sixties.
But Ahmet's style was different. He tapped into the subconscious, the libidinous, that secret seat of the soul. Soul music was his specialty, and "soul music" as it came to be known would not have existed if not for Atlantic Records. For many of us in those days, the highest compliment you could give to someone or something was to say it had "soul." It was "soul" as in emotion, "soul" as in authenticity, "soul" as in commitment.
But it was also "soul" as in the meaning of the Sanskrit word "atman," or "spirit": the great self, the true self, the transcendental self that embodies and transmits the eternal life force. "Soul" was all of these things. The music Ahmet Ertegun brought forth had this kind of soul. So, too, did the man himself.
Ahmet enjoyed looking for soul and soul music throughout what Stephen Vincent Benet called "wild America," and like Benet he had "fallen in love with American names."
In George W. S. Trow's masterful New Yorker profile, Ertegun takes great pleasure in telling the story of how he heard about the great Professor Longhair and sought him out in backwoods Cajun country. He describes traveling through the dark Louisiana night, crossing an open field by moonlight, entering a dangerous road house as the only white face in a crowd filled with drunken knife- and gun-toting dancers, hearing a heart-bracing set from the percussive piano master, and finally making what he thought was a life-changing and generous financial offer to 'Fess, only to hear:
"Sorry. I just signed with Mercury."
The 1950's? Ruth Brown. Ray Charles. The Clovers. LaVern Baker. Twin saxophones playing straight thirds, that most common of harmonies, yet somehow sounding fresh and new every time. Then in the sixties: Carla Thomas. Donny Hathaway. And especially Aretha Franklin. With Ray and Aretha, he had not one but two artists who each individually changed popular music.
And that isn't even taking all his rock acts from the 60's and 70's into consideration: the Rascals with Felix Cavaliere, as soulful a white act as ever existed. Cream. King Crimson. Led Zeppelin. But he'll be remembered for the R&B acts, for it was there that he created and promoted an "Atlantic" sensibility, one that changed music.
His legacy wasn't completely pure. As with many bandleaders of the time, some musicians felt ill-treated. Yet many of his artists adored him, and he was considered an "artists' exec." His signature on musical history is undeniable, and it is beautiful. Ahmet Ertegun, a stranger in a strange land, found the heartbeat beneath the skin of American music. He nurtured it, amplified it, and sold it to America and the world. As with any true artist, there is a through-line of vision and sensibility in everything he ever did.
Ahmet Ertegun was a "suit" with soul.
A Night Light