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The Story of Atlantic Records: Ahmet Ertegun in His Own Words

He found Ray Charles, introduced Eric Clapton to Aretha Franklin, fell asleep on Mick Jagger: For last half-century, Atlantic Records founder has been hip-deep in R&B and rock & roll

Ahmet Ertegun

"Clapton and I went in, and he was dressed in one of these crazy outfits and had all kinds of strange makeup on his face. The moment we walked in the studio, even before I could introduce him to Aretha, she looked at him and went into this roaring bout of laughter."

RJ Capak/WireImage

AS A SONGWRITER, PRODUCER AND CO-FOUNDER of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun has participated in the whole of postwar popular music: jazz, blues, R&B, rock, heavy metal, disco and hip-hop. He was present at the birth of rock & roll in the late 1940s and 1950s, writing and producing seminal hits by early Atlantic stars Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, the Clovers and Big Joe Turner. Ertegun was also a vital figure in the evolution of soul – nurturing the careers of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke – and he presided over Atlantic’s explosive success in the 1960s and 1970s with Cream, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. At seventy-seven, Ertegun is still producing records for the company he started with Herb Abramson in 1947.

“WHAT’D I SAY: The Atlantic Story” (Welcome Rain Publishers) recounts the history of the company from its modest birth to its continuing success in a new century. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs chronicling the label’s life span. But the story of Atlantic is in large part the story of Ertegun’s own long days and nights in the studio, on the road and on the town with the artists he signed, produced and loved, Born on July 31st, 1923, in Istanbul, Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat, is a rarity among record executives, a cultured man with a keen ear and warm manner who has established long personal friendships with many of his acts; and the tales born of those relationships form the heart of What’d I Say. Also featured in the book are the voices of Ertegun’s closest associates at Atlantic – among them, his late brother, Nesuhi, producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd – as well as Atlantic artists such as Keith Richards and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots.

But “WHAT’D I SAY” is told mostly in the words of the man Otis Redding fondly called “Omelet” because, as Ertegun recalls in the book, “he thought at first this actually was my name.” – DAVID FRICKE

1947-1952: DISCOVERING BLIND WILLIE MCTELL, RAY CHARLES AND PROFESSOR LONGHAIR

ATLANTIC’S FIRST HEADQUARTERS were in a broken-down hotel on Fifty-Sixth Street, between Sixth and Broadway, called the Jefferson, which was condemned as unsafe soon after we moved in. I had rented a tiny suite on the ground floor, slept in the bedroom, and the living room was the Atlantic office.

That first setup was incredible. People like Rudy Toombs and Doc Pomus used to come by and audition their songs. We would go in, set up, work with the various engineers, and in this way between the 21st of November and 29th of December [in 1947] we recorded 65 tracks. Our first releases, in 1948, were four singles by Tiny Grimes, Eddie Safranski, Joe Morris and Melrose Colbert.

I had collected records by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell – a lot of the early blind blues singers. I was walking along a main street in the black section of Atlanta – to me this is the most incredible story of my whole career – and there was a blind man who was sitting on the corner of the street with his back to the side of the building singing gospel songs, with a hat in front of him for people to drop money into. I stopped to listen to him because he was playing incredible slide guitar and singing so beautifully. I handed him some money so that the fellow could tell it was bills, not coins, and he said, “Oh, thank you – thanks.” So I said, “Have you ever heard of Blind Willie McTell?” And he said, “Man, I am Blind Willie McTell.” I said, “I can’t believe it. You are?” He said, “Yeah, that’s who I am.” And I said, “I would love to record you. I’m from a record company in New York.”

We went to the studio that same day, but he only wanted to play gospel songs. I said, “Oh, man, but we wanted some blues.” He said, “Well, I don’t sing blues anymore, I’ve found God.” I said, “But you make great blues music – this is not a bad thing – if you could just sing some blues.” “Well,” he said, “don’t put my name on it.” So I said, “OK, we’ll call you Barrelhouse Sammy.” So we made some blues records and they came out under that name until after he died, when we released them with his actual name. It would have been criminal not to let people know who he was.

Someone mentioned Professor Longhair, a musical shaman who played in a style all his own. We asked around and finally found ourselves [in New Orleans] taking a ferryboat to the other side of the Mississippi, to Algiers, where a white taxi driver would deliver us only as far as an open field. “You’re on your own,” he said, pointing to the lights of a distant village. “I ain’t going into that nigger town.” Abandoned, we trudged across the field, lit only by the light of a crescent moon. The closer we came, the more distinct the sound of distant music – some big rocking band, the rhythm exciting us and pushing us on.

Finally we came upon a nightclub – or rather a shack – which, like an animated cartoon, appeared to be expanding and deflating with the pulsation of the beat. A big man at the door barred our way and told us we couldn’t go in. I was going to say, “We’re from Atlantic Records,” but then I remembered that hardly anyone had even heard of Atlantic, so I said, “We’re from Life magazine.” And he said, “Oh really?” I said, “Yeah – and we’ve come to hear Professor Longhair.” So the guy said, “Well, I don’t think you should be coming in here.” So I said, “Well, just put us in a corner, hide us, we want to hear the music.” I mean it was blaring out of there – drums, a mike on the piano and on the vocals. The place was packed, people hanging out of the windows and everything. Finally the guy on the door said, “OK, I can put you right behind the bandstand.” I said, “Fine – put us anywhere, it doesn’t matter.”

So he walked us in, and a lot of people actually scattered because they figured the law had arrived. We were put in a corner, and I was amazed to see that there wasn’t a full band, there wasn’t even a drummer, there was only a single musician – Professor Longhair. He was using the upright piano as both keyboard and bass drum, pounding a kick plate with his right foot to keep time, playing two and four against the thing, creating these weird, wide harmonies and singing in the open-throated style of the blues shouters of old. “My God!” I said to Herb. “We’ve discovered a primitive genius.” I’d never heard music like that, and I’ve never to this day heard anybody else play the piano quite like that.

So after the set he came over, and I said, “You know what, you’re going to be recording for Atlantic Records.” So he said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I signed with Mercury last week.” Then he added, “But I signed with them as Roeland Byrd. With you, I can be Professor Longhair.”

In 1952, we signed up a man who was going to become one of the most important people in the history and development of Atlantic Records. One evening I was over at Herb and Miriam Abramson’s house when they said, “We’ve got to play you this,” and they put on a record of Ray Charles. I said, “My God – he’s fabulous!” Ray was on a California label by the name of Swingtime, which was owned by Jack Lauderdale. At that time, I had a friend named Billy Shaw, who was an agent who booked a lot of R&B talent. Finally, he said to me, “Look, why don’t you record him? I would be able to book him if you made some good records.” I said, “I guarantee we’ll make great records with him – how do I get him?” He said, “You buy his contract. Lauderdale is ready to sell. He wants $2,500.” I said, “Done deal.” So we bought Ray Charles for $2,500.

I wrote “Mess Around” for him. A lot of fuss has been made about my singing this song to Ray so that he could memorize it and get the offbeat. We were just running through it, that’s all. What was incredible about that session was that although Ray, I’m sure, knew about boogie-woogie piano playing, he had not at that time heard Cow Cow Davenport, one of the pioneers of that style. So in explaining “Mess Around,” I was trying to put across to Ray the very precise phrasing of Cow Cow Davenport, when he suddenly said, “I know that,” and began to play the most incredible example of that style of piano playing I’ve ever heard. It was like witnessing Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious in action – as if this great artist had somehow plugged in and become a channel for a whole culture that just came pouring through him.

1953-1965: BOBBY DARIN, PHIL SPECTOR AND SOLOMON BURKE’S MAGIC POPCORN

I HIRED PHIL SPECTOR AS MY ASSISTANT, because I thought he was a very hot, terrific kid. He must have been about twenty years old then and he really was crazy, but charming, superintelligent and extremely talented. One day I was going up to see Bobby Darin, and I said to Phil, “Come on, we’ll both go.” Bobby had a huge, great mansion and was really living the Hollywood life. We had a couple of drinks, and eventually Bobby picks up his guitar and says, “I want you to hear some of the new songs I’ve written.” So he starts to sing, “Jailer, bring me water/Jailer bring me water/Jailer bring me water/’Cause I think I’m gonna die/Jailer bring me … “

Now I knew that Bobby would play twelve or fifteen songs, out of which maybe one would be a possibility, so I say, “That’s terrific.” Then he plays another horrible song, and again I say, “That’s terrific.” After about the fifth or sixth terrible song, I’m still saying that they’re all fabulous. Finally, Phil, who I see has become increasingly twitchy, breaks in and says, “Hold it, hold it. Are you kidding? I mean, are you crazy or am I?! These songs are crap!” So Bobby says, “Who the hell is this kid?” And Phil says, “You can’t record this shit!” And Bobby starts screaming at him to get the hell out of his house. So a little later, I have to explain to Phil about a different way of doing things. A few months later, Bobby comes up to me and says, “Ahmet, you know I love to work with you, but maybe we need some new blood. There’s this kid, Phil Spector – do you think you could get him to work with us?” I say, “That’s the guy you threw out of your house!”

Solomon Burke was playing at the Apollo, and Frank Schiffmann, who ran it, called me up and said, “You know, we’re having problems with Solomon – can you talk to him?” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “He’s selling popcorn between shows, walking up and down the aisles with Dr. Solomon’s Magic Popcorn. We have a concessionaire who has the exclusive for popcorn in the theater.” So I called Solomon over and said, “Solomon, you can’t sell popcorn in this theater, they have a contract with this guy, and anyway, it looks terrible – you’re the star of the show and you’re walking up and down the aisles selling popcorn.” Then he looks kind of sideways at me and says, “OK, it’s exclusive popcorn.” I said, “Yeah, popcorn, hot dogs, they’re exclusive.” He says, “Have they got a pork-chop-sandwich concession?” I said, “I don’t think so.” The next thing I know, he’s got a little hot plate set up backstage, and he’s frying up this food and selling Dr. Solomon’s Amazing Pork Chop Sandwiches.

The LATE 1960s: ERIC CLAPTON, ARETHA FRANKLIN AND “IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA”

ERIC USED TO DRESS IN THIS weird way at that time. Aretha Franklin was recording in our studios on Broadway, and Jerry [Wexler] was producing. I told Jerry I was going to bring Clapton in and maybe he’d play – nothing was decided. So Clapton and I went in, and he was dressed in one of these crazy outfits and had all kinds of strange makeup on his face. The moment we walked in the studio, even before I could introduce him to Aretha, she looked at him and went into this roaring bout of laughter. So I said, “Well, when he starts playing, you’re not going to laugh.”

There were a lot of rock & roll bands playing at clubs on the Sunset Strip. So one day I asked Dewey Martin, the drummer with Buffalo Springfield, which, in his view, was the really hot new band. Dewey told me, “There’s a band called Iron Butterfly which I think is great. They’ve got a fantastic guitar player.” That guitarist, Danny Weis, was creating a big buzz. So I went to see the band, and they were terrific.

The first record they made was quite good, but we didn’t think it was great. So we delayed it for a long time and kept saying, “We’ll put it out next month.” In the meantime, the leader of the band, keyboard player/singer Doug Ingle, kept calling me and saying, “Listen, man, when are you going to put out the record? I can’t keep the guys together. Please put out the record so we can work.” So we finally released the album. It didn’t hit right away, but little by little it started to sell quite a lot in the Los Angeles area. We ended up selling maybe 100,000 or 150,000 copies. So I said, “There’s something here, we’ll cut another album.”

So I went to Los Angeles to hear their new songs. But when I got to the rehearsal, it was a totally different band. So I said, “What happened to the guitar player?” And they said, “Oh, he quit right after we made the first record.” They ran through the songs, and I said, “This is terrible, I mean the new guitarist …” And Doug said to me, “Well, of course, he’s only been playing three months.” I said, “You mean he’s been with the band for three months?” He said, “No, he’s only been playing the guitar for three months.” And I thought, “Jesus!” But we had sold enough that there was a demand for another album, so we had no option really other than to record the band that was there. At one session I looked down at an acetate across which someone had scrawled “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” So I asked the guitar player, “What does that mean?” He said, “Oh, that’s a misspelling – it should read ‘In a Garden of Eden.’ Somebody must have got drunk or something and rearranged a few letters.” That was around the time that the Beatles and the Stones were going to India and so forth, so I said, “You know, we should leave it as it is. It’s a good title, it conjures up the feeling of some kind of Eastern spirituality.” So the final track was very long, and it had on it what sounded like a Gene Krupa drum solo. But I tell you, this record came out, and, man, it seemed like every college student, like the whole country went out and bought it. It became the biggest record that we’d ever had up to that time – with a band that was just learning their instruments.

THE 1970s: THE ROLLINGS STONES AND AC/DC

I ARRIVED IN L.A. EARLY ONE morning, attended many meetings and, late in the day, was informed that Mick Jagger wanted to talk to me. We arranged to rendezvous that night at the Whiskey, where Chuck Berry was playing. After several drinks, jet lag was taking its toll, and by the time Mick showed up, I was slowing down. Chuck was blaring away and Mick was sitting next to me saying, “The reason I wanted to see you, Ahmet, is because our contract is up, and …” – but by then I had dozed off. Someone kept shaking me – “This is important, Ahmet, wake up, wake up” – but I’m afraid I kept nodding off while Mick was saying how interested the Stones were in Atlantic, a label they had long admired. My insouciance served me well, you see, because Mick loathes pushy people. He loved the fact that I fell asleep in his face. He finds indifference intoxicating. The next day he came to my hotel and put it simply: “We don’t want to shop around. We want to be on Atlantic.”

AC/DC was signed to Atlantic by Phil Carson in our London office, and it took a little time to break them. The first time I heard them, they were playing at CBGB’s; we had just signed them, and I think it was their first American tour. I went backstage, and they were cocky little kids. They kinda put me through the ropes. They didn’t have any respect for older people. When they’d finished their show, they were all crumpled and sweaty, and when I walked into the room they all started laughing, and I thought they were laughing at me. I was thinking, “Jesus, they must think I’m an old jerk.” I didn’t realize that, hiding behind one of the band members, the lead singer was peeing into an empty beer can, since there was no bathroom back there.

THE ROOTS AND FUTURE OF R & B

THE MAJORITY OF AMERICAN music is inspired by black American music, by African-American music. It’s not African music, and it’s not American music – it’s African-American music specifically. There was always a kind of rap. It’s not just something that appeared out of nowhere. In the old days, it was called “rhyming Harlem jive”: People used to make up little rhymes in the way that they talked, a kind of hip hidden language. Louis Jordan did a little bit of that, on songs like “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” There are blues strains and blues phrasing in today’s hip-hop music, and rap music has become a main mode of expression, the strongest strain that there is right now. But it’s still an outgrowth of the blues, and blues and jazz phrasing, as invented by Louis Armstrong, continues to be a part of what everybody does. That’s what makes rhythm & blues and hip-hop music and dance music and rock & roll the most popular music in the world. It’s everywhere, and there’s no other form of music that’s been so strong.

THE ATLANTIC PHILOSOPHY

THERE ARE TWO THINGS THAT go into making a great record. First, there’s understanding an artist – what is appealing about them and where their fire comes from, and then letting that artist flourish. That’s perception. The other essential thing in producing a record is to bring to that artist all of those things out of which you hope the magic will evolve – the material, the setting, the instrumental accompaniment and so forth. In the end, you have to move the listener to such an extent that he or she has to get up out of bed, walk ten blocks, borrow twenty dollars from a friend and run to an all-night shop to buy the record to hear it again.

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