Elegance and Grit: Remembering Ahmet Ertegun - Rolling Stone
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Elegance and Grit: Remembering Ahmet Ertegun

I was with Ahmet at the Beacon, ten minutes before he went to the john. He asked me how my head was, after the bang. I said, “Have a feel.” Because I have a big dent on the left side, front lobe. He was rubbing it, and we were laughing our heads off. By the time I got offstage, I’d heard what happened. It’s almost as if I cursed him. So nobody else can rub my head anymore.

I can’t remember exactly when or where we first met. Ahmet sort of insidiously crept into our lives [laughs]. He was both diplomatic and down-home. He was very different from the people who run most record labels. I remember once Mick and I having a meeting with Ahmet. He sat at his desk with his walking cane, balancing it on the top of the desk. Mick and I are trying to have a serious conversation with him, but I looked at him and realized, “Forget it, we’re getting nowhere with him today, baby.”

He knew the meaning of drama. When he came to our sessions, it was usually with a bit of fanfare and some beautiful babe on his arm — he had a bevy. He wouldn’t say much about the music. You’d get little grunts: “Damn good. That’s the shit.” He wouldn’t want to interfere. But he had his ear on everything.

With Ahmet, you weren’t dealing with some hood or lawyer or shyster, which is quite often what you get in the record business. You were talking on level terms with Ahmet. He was intimately involved with what came out under his name.

Ahmet could also get excessive. He liked to hang. And I loved to hang with him, just to hear what came out of the side of his mouth. There would be these little asides: “Screw that motherfucker,” things like that.

He was one of the Stones’ father figures. I looked up to Ahmet the way I did Muddy Waters. Until the day he died, his whole thing was to be involved with musicians. His love of the music, his joy from it, stayed with him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been backstage at the Beacon a couple of weeks ago. It was full circle. And that touches me.

The first time I met Ahmet, I didn’t really meet him. I was doing a showcase in Los Angeles that Atlantic hooked up. Nobody watched us — people were all talking and sucking their own dicks. But Ahmet stood right there in front. He watched the whole show. He got it. The next day he called me and said, “How’s my young Elvis?”

That’s when we started kickin’ it. I’d see him at the Peninsula in New York, and we’d just hang out. Then, one day, I called him and said, “Do you want to come to Detroit and listen to some music?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll get an airplane.” There was no beating around the bush with Ahmet. We flew to Detroit, ate some barbecue pork sandwiches and listened to music. That’s what he loved to do. He was the Godfather of the music business, but we never talked about the music business. Just music.

On the boat in Turkey, or at his house, he told so many great stories about great people. He schooled me about people like Les McCann and Eddie Harris. He was always down to rock. He could’ve been my grandfather, but he partied like my best friend. In Detroit he’d be in my house with all my boys — we’d be rapping on the microphone, and he’d be tapping his feet. You could see it in his eyes that he loved it. He used to give me the keys to his house in the Hamptons and say, “James, the butler, will take care of you. Have a good time.” And you know I did.

When Ahmet Ertegun first came to hear Buffalo Springfield, he immediately started helping us to make our music. He was parental — a cool guy, musically savvy and talking our language, but not threatening or overbearing.

I decided, after the Springfield broke up, that it wasn’t a good idea for Stephen [Stills] and me to be on the same label. I told Ahmet. I said, “I love Atlantic, but I don’t want to compete with Stephen. I want a fresh start.” He totally understood. He said, “It’s always sad to have to part ways. But you can call me if you need anything. I’ll give you advice. And if you ever want to come back, give me a call.” There was absolutely none of the bullshit that you would expect.

When Stephen asked me to join Crosby, Stills and Nash, I didn’t know it was Ahmet who was behind it. One of the things he liked about the Springfield was Stephen and me — what happened when we played guitars together. Even though we fought like brothers, we played like brothers, and Ahmet saw that we could keep on going. To Ahmet, that was a no-brainer.

The last time I saw Ahmet, we just sat and talked. He was a regular guy. He happened to also be one of the most powerful guys in the music business. But he had no use for wielding the power. The only time he ever used his power was with other executives. He didn’t use it on the musicians. And it’s suitable that his last conscious moments were at a concert. Because that’s the way he lived. He went to a show. And the encore was heaven.

In 1967, Jerry Wexler invited me to come to Atlantic to meet Mr. Ertegun. He invited me to have lunch right there in his office. I thought it was very chic. We had a classy arrangement with a dining table and a server. I had never seen that level of class in an office before. But Ahmet was the exact opposite of the usual record man. He was the authority figure — classy and urbane. But he had a wonderful sense of humor that cut through all of that, and that’s what I liked about him.

Even after I left Atlantic, I never left Ahmet. He and I remained friends. I would have lunch with him and Mica whenever I was out in Southampton. Or he came to my concerts. Slowing down never occurred to him. He was autonomous to the end. I remember that he was going to Japan not long after I last saw him, and I thought, “Ahmet is still getting around and going to places I’m not going.” He was unbelievable.

Ahmet had very good musical taste. But he also had very good business sense. It’s rare that you get those two things combined. It’s all very well to sign an act you like. But that’s not going to get you very far if they don’t sell.

We always liked the idea of signing to Atlantic. But Ahmet had to come up with the right deal. In the end, it was like a very long negotiation over a carpet — a lot of wooing over dinner and drinks. We had a lot of fun negotiating. When Ahmet and I finally agreed on the deal, he was so drunk he fell over backward in his chair. That was the deal clincher.

Ahmet was very liberal in his thinking. But he was fantastically sensitive to the marketplace. We had this row over “Starfucker” — he made us change the name of the song. It was a lengthy, insane drama. But he was socially sensitive. If there were any women’s issues involved, he would be on it.

After we left Atlantic, I would go over to his house and play whatever we had, and he would give his comments. It was not the norm. But Ahmet was very expansive and caring. And he would always make me laugh. We had so many good times together, and I will miss him so much.

Atlantic was a very classy label — very metropolitan, even though it was synonymous with black music. And Ahmet himself was like that, gifted beyond all belief — the way he moved from his origins, pushing against the grain into the bohemia of Stick McGhee and Joe Turner.

I must have first met him on Led Zeppelin’s first U.S. tour. But I don’t think it was our early success that interested him. We came here running so fast — and he liked that. But Ahmet found the craziness stimulating. And he was a great contributor to it as well. Ahmet was always backstage, with an entourage of folk, this melange of people from all walks of life. He’d have Henry Kissinger or a princess from some deposed royal family from Eastern Europe.

Ahmet was so bright and always looking for the next move. He told me years ago, “I gotta buy the company back.” And I said, “You do. You gotta get it back quick.” But had he got it back, who knows? You can’t keep abreast of the way things have gone. You have to be part of the next generation. He had already managed to do that through three generations, which is phenomenal.

Ahmet took me under his wing. I think he was madly in love with my stage character. The character that I had been onstage was really a balls-to-the-wall kind of broad, and he loved that because it was a throwback to his youth when he was watching vaudeville theater and burlesque.

He was like Pan or something, like this bacchanalian kind of a character. In this buttoned-down world of ours, he just had a ball. The thing about him was he loved the game and he loved the fun, but at the bottom of it was the music. He was as passionate about music as any human being alive. He lived hard, and I think that the curiosity to hear another sound, to hear another song, to hear those chords played a different way, I think that’s what kept him going.

I remember sitting in Doug Morris’ office before Little Earthquakes came out and he asked somebody to come in without mentioning any names. And Ahmet came in and he listened to the album. He said, “Don’t worry about making a Top Ten hit. You need to be concerned about writing great songs. And if you stop doing that, your career will be over. Never chase it.” He was a record mogul and he understood the commerce side of it, but he also knew that you wouldn’t have a fifteen-year career unless you could somehow transcend the commercial side of the industry and become a great songwriter. I never met anybody else who could listen to a song and detach himself from what he listens to for enjoyment and analyze sonic architecture. He could look at rock music or grunge music or singer-songwriters and be able to pick out the ones who would have sustained careers. He was always on the money.

For me, he was a sounding board. He could tell me what he thought of my songs. He didn’t need millions of record sales to tell him what’s good. He would always say, “Just because you’ve sold millions of records doesn’t mean you’re good. McDonald’s sells a lot of hamburgers.” And I’ve always followed his advice, even though I left Atlantic. I always remembered what he said. His words of wisdom gave me the strength to stand up to his own company.

And Ahmet danced with me at my wedding. He was the only record person that came — and he was the granddaddy of them all! I said, “It means a lot to me that you came.” He said, “I couldn’t miss giving you away.”

To me, Ahmet was more than just a corporate figure, he was a friend and a godfather. He was not someone who just pushed a pencil, he pushed a brain with a heart that moved your soul. He felt what we were doing — he wasn’t just concerned about the sales. He was the person that I could always turn to for advice, knowing he would always be honest and truthful. His encouragement was always “Keep on, do it, you can do it,” and that’s just part of what made him so fascinating and fabulous. I loved his stories. The last time I saw him, this past year at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, we were laughing , telling all the old stories. Atlantic Records had so many great songs and so many wonderful people — Sonny & Cher, Ruth Brown, Laverne Baker, Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Stones, the Drifters, the Coasters, Bobby Darin, Ben E. King — and so many great memories. I talked to Jerry Wexler the other day, and we had a moment, and a little bit of a tear came out when we started telling the Ahmet jokes.

Ahmet was a great man, a brilliant man, and a man of dignity and class. I send my love to his wife, Mica, and all of his staff at Atlantic for being so close and so real. Right now, I’m sure Ahmet is booking one of the biggest acts in heaven, and putting on one of the greatest shows ever. They’ve got the executive up there who’s going to put it all together and make it happen. No one will replace Ahmet, but what a beautiful thought to know that those of us that are here, remaining in this business, have a light to look up to. We’re gonna miss a cool dude.

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