Ahmet Ertegun, a music industry titan who was a founder of both Atlantic Records and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, died on December 14, 2006. Ertegun had been in a coma since October 29th, after sustaining head injuries from a fall he took backstage during the Rolling Stones performance at President Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday party. Ertegun was 83.
Ertegun helped usher in the transition from rhythm and blues to rock & roll, signing Ray Charles and the Drifters to Atlantic and producing Big Joe Turner’s original version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” At Ertegun’s counsel, the label forged relationships with a wide range of talent, from John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus to Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash and AC/DC.
A Turkish émigré who moved to the U.S. as a young boy, Ertegun began his career canvassing the nightclubs of Harlem in search of entertainers. Black music would prove the key to Atlantic’s early success. In 1947 Ertegun and his friend Herb Abramson — a jazz collector who had worked as a talent scout for independent imprints — founded Atlantic Records using a $10,000 investment from Ertegun’s dentist.
By 1952, Ertegun had brought in Ray Charles, Joe Turner and Ruth Brown, whose early successes gave Atlantic the nickname “The House That Ruth Built.” In those early years, Ertegun often wrote songs, such as Brown’s “Wild Wild Young Man” and Ray Charles’ first chart hit, “Mess Around,” under the pseudonym A. Nugetre — his surname spelled backwards.
In the ’60s, Atlantic became known for developing the Southern soul sound, marked by an affiliation with Stax Records and the arrival of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. Ertegun also snatched up Cream and Led Zeppelin, and convinced Crosby, Stills and Nash to take Neil Young on tour with them, much to the benefit of rock & roll. His reputation as a man of refinement made him a negotiating force: When the Rolling Stones were looking for a label partner for their imprint, it was Ertegun’s jet-setting style that sealed the deal with Mick Jagger.
In 1983, Ertegun joined forces with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and Sire Records head Seymour Stein to create the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. He received the Grammy Trustees Award in 1993, and in 2000 he was named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.
More recently, Ertegun had settled into an emeritus role as Founding Chairman of Atlantic, overseeing the label as it continued to rack up commercial successes. Multi-platinum releases from Jewel, Stone Temple Pilots and Matchbox Twenty, and an increasingly eclectic roster that included Björk, Kid Rock and Death Cab for Cutie, cemented Atlantic’s unwavering relevance in the music industry.
Ahmet Ertegun was a unique visionary whose influence and inspiration will be keenly missed, but never forgotten.