Ahmet was a father figure, this is true," said Mick Jagger, remembering Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. "But to me, he was more like the wicked uncle with a wicked chuckle." Jagger was among more than 1,000 musicians, dignitaries, friends and family members who gathered at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 17th to celebrate the life of the pioneering record man, who died in December at age eighty-three.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis began the tribute with the New Orleans standard "Didn't He Ramble" and told the audience, "Ahmet was at home anywhere, from the most lowdown dive to the most sanctified church to the loftiest penthouse. He loved interesting people, and he knew someone of interest could come from anywhere."
The event was attended by friends as diverse as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and rocker Kid Rock, as well as many of the stars Ertegun signed to Atlantic Records and counted among his closest friends: Jagger, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann S. Wenner – with whom Ertegun created the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – gave moving testimony about a man described as a globe-trotting bon vivant who was always the best-dressed person in the room and always the last one at the bar, and who always had the best ears in the music business.
Solomon Burke called Ertegun "the most revolutionary music man of our time." Music mogul David Geffen, Ertegun's protégé, told the audience that "in a world of great character and eccentricity, Ahmet sat at the very top." Bette Midler spoke of the thrill of signing with Atlantic, in 1972: "The music on Atlantic promised that there was a party somewhere, and if I got there, I was going to have a fabulous time."
The evening featured once-in-a-lifetime musical moments, including a duet by Stills and Young on their 1967 Buffalo Springfield gem "Mr. Soul" and an impassioned rendition by Ben E. King of the soul classic "Don't Play That Song," which Ertegun co-wrote. Clapton – joined by Dr. John on piano – thrilled the audience with two blues numbers he and Ertegun liked to drunkenly sing together at parties: Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and Atlantic's first hit single, "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee." Collins performed "In the Air Tonight" – the 1981 tune that Ertegun helped shape into one of Atlantic's biggest hits – before Genesis took the stage for "Follow You, Follow Me." Crosby, Stills and Nash covered the Beatles' "In My Life" before Young joined them on "Helplessly Hoping."
Though Nicks got choked up while talking about her former boss, Ertegun's free spirit and bawdy sense of humor inspired the evening's celebratory mood. Jagger's speech – in which he imitated Ertegun's gravelly hipster growl – was particularly thoughtful and funny. He recalled a Rolling Stones after-show party in the Seventies at which Ertegun volunteered to hire strippers. "He called an agency that was called Widows Club," Jagger said. "They were all rotund women of a certain age who stripped for free on the weekends." Jagger marveled at Ertegun's wide knowledge of music, and how that knowledge steered the sensibilities of Atlantic's artists, including the Rolling Stories. "He'd tell me about people he met before the war, like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong," Jagger said.
In true Ahmet fashion, the ceremony had an afterparty, at Central Park's elegant Boat House. There, backed by Paul Shaffer's band, Kid Rock and Dave Mason churned out Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," and Burke slayed the crowd with his 1962 hit "Cry to Me." "Ahmet decided to take one great big whiskey shot in the dark of this beautiful black music he loved so much," Burke said. "And there are many kings and queens who might not be here if it wasn't for the little Turkish prince himself."
"Ahmet could talk geopolitics and pick the next Vanilla Gudge single," said Jagger.
This story is from the May 31st, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.