“I never met a hero I didn’t like. But then, I never met a hero. But then, maybe I wasn’t looking for one.” — Lester Bangs, Creem, March 1975. (Coda to “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” the first of Lester’s major confrontational interviews with Lou Reed.)
Barney Hoskyns’ praise of Robert Greenfield’s The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun, which ran on this blog back on 6 April, inspired me to read it too. I don’t know that Ahmet Ertegun was ever my “hero,” but as the principal auteur of Atlantic Records, my favorite label of all time, he was someone I really hoped I’d come to admire. Despite my dedication to Atlantic, I’d never known much about Ertegun himself, other than the two legendary bookends of his life & career: how his love of jazz and African-American music began when he was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing Duke Ellington’s band play in London in 1933, when Ahmet was only nine or ten, and then his death in 2006 after suffering a fall and head injury backstage at a Rolling Stones event. I loved the image of Ertegun being precociously inspired by the great Duke, but I worried myself with cynical fantasies of him having taken his fatal tumble while kneeling to kiss the ring on some Rolling Crone’s claw.
The truth, as always, was much more complex than that, as Greenfield’s bio reveals. Ertegun’s Ellingtonian awakening took place essentialy as the legend’s always had it, but his fall was more prosaic and tragic. It happened when he went to the restroom in the theatre where the Stones were appearing, the light inside was burned out, he butted the door open with his back to leave, then fell and hit his head on the hard floor — all of which he actually survived, but complications from a past stroke etc. did him in during surgery. As an old guy myself now, I can certainly relate to all of that.
In between those two portals, Ahmet Ertegun’s and Atlantic Records’ amazing careers took place. I need to warn potential readers of this bio now that Robert Greenfield hasn’t been a company man for Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner for forty years for nothing, and that his book is far more concerned with Power and Personality than with Atlantic’s music as such, though of course the inner workings of the company, as fully detailed here, determined what got recorded and released. A book with far more pages devoted to Steve Ross, the late top dog at the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic conglomerate, than to the (Young) Rascals, the first white r’n'r group to appear on Atlantic itself, rather than Atco, and who sold a lot of records in the process, is not MY vision of Atlantic, but then I’m odd.
Another fantasy Greenfield’s bio has disabused me of (in this case helpfully), was my idea that Atlantic’s gradual loss of a distinctly jazz/r&b identity from the ’70s onward was due to Ahmet Ertegun’s surrender of influence to the corporate suits after the WEA & Kinney mergers in the late ’60s. In reality (per Greenfield), it was the other way around; after Ertegun could spend the corporation’s money rather than his own, he went after all the big names he wanted on his label, from the Rolling Stones on down. Ertegun was actually enthusiastic about the Bee Gees and other bands I would never have allowed on Atlantic if I ran the show. But I must say I really enjoyed Greenfield’s anecdotes of Ertegun (a master at it) manipulating fellow music moguls Clive Davis and David Geffen into doing what he wanted, in order to enhance his own company.
In my earlier comment on Barney’s posting, I’d expressed the hope that Jerry Wexler might turn out to be the true “Soul Man behind the throne” at Atlantic, and Greenfield’s book gives some credence to that: Wexler came from a working-class Jewish family, some of whom were actual Communists, as opposed to Ertegun’s wealthy-and-privileged-son-of-a-Turkish-diplomat background. According to Greenfield, there were a few class-based frictions between Wexler and Ertegun, but they always worked together well. Wexler’s left-wing origins had prepared him to be a Soul Man of sorts, but he was also thus somewhat doctrinaire about R&B, and was less open to the scene’s increasingly pop orientation in the ’60s. He may have missed out on getting the Beatles for Atlantic, but he did sign Led Zeppelin to the label, for better or worse. (Better them than Firefall or Hootie & the Blowfish, even in my book.)
What I love most of all about Atlantic is their imprint on the 1960′s: starting the decade with the holy trinity of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus all signed to the label; the ongoing R&B masterpieces from Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and the Stax artists; and the greatest run of album-cover art ever, per this critic. Atlantic album jackets of the ’60s always had completely detailed credits on their backs, not just full composer & publisher info for each cut, but all the incidental contributors to the package. That’s how graphic artsists Loring Eutemey, Marvin Israel, and Haig Adishian, who designed so many of Atlantic’s ’60s jackets, have become my (largely unsung) heroes over the years.
Which in turn brings me to the surprise hero of my personal Atlantic myth: neither Ahmet Ertegun nor Jerry Wexler (for all I admire them), but big brother Nesuhi Ertegun(!) Or, as Greenfield has it on p. 106: “Nesuhi took over production of Atlantic’s jazz records [in the late '50s] . . . With an eye for packaging and design second to none, Nesuhi personally approved all the artwork that appeared on Atlantic’s covers while also signing and/or producing the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Keith Jarrett.” Yes! Now we’re talking, now it all fits together! This is more than enough for me to know about Nesuhi Ertegun for now — I don’t really want a full bio of him yet, don’t want to find out if he became a shameless fan of Reaganomics and/or MTV bobblehead Phil Collins like his little bro’ did. Though nothing could ever take away what Atlantic gave me in its halcyon 1960s.
Ahmet, sorry to hijack this review of your bio with this last-minute deus ex machina from your brother, but that’s how it worked out. Obviously I continue to admire you for making the whole thing happen, even if Nesuhi was the sib on my wavelength. And that photo of you guys with Duke Ellington in 1941, in Greenfield’s book, with you looking like the classic record-collector nerd of all time, Nesuhi meanwhile already the cool hipster, is just too perfect for words. That’s my myth, and I’m sticking to it.