Interrogating Ahmet Ertegun

The Atlantic Records founder on Ray Charles, Islamic fundamentalism, and his own hipness.

Ahmet Ertegun

In 1947, Ahmet Ertegun, the 24-year-old son of a distinguished Turkish diplomat, borrowed $10,000 from his dentist and, with his older brother Nesuhi and another friend, formed Atlantic Records. Over the next 50 years, Ertegun would discover, sign, popularize, and/or produce Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding—who called him “Omelette”—Bette Midler, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Cream, the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin, the Coasters, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Roberta Flack, the Spinners, the Allman Brothers, Genesis, Foreigner, Pete Townshend, Stevie Nicks, Buffalo Springfield, the Blues Brothers, Tori Amos, and Phil Collins, among others.

Earlier this month, the 81-year-old Ertegun was honored with the first Grammy Industry Icon Award. He has also been depicted in two recent Hollywood films, Ray and Beyond the Sea. Balding with owl glasses, Ertegun is a dapper Buddha, wearing a starched white shirt with French cuffs and gold links. He carries a wood cane for a wobbly hip. While fielding congratulatory phone calls in his raspy, rummy voice, he talked about his twin passions: music and Turkish politics.

Slate: Congratulations on your Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

AE: Actually, it’s called the President’s Icon Award. I always thought I was an iconoclast. But now they’ve made it an icon.

Slate: You must have won a fair share of Grammys. 

AE: I have a few Grammys. I already got what they call the Trustees Award.

There are a couple of Grammys I didn’t get because they weren’t giving [producers] them at the time. I produced “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, [which] won the record of the year but there were no producer credits in those days. It was announced that I had produced the record and Bobby thanked me on TV.

Slate: How did the son of a diplomat end up starting a rhythm and blues record company?

AE: When I was about 8 or 9 years old, in 1932, Nesuhi took me to hear Cab Calloway and later Duke Ellington at the Palladium in London. I had never really seen black people except I had seen pictures of great artists like Josephine Baker—whom I spent a few days with before she died. And I had never heard anything as glorious as those beautiful musicians, wearing great white tails playing these incredibly gleaming horns with drums and rhythm sections unlike you ever heard on records. In those days, they recorded the drums and the bass very, very softly so it wouldn’t break the grooves of the 78 rpm records. So I became a jazz fan quite early and never went off the path thereafter.

Slate:You had this 50-year relationship with Ray Charles. … What did you think of the actor [Curtis Armstrong] who played you in Ray?

AE: I’ll tell you first, I think he’s a good actor. I think Taylor Hackford wrote a very true description of the feeling that existed between Ray Charles and myself and made a terrific movie. However, you must realize that I’m not the kind of shy little guy as portrayed in the film. I don’t care what the man looks like or anything but it should have been somebody hip.

At the time I went after Ray Charles, no one was looking for Ray Charles. Ray Charles had made some records but they didn’t sell. In 1949 or ‘50, I heard “Baby, Let me Hold Your Hand” once and I said this is the most fabulous singer alive today. A booking agent named Billy Shaw said to me, “We have Ray Charles but we can’t book him as a headliner. Do you think you can make hit records with him?” and I said, “I know I can make hit records with him.” Now you must realize that I was the only one who thought so.

Slate: There was no bidding war for him?

AE: When he came to our office I said, “RAY CHARLES, you are the greatest singer. You’re the greatest piano player. Man,” I said, “you are home now!” And he said, “Man nobody’s ever talked to me like that before.” In those days, I was living in Harlem and I wasn’t like the sheepish fellow in the movie.

Slate: You are also featured in the Bobby Darin-Kevin Spacey movie, Beyond the Sea.

AE: Unfortunately, the Bobby Darin film did not come off as well. Kevin Spacey does a very good job playing (Darin), [but] it’s too bad he wanted to sing. A singer’s biographical film should have their music and their voice. That’s one thing. The other thing is I discovered Bobby Darin.

Slate: Where?

AE: He was in the Atlantic waiting room, which had a piano in it. One of my partners had bought some masters that he had made and we signed him. The masters were terrible but I heard him playing in the waiting room. And I realized that he was a very different singer than the records.

Slate: What were the hit records you made with Darin?

AE: “Splish Splash” and “Queen of the Hop,” “Dream Lover,” “Mack the Knife.” … The making of a hit record depends more than anything on the material of the song. And that’s the toughest thing to find. The songwriters whom we think of being the greatest songwriters usually write one hit and six or seven flops. That includes the Irving Berlins and the Hoagy Carmichaels, the Harold Arlens, Cole Porter.

Slate: Everyone writes a clinker from time to time?

AE: They write clinkers most of the time. Once in a while they can write a hit. And whenever a songwriter writes a big hit, then the next 20 songs they write—no matter how bad they are—get recorded.

Slate: How did you know who would be a great singer?

AE: It was different with every artist. For example with Ruth Brown, an old friend called about “a great girl he heard” singing at the Club Kaverns—a basement club in the black ghetto in Washington run by Blanche Calloway, Cab’s sister, who was Ruth Brown’s manager. So I went down there and Ruth was a fabulous singer and what I liked about her is that she sang a song called “So Long” that Little Miss Cornshucks sang. Now Little Miss Cornshucks was a great singer but she had some personal problems and would tend to disappear and it was very hard to find her. And Ruth Brown sang “So Long” just like her and I knew it would be a hit. We were not a well-known label at that time, but [Ruth Brown] signed with us and “So Long” became a big hit.

Clyde McPhatter was in a group called the Dominoes and he was one of my favorite singers. So I went to Birdland to hear the Dominoes because I liked Clyde so much. … And the group went on and Clyde was not in the group. So I went backstage and asked the leader of the group,”Where’s Clyde? Is he sick?” And he said, “No, we fired him last week.” So I went immediately to the public phone at Birdland and called information and found there was one Reverend McPhatter listed—Clyde’s father. Clyde answered the phone and I said, “Clyde, this is Ahmet Ertregun, have you signed any papers with any label?” He said no. So I said, “Come to my office tomorrow and you will be an Atlantic star.” A few days later, we recorded him with a group of his friends around him, and we called that group the Drifters. Clyde later left the group to be a solo singer but the Drifters had a life of their own with Ben E. King and others.

Slate: What did you hear in his voice that made you so confident about him?

AE: Clyde was the most soulful singer in rhythm and blues. People like Clyde McPhatter who came out of the black churches—like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin—were all church singers who became great pop singers because gospel singing is very close to the blues.

Slate: You were born in Istanbul and educated in London and Washington?

AE: When I was 2 years old, my father, who was Ataturk’s legal adviser, was sent to Switzerland to represent Turkey at the League of Nations. He was also the Turkish ambassador to Switzerland. After that he was the Turkish ambassador to France. So I spent several years of my youth in Paris and then he went to London and was ambassador to the Court of St. James during George V. Then we went to Washington when he was appointed ambassador to the U.S. [under Roosevelt]

Slate: Is it true that the sultan of the Ottoman Empire dispatched your father to go deal with a rebellious general named Mustafa Kemal, who would become Ataturk?

AE: Kemal was the No. 1 general in the Ottoman Empire. He fought the battle of Gallipoli where he defeated the Australian and British troops. He was a great hero and a brilliant young general. He would not give in to the demands of the Allies. So he formed a rebel army in Ankara and my father was sent in 1921 to talk him out of resisting. Then, my father said, “Now I’ve done my duty to the sultan and if you need my services I am ready to resign from my post and join you.”

Slate: How close was your father with Ataturk?

AE: My father was in Ataturk’s closest group. They lived together during the War of Liberation in Turkey. He was with him all the time.

Slate: What was your father’s impression of Ataturk?

AE: My father believed very strongly in Ataturk. Ataturk was a very powerful man and a man of great vision. But my father was a very religious person. And he prayed five times a day. And he did that throughout his relationship with Ataturk—at a time when it was very brave to do because Ataturk was cutting off the heads of the imams. And people thought that that was foolhardy of my father.

Slate: Do you think Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations describes what is happening today?

AE: Well we’re going through something like that. Look, our president speaks to God.

Slate: Was Ataturk an atheist on a personal or political level?

AE: The main thing is that Ataturk saw the desperate condition of the countries that had not had an industrial revolution. Ataturk saw where history was going. He really did in Turkey what we are all hoping somebody will do in [Islamic] countries where fundamentalists thrive, that they get somebody today that has the vision that Ataturk had in 1915.

Slate: Ataturk died in 1936 from cirrhosis of the liver.

AE: He drank a lot.

Slate: Ironic that he was defeated by an addiction that is forbidden in Islam. Did your father or people try to intervene?

AE: I’m sure that a lot of people advised him on that. But you know when people have something they like to do, it’s impossible. Look, I used to drink a bottle of vodka a day, every day, for about 40 years and it never occurred to me it’d kill me. If I’d have continued it might have killed me. My doctor said I should stick to wine.

Slate: How do you feel about the U.S.-led Iraq war?

AE: First I was upset because the [Turkish government] wouldn’t let the Americans go through the Turkish border with Iraq. That really kind of destroyed a bridge that my father created between Turkey and the U.S. I saw Rumsfeld a few days after that happened, and Donald said, “What happened, Ahmet, where are our friends?” I said, “Look, I think they voted against it to make [Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayib] Erdogan look bad. It was purely a local political thing.” Anyway, it turned out to be probably better. If Turkish troops had gone in with the Kurds there, God knows what would have happened. There could have been mayhem with two sets of allies fighting each other. Because there’s been so much bad blood between the Kurds and the Turks.

Slate: Who is the one artist you wish you had signed?

AE: [laughs] Everybody who didn’t make a record for me. Well, I came close to signing Elvis Presley. I offered $25,000 for his contract and they asked for $45,000 and I just didn’t have the other $20,000. I should have gotten the Beatles. But one of my lawyers kind of messed up.

Slate: That’s quite a big mess-up.

AE: [sighs] It was a big mess-up. However, it was the same lawyer who later got me all the rights to Woodstock six months before it happened. After I sold my company to Warners, one of the things they got was the movie rights to Woodstock, which was a huge feature film.

Slate: Who are the great talents in music today?

AE: There are still many great surviving talents: Stevie Winwood. Another great talent is Stevie Wonder. Another one is Eric Clapton. Another one is Phil Collins. Eminem, Kanye West I like all those people. … But I enjoy all the artists of Atlantic because they are the best! [laughs]

Slate: What do you want for your legacy?

AE: I’d be happy if people said that I did a little bit to raisethe dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music.

Slate: Do you have devotional feelings towards Islam?

AE: Well, look I’m Muslim by birth—and the rest I’ll have to explain when I write my autobiography.