Musicians Pay Homage To Ahmet Ertegun On 'The House That Ahmet Built'
For the last half-century, Ahmet Ertegun was hip-deep in R&B and Rock & Roll. American Masters Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built follows Ertegun's remarkable career and its impact on the evolution of the world's most popular musical genres while offering an insider's look at the recording industry, from its infancy to today. When the documentary premiered May 2 on PBS, the New York Times called it "compelling television" and the Los Angeles Times said the film "leaves you wanting more."
Since Ertegun was such a prized raconteur, writer/director Susan Steinberg structured the film around a series of specially filmed conversations between Ertegun and some of the greatest names in rock, blues and jazz, including Robert Plant, Aretha Franklin, Midler and the late Ray Charles. Artists who were also close personal friends, such as Mick Jagger, relived significant events from their mutual experiences for the film.
"The program is conceived as both a tribute to Atlantic Records - perhaps the most influential independent music company of our time - and to the man himself," said Steinberg. "When we began this film four years ago, none of us could have anticipated that Mr. Ertegun's sudden and tragic death would cause the program to stand as an epitaph to a man whose energy, passion, good taste and love of music so enriched the world."
"His influence is indisputable - his passionate love of music and unique taste altered our cultural landscape," said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters, a five-time winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series. "We'll never forget him because we'll never stop listening to the music he introduced to the world. He was a true American Master."
Ertegun recorded hours of interviews for the film, over a period of four years. He suffered what would be a terminal injury, falling backstage at a private Rolling Stones concert in October, and died December 14, 2006, at age 83.
"The Atlantic Sound," which sprang from the small record label Ertegun co-founded in 1947, was a revolutionary new genre, single-handedly influencing the future direction of contemporary music. Ertegun wrote music, produced music, defined careers and changed lives. "He found Ray Charles, he introduced Eric Clapton to Aretha Franklin, he fell asleep on Mick Jagger," says Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in American Masters Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built.
From the time he trudged through a Delta swamp in search of Professor Longhair to his recording of contemporary artists such as Kid Rock and young unknown Paolo Nutini, Ertegun never lost the character and integrity he inherited from his father who was the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. His older brother Nesuhi - an intellectual who hung out at the Hot Club in Paris with jazz greats Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli - introduced Ertegun to jazz. Once in Washington, D.C., the teenagers would spend countless hours digging through old vinyl in Waxie Maxie's Quality Music Shop and scouring the black neighborhoods for obscure records. Eventually they acquired 25,000 records, the largest collection of jazz and blues in the world.
Ertegun moved to New York and, together with Herb Abramson started Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from his dentist. By the mid 1950s, Atlantic had become the country's preeminent R&B label, producing hits by such artists as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker and the Drifters. The "Atlantic Sound" - a boogie-based, sax-led band arrangement that became an integral part of rhythm and blues - grew into a phenomenon that swept across the nation and the world. In England, young musicians would buy records just because the Atlantic label was on the sleeve. They would grow up to become members of groups like the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin and Genesis.
The Ertegun brothers and their partner, Jerry Wexler (Herb Abramson left Atlantic in 1958), sold the Atlantic label to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1967 for $17 million. Ertegun retained control of the company but enjoyed the financial backing of a huge corporation.
Throughout his career, Ertegun earned a reputation for respecting artistic individuality, vigilantly nurturing careers and turning performers like Bobby Darin into chart-topping stars.
"I think Ahmet had this feeling for music and never got in the way of the music, never, at no point from start to finish," says Ray Charles in the film. "As opposed to most record execs, Ahmet is different. He knows his music."
In the early days of Atlantic, unable to find great R&B material for his emerging artists, Ertegun took pen in hand and wrote songs himself. Often writing under the pseudonym Nugetre (Ertegun spelled backwards), he penned more than 66 songs, many of them hits, including the Clovers' "Fool, Fool, Fool" (also covered by Elvis Presley) and "Lovey Dovey," Big Joe Turner's "Chains Of Love," Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)," and Ray Charles's "Mess Around," later featured in the Academy Award-winning movie Ray.
In the 1960s and early '70s, wise to the enormous potential of the exploding British rock scene, Ertegun became one of the only independent American record producers who opened offices in London. "He was known to have access to a black style from the streets and to a white style from somewhere beyond Bendel's," said Bette Midler.
By the time he was 47, Ertegun was the greatest rock 'n' roll mogul in the world. He had turned a small record label into a major record company, applying his own aesthetic to the music and musicians in a way that influenced the entire creative field.
After Jerry Wexler left Atlantic in 1975, Ahmet, along with his brother, kept the company thriving. Over the years, Atlantic's roster included everyone from Ruth Brown to Bette Midler, Chic, Steve Winwood & Blind Faith, Genesis, Phil Collins, Solomon Burke, Roberta Flack, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Foreigner and Kid Rock to Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Sonny & Cher, Stevie Nicks, The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby Short, Charles Mingus, Tori Amos, Jewel, and Rob Thomas.
American Masters Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built is written, directed and co-produced by Susan Steinberg. Phil Carson is the producer. Susan Lacy is the executive producer of American Masters.
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