Ahmet Ertegun

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ahmet Ertegun has been called the “greatest record man” in American history. He discovered, recruited or recorded some of the most significant musicians of the mid-20th century, from

Ray Charles
to the Rolling Stones. He co-founded Atlantic Records, one of the most important independent record labels. Raised a Turkish Muslim, he championed jazz and African-American music, attesting to their global appeal. A self-created figure, he became known for his business acumen, sharp ears and discerning taste.

Ertegun was born in Istanbul a century ago, on July 31, 1923, the same year the Republic of Turkey became a country. Ahmet’s father was appointed Turkey’s ambassador to Switzerland, to France, to the United Kingdom and then, in 1934, to the U.S.

Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi, introduced him to jazz records and provided Ahmet a pivotal, formative experience at age 9: hearing

Duke Ellington’s
orchestra in London. “For the first time,” the younger brother later said, “I saw these beautiful black men wearing shining white tuxedos and these brass instruments gleaming. It was an incredible sight.” That pivotal, formative experience transformed Ahmet into a lifelong jazz connoisseur.

Arriving in Washington with his family at age 12, Ahmet was repulsed by the racial segregation. “To us,” he recalled later, “everything black was hip and everything white was square.” He and his brother spent many hours in record stores patronized by black customers, listening and learning. They went door-to-door in black neighborhoods buying old 78 rpm records. Eventually they amassed thousands of jazz and blues discs.

While still a teenager, Ahmet haunted the black-oriented Howard Theater to meet his musical heroes:

Louis Armstrong,
Count Basie,

Lester Young,
Duke Ellington. The Ertegun brothers invited these artists to the Turkish Embassy for lunch and a jam session. In the early 1940s, the brothers began producing jazz and blues concerts, bucking Jim Crow to ensure the musicians and the audiences were integrated. Nesuhi said, “Jazz was our weapon for social action.”

During the 1940s, small, independent record companies sprang up to record black musicians overlooked by the majors. Ahmet later said: “I began to realize that a large number of owners . . . didn’t know anything about the music. . . . I felt that I knew what black life was in America, what black music was in America.”

In 1947, with

Herb Abramson,
Ertegun launched Atlantic Records. If he had only found and nurtured Ray Charles and his epochal new sounds—which helped create soul music and influenced country and pop music as well—that would rate as a significant historical accomplishment. But Atlantic also issued influential recordings by Ruth Brown, the Drifters and Aretha Franklin. In the 1950s, if there was an Atlantic sound, it was vocal, dance-oriented music with a backbeat, aimed primarily at black adults. As the decade went on, those rhythm & blues recordings drew more and more white listeners because there was simply no white analogue. Ertegun helped mainstream R&B music.

By the late 1950s, Atlantic was issuing important albums by jazz artists

Charles Mingus,
the Modern Jazz Quartet and John Coltrane. In the late 1960s, under Ertegun’s leadership, it began expanding into white rock music, both British (

Eric Clapton
and Cream, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones) and American (the Young Rascals, the Allman Brothers, and Crosby, Stills & Nash).

Ertegun’s career reflected his mother’s love of music and his father’s multicultural skills. He felt completely at ease among the top tiers of society through his diplomatic upbringing, and fully comfortable among black people from his decade in Washington. His partnerships in music, he noted, often were “culturally triangular.” By birth, he was Muslim. His business partners were often Jewish. And, especially in the formative years of the company, he worked primarily with black musicians. Dapper and charming, he was equally at home at swanky parties and in down-home dives drenched in gut-bucket music.

The standard practice in the recording industry in the 1950s had artists being paid flat fees for their sessions, but Ertegun insisted on paying royalties—though not necessarily the full share of what artists deserved. In the 1980s, under pressure from singer

Ruth Brown,
Atlantic recalculated past royalties and, to support legacy artists, donated $1.5 million to create the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

Ertegun sold Atlantic Records to Warner Bros. in 1967 but stayed on as chairman. He became an elder yet hip statesman of the music business who loved nightclubbing, and he helped establish the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 1995. He continued at Atlantic until a freak fatal accident in 2006, when he fell backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in New York.

Ertegun said he wanted his legacy to be that “I did a little bit to raise the dignity and recognition of the greatness of African-American music.” The Turkish lad who crossed the Atlantic left a crucial imprint on American music and a worldwide audience.