Ahmet Ertegun: 1923-2006
By Jann S. Wenner
RS1018: January 25, 2007
On the following pages, we pay tribute to the greatest record man who ever lived, who signed some of the greatest rhythm & blues, jazz and rock artists of all time, guided their careers, their education, their records, and built Atlantic Records, the historic label that was home to these artistic treasures. His knowledge and involvement spanned seventy years of American popular music, and he loved it all and brought it into our lives.
Ahmet Ertegun came into my life through Ralph Gleason, the jazz/rock critic who helped me start Rolling Stone. They had been running buddies in the New York jazz scene of the Forties, hitting the nightclubs and collecting records. My first real initiation into Ahmet’s world was in 1970, when he called me out of the blue, said he was in San Francisco and I had to drop everything to come have lunch with the “daughter” of Charlie Chaplin, who would only speak French, which he would translate on her behalf; and in this elegant cafe he proceeded to watch me stumble through an absurd conversation with Chaplin’s so-called daughter, while I became even more fawning and out of my depth. After watching me twist and turn for fifteen minutes, he let me in on the prank with an elaborate reveal and tears of laughter.
I guess he was testing me, and I passed. I was beginning the instruction on what to expect from a lifetime of laughter, grace and learning that came with the pleasure of his company. Ahmet looked like a suave, wealthy and titled combination of Oriental pasha and the Wizard of Oz; he spoke with a smoky, gravelly drawl in a patois of hipster-cool “man, you know that cat” type of stuff, maybe five different accents all flowing together, as he assayed all around him through tortoise-shell glasses, eyes often at half lid. He was always turned out with a precisely trimmed goatee and never a wrinkle in his clothes. He could outlast anyone at the bar or any other place you could name, and he had very little interest in sleep. He was one of those people who knew exactly what the right thing to do was at all times. He dazzled.
In 1983, Ahmet asked me to help him start the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which was then little more than a vague idea tacked onto a television-show proposal. The process was by turns intense and hilarious, filled as usual with picaresque trips (including taking I.M. Pei, Ahmet’s sole choice for architect, to see Grace-land, during which the airline misplaced a special Louis Vuitton case that held twelve pairs of Ahmet’s custom shoes, recovered the next day by a chauffeur deputized to wait all night at the airport).
As no one was really sure what a museum about rock should be, feel like, how one would balance the formal elements with the funk, we had many long discussions about the nature of art and music, during which I was able to soak up Ahmet’s great wisdom and learning. It was Ahmet’s sensibility and sense of what was right to which we constantly returned to guide our decisions.
To work as his right-hand man on the Hall of Fame, to watch him in action, subtly or sometimes strictly, bringing all the elements and personalities together, was where I really saw how great this man was. It was a process that brought the best out of me, and one he quietly taught me to use.
I learned how important elegance is, elegance of thinking, of character, of personal style. But above all, he held the artists in the highest regard; this was the essence of the Hall of Fame, and what made Atlantic such a remarkable and historic institution.
My last trip with Ahmet was to accompany his body home to Istanbul and bury him, along with his wife, Mica, and some of his close friends. We listened to the prayers of his Muslim homeland, we cried, and then we one by one stepped to the grave in his family plot, overlooking the city where the East meets the West, and threw dirt over his body.
To have lived a life so filled with music, to have been so deeply a part of it and to contribute so greatly to it; to have always been insistent on doing the right thing; and to have lived so fully and to have so much fun... how lucky the world had been to have such a man; how lucky for me to have had such a friend.