The Man Who Changed Music
The Peninsula’s Robert Greenfield, a preeminent chronicler of rock ‘n’ roll, turns his pen on late recording legend Ahmet Ertegun.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Ahmet Ertegun signed and/or recorded Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Sonny and Cher, Eric Clapton, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Bette Midler, Kid Rock, and many more.
Monterey Peninsula resident Robert Greenfield explores how Ertegun did it with his new biography The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun, published by Simon & Schuster. Along the way Greenfield reveals how the founder of Atlantic Records profoundly changed popular music and popular culture.
Greenfield is the author of nine books, a former associate editor for Rolling Stone magazine’s London bureau, and has been a playwright, screenwriter and professor. The Weekly talked with him last week.
Above all possible subjects, why did you choose Ahmet Ertegun for a biography, considering your many contacts in the world of rock?
I think Ahmet chose me. I was the associate editor at Rolling Stone in London many years ago, and I was talking to editor Will Dana in 2006 about my Timothy Leary biography that was coming out. Ahmet had just passed away. I told him some stories, some of which are in the book, and a day or two later he called me to say they’d commissioned someone to write a tribute to Ahmet that Jann Wenner wasn’t happy with.
Dana asked me to write a tribute, but said we need it in a week. It was crazy because I had to do all the research and the interviews as well. I got the piece in and it ran in Rolling Stone as the tribute to Ahmet after his death.
Afterwards, my agent said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about Ahmet?’ That’s how the book came about. Then Simon & Schuster decided they wanted to publish it.
Did you meet Ahmet?
I met Ahmet for the first time in the south of France before the ’72 Stones tour. I toured with the Stones in 1971. Then I lived in Keith Richard’s house for three weeks while they were recording Exile on Main Street. My first book was S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones and that was Ahmet’s tour because they were on Atlantic, and Exile had just been released. I interviewed him after the tour. They had previously done Sticky Fingers for Ahmet, which was their most successful album to that point.
I saw Ahmet in action. I was at the party on the St. Regis roof on the ’72 tour, which I think changed society and rock and roll forever in America. I interviewed Ahmet after the ’72 tour, and I spoke to him again in New York while I was working on my book Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. Ahmet was already a legendary figure.
The strange story of this book is that I had already contracted to write a book called A Day in the Life: One Family, the Beautiful People, and the End of the Sixties. I actually wrote that first, then I spent a year researching – reading everything ever written about Ahmet.
Was his family cooperative while you researched the book?
I was fortunate because Ahmet’s widow, Mica Ertegun, enabled me to connect with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She had donated Ahmet’s archives – all his papers.
Is this book the authorized biography? That implies there was censorship and control on her part. There wasn’t. I went into an art warehouse in Chelsea in New York where there were 60 boxes of his personal papers on the way to Cleveland to be part of the permanent collection.
Most of it hadn’t been sorted through yet. I spent five days in this bizarre kind of storeroom wearing white gloves. You can’t touch the letters without them. I worked with an assistant, which I never do, but they wouldn’t let me Xerox. There were these archivist rules.
We found an extraordinary oral history that Ahmet had done with Columbia University – 150 pages of transcript. I had my assistant read it into a tape recorder which I then transcribed. I also went through all these extraordinary letters, articles – there weren’t that many books. Ahmet was from the generation, as was Timothy Leary, when people wrote letters and saved everything. There were even dry cleaning bills from 1954.
It enabled me to put Ahmet in the book in his own voice. I wanted him to speak so people could get a sense of who he was. He was one of the greatest raconteurs who ever lived – he could spellbind an audience of any size. I wanted the book to be like spending a night on the town with Ahmet until 4am after you had several drinks. He’s telling stories, everybody else is telling stories, but what I also did – anybody that came up during research who is alive – I went to them so they could present their side of the story. The only people in the book who are alive who do not speak in their own voices are the ones who did not want to talk to me. So it became a complex and difficult project to research.
What is Ertegun’s legacy?
Ahmet changed the face of popular culture. Not only in America, but in the world. Without Ahmet, Aretha Franklin does not sing at the inauguration of the first black president. What I mean by that is not that she was on Atlantic and that Jerry Wexler produced her, but that Ahmet as much as any other man is responsible for bringing black music to a white audience. That really is what he did at Atlantic. And he was there for 58 years.
No one else starts at the beginning of what we would now call the record business, when the independent labels were putting out rhythm and blues, which was black music for a black audience, and continued on throughout the psychedelic revolution – from Bobby Darin and Sonny and Cher to Buffalo Springfield, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Twisted Sister, Kid Rock – just keep going.
Dave Marsh, a well-known music critic, said, “Ahmet was without a doubt the greatest record man who ever lived.” And Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi, is one of the great jazz recorders of all time. He was recording Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and on and on.
These two brothers were born in the Ottoman Empire and grew up under the Sultan. The last Sultan. Their father changed sides and aligned himself with Atatürk, Turkey’s first president. The father, a diplomat, became very close to Atatürk and was one of the Republic of Turkey’s first ambassadors. He was at the League of Nations. He was their ambassador, in order, to France, then the Court of St. James in England, and then the United States.
Ahmet and Nesuhi were educated in the great capitals of Europe and lived in luxurious embassies, but Ahmet came to America young enough to apprehend the culture and transform himself into an American. Ahmet could be at the highest A-level dinner, then walk into a bar where you wouldn’t go even if you were carrying a gun. He’s completely a unique figure. There’s no one else like him.
Did Ahmet leave journals among his papers?
He didn’t. But he was so literary and so educated in the beginning of his life that he tried to write a play and was trying to write a memoir that was scrawled on airline stationery. He was too busy to keep a journal. There was no way he could have recorded his life. His journals would have been extraordinary. Most of the quotes in the book come from the series of interviews Ahmet did at Columbia University at the end of his life. It’s primary source. It’s him.
Did you conduct interviews with the rock musicians quoted in the book?
I talked to everybody who would talk to me. I talked to Graham Nash, Kid Rock, Bette Midler – Keith Richards called me, which was very gracious of him – I also had access to interviews that Rolling Stone magazine had done at the time of Ahmet’s death with rock musicians. I spoke with David Geffen. I spoke with all the great stars of the record business. I spoke with Jac Holzman, Joe Smith, Mo Ostin, Jerry Greenberg and Doug Morris.
A lot of the reviews from New York were like, “Who cares about these guys?” But these are the people who created this business that almost doesn’t exist anymore. To me, they were completely relevant and many of them are as interesting if not more interesting than many of the musicians who had passed through Atlantic Records.
How long did the book take?
I worked on the book for two years. I researched the book for a year, mainly reading. Then I interviewed for six months, and wrote the book in about six months.
Did anything in particular surprise you when you researched the book?
I was surprised at how dirty the record business has always been. The cutting of corners, the money and the finagling. What also surprised me was to learn just how educated Ahmet was, how brilliant he was at sizing people up. How he survived for 58 years as the head of Atlantic.
Reading your account of the initial years at Atlantic, I’m surprised he survived for two years.
It’s extraordinary. He was utterly clueless about how to make money. He had grown up with money. In the beginning he had no idea what was commercial or how to distribute a record. Ahmet’s genius was finding people who knew more than he did.
His first partner was Herb Abramson, who knew everything about the business. He then brought in Jerry Wexler, who was a brilliant producer and knew more about the business at that point than Ahmet did. Following Jerry, there was a succession of people, all of whom went on to become powerful and famous in the record business, but they all looked up to Ahmet as a mentor because he had so much charisma, was so powerful, so charming, and could party like a rock star.
Was there one important game changer in Ahmet’s career?
There were two. When his brother Nesuhi took him to see Duke Ellington in 1933 at the London Palladium when Ahmet was 10 years old. He was stunned by the power of the music. In those days, records were mixed down. Because they were made out of vinyl, engineers thought the grooves would break if the drum and bass were too loud. The power of the music when Ahmet heard it live shocked him.
What Atlantic really becomes known for is putting that drum and bass sound on records, through Tom Dowd, who was a genius – one of the greatest engineers and producers who ever lived. That’s what really moved people and made them dance.
The other life-changing moment in Ahmet’s career was when Ray Charles left Atlantic. An artist that he had nurtured, taken care of and waited on – because Ray Charles was not Ray Charles at the beginning of his career at Atlantic. He sounded like Nat King Cole. When he left Ahmet, I think it changed Ahmet’s perception of what his relationship with artists would be for the rest of his life. He loved them, he took care of them, he hung out with them. But I don’t think he ever fell in love again that way.
Was there anything you didn’t put in the book that you wanted to, whether it was the publisher’s decision, or something too personal or controversial?
No. I think the book portrays Ahmet in all his many facets. He was a complicated human being, He could be a savage businessman. What differentiates Ahmet from any other record producer who ever lived is that Ahmet, who could not sing or read music, wrote many songs. One is “Mess Around,” which Ray Charles recorded. Ahmet had listened to so much music that he was able to replicate, through writing lyrics and using, basically, blues structure, songs that were hits – minor hits. He was able to write, and he really could produce. He was hands-on in the studio. He and Jerry Wexler and Jesse Stone are singing back-up on Joe Turner’s version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
After Ahmet, there aren’t record executives who are in the studio the way he was. He was a hands-on guy at the beginning.
How did you get Simon & Schuster to publish the book? I noticed De Capo Press published all of your previous books.
(Laughs.) Did I say blackmail? Back when F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were writing, they were at Scribner’s for their entire careers. When I began writing books so long ago, you stayed with a publisher for your entire career. That’s not the way the business is anymore. When you have a book project, it’s offered to everybody and you go with the publishing house that will do the best job and has probably offered you enough money for you to survive while you work on the book.
My agent submitted a proposal. Simon & Schuster has published many, many books about music. This seems to be one of their fields of interest. I was fortunate to work with a really good editor and I think they did a fabulous job with the book. It looks great. You go with whoever wants to dance with you.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d add that you put out a book and get everybody’s opinion and mostly the critics are writing about themselves. That’s something that has changed in criticism. Many people have reviewed the life of Ahmet rather than the book: “Oh, I’m interested in this part of his life, but I’m not interested in that part of his life.” I can’t take parts of his life out. I think the book is literally the history of the record business in America. It’s also a backstage pass to some of the more insane scenes that have ever transpired with people like Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and on and on.
The other thing I learned while doing the book, is that the cutting edge, or the line of differentiation, with all these people in this business is whether or not you loved the music. Ahmet loved the music. And he loved a good time. I think that’s a pretty good basis for a life.
It’s a riveting account.
Thank you for saying that. The other point is, is there any other book in the world that could contain back-cover blurbs from both Henry Kissinger and Kid Rock? Ahmet is the only guy who could go from one world to another. Ahmet was always comfortable wherever he was. He never changed his personality or his attitude to suit the situation. Ahmet was always Ahmet. Somehow, everybody acknowledged him. He was just so hip. He didn’t follow style. He had a style of his own. I could have written a book three times as long. I know we will never see anyone like him again.