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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2007/01/23
by Mike Gruenberg

Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006)

In My Life

On December 14th, approximately six weeks after he fell backstage at the Beacon Theater in NYC at a Rolling Stones concert, Ahmet Ertegun passed away. For guys like me who grew up on jazz, R&B and 60s rock, Ertegun was a revered person. He truly walked on water. Not only will he be missed by his family, but he will be missed by every music loving person who ever has or ever will pick up an album in a store and wonder whether the record company took any pains in crafting the album to make it a labor of love for both the musician and the music buyer. I never met him, but I knew him and I know he cared.

We all know someone or experienced something in our lives that has affected us in some profound way. Perhaps it was a teacher who had a distinctive way of explaining complex issues whose influence is still an integral part of your life today. Possibly there was a relative of yours who was able to face a severe illness with dignity that left a positive impression on you. Or maybe it was watching Mickey Mantle hit home runs while in severe pain that prompted you to revere him. Or your heroes could simply have been the parents you had that guided you through all the rough spots and supported you when it seemed that no one else cared. We all have our heroes, role models and examples that deeply affected us from childhood to adulthood. We grow older, but our heroes seem to stay young frozen in time from when we first discovered their influence.

My heroes and role models throughout my life were usually not celebrity based, although those who know me will accurately point out that the Fab 4 have always occupied a special place for me. If a person could sing, play an instrument, hit a ball or sink a foul shot, I admired them, but I stopped short of creating them as idols based solely on their incredible abilities. My heroes often were the people behind the scenes who helped the athlete excel through a unique training regimen or someone who brilliantly directed actors to dig down deep to find memorable performances or even a person who wrote the words to the speeches so that the politician delivering those words could sound so eloquent.. Early on, I realized that the speeches given by politicians were the result of someone elses words. In sum, I have always admired the people who made the people in front of them look good. Being the manager, coach, deal-maker or confidant always appealed to me more than being the rock star, center fielder or Senator.

When I began collecting recorded music many years ago, I realized that the finished product being played on the turntable was the sum of many parts. The most important part of the process was obviously the musicians. They were recorded by a producer who worked with an engineer. Arrangers, studio musicians all were elements of the record. On the business side, the agent for the musicians negotiated with the record company for the best deal. The record company needed to be constantly aware of new talent while at the same time keeping their roster of talent satisfied. One could easily say that the business of music was incorporated into every record and that the music business was highly intense and competitive. It would have to be a special kind of person to run a record company knowing how to successfully juggle all these aspects of bringing a record to market.

As my record collection began to grow, I noticed that many of the records I bought, especially jazz and R&B were on the Atlantic Records label. Whether it was Ray Charles, The Drifters or Ben E. King it was R&B on Atlantic. Whether it was John Coltrane, Herbie Mann or Charles Mingus, it was jazz on Atlantic. And then the label started to branch out to early rock n roll by Bobby Darin, it was the ATCO label which was part of Atlantic. The label then signed the best of 60s rock including Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Rascals and then the Rolling Stones. All part of the Atlantic Records family.
Atlantic Records was founded by Ahmet Ertegun, the son of the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. He lived a life of privilege that would have prepared him for a successful life as a diplomat, but at a young age Ahmet found out about and subsequently loved American jazz and R&B music. Atlantic Records was founded in 1947. Ahmet and his partners struggled mightily in the early years. Cash was hard to come by and he easily could have quit, but his love of music and musicians carried him. The people who recorded for his label read like a whos who of music royalty. In all the accounts I have read about him, he was loved and revered by all simply because he cared. He cared for the music buying public so as not to put out albums with one good song and eleven songs of filler. He cared to make sure that the artists received their fair share of royalties. He conceived of and was the guiding force that built the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

In the early years of Atlantic Records, they had an office on 56th street in NYC above an Italian restaurant. The story goes that the location served as the company offices during the day and at night, they would push all the furniture to the windows and turn the office into a recording studio. For a number of years, I worked at an office around the corner from that location. Many times, I would walk by and imagine how difficult it must have been to record under those circumstances and I also wondered which of my many Atlantic records was the result of those efforts on 56th Street.

Today, most record companies seem to be part of large conglomerates. One wonders if the people running those companies today are simply empty suits solely with their eye on the bottom line or if those people truly have the same love of the music and respect for the public that Ahmet had. No, I never met him, but I knew him and whenever I would see the Atlantic Records logo, I was pretty well assured of purchasing a quality product.

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