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The Self-Made Man: Ahmet Ertegun

This week, Self Made Men returns to the music industry to profile Ahmet Ertegun, the Turkish-American entrepreneur who started Atlantic Records, the label that introduced America to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and countless others. Ertegun’s vision and skill as a producer and talent scout not only helped bring about rock ‘n roll, but helped maintain its popularity as well.

Ertegun was born in Istanbul (not Constantinople), but since his father was the first US Ambassador to Turkey, the family relocated to Washington D.C., where young Ahmet fell in love with rhythm and blues and jazz music, thanks to his older brother Nesuhi. The two saw Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway in their primes, and assembled a collection of 15,000 records. They also promoted jazz and blues concerts at the Jewish Community Center, the only place they knew of that would allow a mixed-race audience and band.

Ertegun felt a certain kinship with black music and its black audience, and the discrimination they faced, since Turkish people endured similar prejudices in Europe. This had a lot to do with Atlantic’s success as a label; unlike many of his peers, Ertegun actually understood and liked the records he made. He founded Atlantic in 1947, and after a few shaky years (some of which were due to troubles with the musician’s union), he had acts like Charles, Ruth Brown, and the Drifters cranking out hits by the dozen.

Ertegun was also fairer to his artists than his era’s business model demanded. This was a time when most record labels kept files on disc jockeys who needed bribing, either with money or drugs or women or some combination thereof. Ertegun, by contrast, was less of a greedhead, and also more generous with royalty payments. Again, it’s harder to rip people off when you genuinely like what they do.

Ertegun also had good people working for him. His partner Jerry Wexler was the journalist who invented the term “rhythm and blues,” and was a sharp businessman by all accounts. Tom Dowd, Atlantic’s innovative house engineer, had been a junior physicist on the Manhattan Project. Miriam Abramson, who ran the label’s publishing company, was tough to the point of mean, but she kept things running when budgets were thin. Because he loved the music he was putting out into the world, Ertegun made sure that his business life was full of people who could get stuff done.

Because of that, and a few partnerships with smaller labels like Stax Records, Atlantic wasn’t seriously threatened by the British Invasion, which sent a lot of his peers running for cover. Had Ertegun been a mercenary putting out crap he didn’t really like, he’d have been screwed.

Ahmet Ertegun died in 2006, but his career is an excellent model for entrepreneurs who start businesses based on what they know, and more importantly what they love. Here’s a print interview with him from 2005, where he talks about that, his career, and what it means to be hip.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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