- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Ertegun’s legacy on PBS

He was the son of a diplomat, a world traveler since birth who was equally at ease with kings and paupers — and, at 12, he ditched his tony Park Avenue chaperones to attend an after-hours Harlem “rent” party where jazz greats James P. Johnson and Sidney Bechet held court.

“When I finally got home it was after 6:30 in the morning. My father was so angry that he slapped me hard across the face. It was the only time in my life that he ever hit me,” recalls recording industry legend Ahmet Ertegun in “Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built,’ ” a music-filled documentary on his extraordinary life that airs tonight at 10 on WETA-Channel 26 and WMPT-Channel 22.

Mr. Ertegun, who died in December at age 83, co-founded the record company in 1947. His love of black music and the belief that all modern musical genres were rooted in the blues contributed to the rise of a revolutionary brand of music that would forever change the industry.

Appalled that he couldn’t buy jazz and blues records by black artists in segregated downtown Washington in the 1940s (a store clerk instructed him to go to Seventh and T streets Northwest), Mr. Ertegun — the son of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. — borrowed $10,000 from his dentist to start Atlantic with Herb Abramson.

By the mid-1950s, the company had become the country’s pre-eminent R&B; label, producing hits by such artists as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker and the Drifters.

The good times could have come to a screeching halt when Mr. Charles, then Atlantic’s biggest name, left for greener pastures at ABC Records in 1959. (The scene is re-created to perfection in the 2004 Oscar-winning film “Ray.”) However, Mr. Ertegun and his business partner, Jerry Wexler, would again find success through two new songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who would go on to pen more than 200 hits for Atlantic artists, including “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” for the Coasters, “Love Potion No. 9” for the Clovers and “Stand by Me” for Ben E. King.

Over the years, Atlantic’s diverse roster also would include Bobby Darin, the company’s first successful white artist; jazz giants John Coltrane and Charles Mingus; the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin; soul belters Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett; and the rock groups Buffalo Springfield; Cream; Led Zeppelin; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Atlantic eventually was sold to Warner Bros. and is part of the Warner Music Group, but Mr. Ertegun served as its founding chairman until his death.

Produced by New York’s WNET, tonight’s “American Masters” documentary features rarely seen performance footage (including a look at the making of Mr. Charles’ seminal pop hit “What’d I Say”); frank admissions about Atlantic’s role in payola; and a stellar compendium of talking heads that includes Mr. Wexler; Miss Franklin; Solomon Burke; Mr. Charles; David Geffen; “Ray” director Taylor Hackford; Wynton Marsalis; Mick Jagger; Phil Collins; Jann Wenner; Jimmy Page; Robert Plant; Bette Midler (who also narrates the film); and Mica Ertegun, Mr. Ertegun’s wife of 45 years.

It’s a heartfelt tribute to Mr. Ertegun’s legacy, but at two hours, it’s far too long. So much time is devoted to Atlantic’s R&B; heyday that its foray into jazz — and later rock — is given short shrift. You almost wish the documentary had been divided into two parts.

Still, the material is engaging and offers a satisfying and overdue tribute to a true American original.

Fox, ‘Idol’ tops

Last week’s ratings showed a fierce three-way competition for prime time’s favorite program not named “American Idol.” Fox’s “House,” CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” all finished within 800,000 viewers of one another, AP reports, citing estimates from Nielsen.

For the week, Fox averaged 11.5 million prime-time viewers and won handily among viewers aged 18 to 49. CBS averaged 10.8 million viewers, and ABC had 9.6 million. Following were NBC with 6.7 million, the CW with 3.1 million, My Network TV with 880,000 and the ION network with 540,000.

The top five shows for the week of April 23 through 29, their networks and viewerships were: 1) “American Idol” (Wednesday), Fox, 26.9 million; 2) “American Idol” (Tuesday), Fox, 26.5 million; 3) “House,” Fox, 20.8 million; 4) “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” CBS, 20.2 million; and 5) “Grey’s Anatomy,” ABC, 20.1 million.

Compiled by Robyn-Denise Yourse from staff and wire reports.

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