- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

NEW YORK — From a desk covered with tapes and CDs, Ahmet Ertegun pulls out new music from an unknown he thinks might be the next big thing and starts moving his head to the soulful beat.
If anyone can determine what it takes for a song to be a hit, it is the 78-year-old man who founded Atlantic Records 54 years ago.
First making its name with gritty rhythm and blues by Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner, it later diversified, making Aretha Franklin the Queen of Soul as well as carrying the banner of British rock (with the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin) and American pop (with Sonny & Cher; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and others).
Today, the company, part of AOL Time Warner Inc., is the home to such artists as Jewel and Kid Rock.
"He's built one of the great companies in music," says fellow music mogul Clive Davis, founder of J Records and former head of Arista and CBS Records. "He's been able to survive trends and be in tune to music no matter how the trends of music change."
That legacy is celebrated in the book "What'd I Say: The Atlantic Story," which, besides documenting the company's history, chronicles the rise of Mr. Ertegun, the jazz-loving son of a Turkish ambassador who started collecting records for fun and later became one of the industry's most powerful music men.
Mr. Ertegun, co-chairman of what is now called the Atlantic Group, is listed as the author, but he is quick to tell you that he did not really write the book, which includes essays by Nat Hentoff, David Fricke and other music writers.
But Mr. Ertegun's voice is on just about every page, whether it's talking about signing a young Bobby Darin or his admiration of newer Atlantic artists, such as Brandy.
During an interview, Mr. Ertegun says the book is more than a history of Atlantic Records: "It's a book about popular music over the last six decades."

Mr. Ertegun's love of music began with jazz, back when he and his brother Nesuhi (an esteemed jazz producer of such acts as Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman) used to hang around with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the clubs of the District.
Mr. Ertegun began Atlantic with another partner, Herb Abramson, and a $10,000 loan. When the label first started, it made its name with blues-edged recordings by acts such as Ruth Brown.
Arif Mardin, one of Atlantic's renowned producers over the years and its senior vice president, describes what the label put out as "sincere music."
"Ahmet doesn't like any artificiality," Mr. Mardin says. "That's why he likes the blues, because the blues is sincere."
Despite his privileged background, which included attending prep school and socializing with Washington's elite, Mr. Ertegun was able to mix with all kinds of people an attribute that made him not just a marketer of black music, but a part of it, says Jerry Wexler, Mr. Ertegun's former partner.
"The transition between these two worlds is one of Ahmet's most distinguishing characteristics," Mr. Wexler says.
Black music was the backbone of the label for years it was Atlantic, under Mr. Wexler's production genius, that helped make Miss Franklin the top black female singer of her day.
But once music tastes changed, Mr. Ertegun switched gears and helped bring on the British invasion in the '60s.
"If Atlantic had restricted itself to R&B; music, I have no doubt that it would be extinct today," Mr. Wexler says.
Instead, it became even bigger.
Later, Mr. Ertegun signed Bette Midler, Roberta Flack and Abba. He had a gift for being able to pick out what would be a commercial smash, Mr. Mardin says.
He remembers one session wherehe was working with the Bee Gees on an album, but was unsure of what he had produced.
"Then Ahmet came and listened to it, and said, 'You've got hits here, you've got dance hits,'" Mr. Mardin recalls. "I was involved in such a way that I didn't see the forest for the trees. He was like the steadying influence."

One strength of the company was Mr. Ertegun's close relationships with many of the artists relationships that continued even after they left his label. Mr. Ertegun says Miss Midler still calls for advice, and he visits Miss Franklin's home when he visits Detroit.
"She's my sister," he says of Miss Franklin.
His friendships extend to the younger generation, too, including Kid Rock and Lil' Kim.
"I love my little girl, Lil' Kim. She's so sweet," he says with a smile.
Besides his love of music, Mr. Ertegun is also known for his love of art, and socializing. It is not uncommon to find him at a party with his wife, Mica, hanging out until all hours with friends.
"He's got wonderful anecdotes and stories to tell," Mr. Davis says. "It could be a current story or it could be something that goes back in years."
Mr. Ertegun recently had triple-bypass surgery, but is recuperating. He still goes to his office in midtown Manhattan, listening out for his next hit.
"You feel the groove in the tracks," he says, his head still bobbing to the music. "You know what I mean?"


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