The Amazing Ears of the Late Ahmet Ertegun A music industry pioneer has died. Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, died Wednesday. He was 83 years old.
NPR logo

The Amazing Ears of the Late Ahmet Ertegun

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Amazing Ears of the Late Ahmet Ertegun

The Amazing Ears of the Late Ahmet Ertegun

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A pioneer of the music has died. Ahmet Ertegun was the founder of Atlantic Records. He had been in a coma since a fall at a Rolling Stones concert this fall and he died on Wednesday at the age of 83.

When you take some of the music that Ertegun brought to the public's attention and play it, song after song, you listen in wonder. Here's NPR's Felix Contreras.

FELIX CONTRERAS: In the music business, people with an acute ability to sense something in music that others do not are said to have great ears. Ahmet Ertegun had some of the best ears in the business.

He was the son of a Turkish diplomat who fell in love with jazz after seeing Duke Ellington in 1932. Shortly after, the young Ertegun staged concerts at the Turkish embassy in Washington where black and white musicians played together, something they couldn't do beyond the embassy gates.

Presented with a choice of either following his father's diplomatic footsteps or pursuing music, Ertegun borrowed $10,000 from a family dentist in 1947 and started a record label.

(Soundbite of song “Wild, Wild Young Men”)

Ms. RUTH BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Wild, wild young men like to have a good time. Wild, wild young men like to have a good time.

CONTRERAS: The business plan was simple, he once told PBS's Charlie Rose. Supply music to an audience that the major record labels were ignoring.

Mr. AHMET ERTEGUN (Founder, Atlantic Records): We started off making was music that would sell to the black audience. They used to call those race records, you know.

CONTRERAS: Ertegun and Atlantic helped race records become rhythm and blues with acts like Ruth Brown, The Drifters, and a young, blind pianist from Seattle.

(Soundbite of song “What'd I Say”)

Mr. RAY CHARLES (Singer): (Singing) Hey, Mama, don't you treat me wrong. Come and love your daddy all night long. All right now. Hey, hey.

CONTRERAS: Ray Charles raised Atlantic's profile and record sales. Ertegun had assembled an extraordinary hit-making production team that included engineer Tom Dowd and producer Jerry Wexler, who was also a partner in Atlantic. Together they also helped turn a young church-trained singer into the Queen of Soul.

(Soundbite of song “Respect”)

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) What you want, baby, I got. What you need, you know I got it. All I'm asking is for a little respect when you come home. Hey, baby.

Unidentified Male: We turned out so many hits, one good one was like another. I mean when we had songs like “What Did I Say” by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin or songs of that stature, there's a great feeling when it's happening.

CONTRERAS: The label's successes would have been short-lived if Ahmet Ertegun had not recognized the potential of the new sound of the late 1960s.

(Soundbite of Communication Breakdown)

Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Musician): (Singing) Hey, girl. What you doin'? Hey, girl. What you been doin?

CONTRERAS: Ertegun and Atlantic moved effortlessly into the new era of rock and roll signing Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young among many others. Later, Atlantic became a leading jazz label with artists like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner says Ertegun became a mentor whose musical sensibilities were one of a kind.

Mr. JANN WENNER (Founder, Rolling Stone): He saw that life force that comes out of music, that gave him the life he led and to which he devoted that life.

CONTRERAS: They don't make them like him anymore, do they?

Mr. WENNER: Absolutely not. Everybody knew Ahmet was the greatest of all the music gods.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Oh, she may be weary...

CONTRERAS: Ahmet Ertegun always attributed his successes to his love for jazz and blues and the musicians who made it. But he let a strong guiding hand by following his instincts and making the kind of records that changed the way we listen to music.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.