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Label Mogul Ahmet Ertegun Dies at 83

In early November, we reported that Atlantic Records co-founder and ardent jazz supporter Ahmet Ertegun was in stable condition despite plunging into a coma following a backstage fall. In one of those bizarre twists of fate, the mishap occurred before the Rolling Stones-whom Ertegun loved and eventually signed-began their set at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on Oct. 29. Sadly, the legendary music magnate never regained consciousness and passed away on Dec. 14. He was 83.

Ertegun’s contributions to modern music cannot be praised enough, as he played a significant role in altering the course of blues, jazz, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, helping to shape the careers of such innovators as John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. In an industry where being cutthroat and capitalistically driven is normal behavior-and he was a shrewd businessman when the situation arose-Ertegun’s genuine love, nurture and admiration for his artists was a breath of fresh air.

Born in Istanbul on July 31, 1923 to a Turkish diplomat, Ertegun claimed to have fallen in love with music at the age of 9 after his older brother, Nesuhi, brought him to see Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway in London. The beauty, power and elegance of jazz affected him so strongly that he was determined to start his own label to release the music that he valued. In 1947, he got that chance when, along with Herb Abramson, he founded Atlantic Records with money borrowed from a family dentist.

By the mid-’50s, Ertegun developed his vision by merging different genres, striking commercial gold and cultural resonance with Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and various hits by the recently deceased Ruth Brown. Nesuhi joined Atlantic in 1956 and attracted most of the relevant jazz musicians of the era to the label, including Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and the Modern Jazz Quartet. In the ’60s, Atlantic released great soul albums by the likes of Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Solomon Burke. By 1967, the Erteguns had established such an impressive musical regime that they decided to sell the label to Warner Brothers; Ahmet remained chairman and shortly thereafter signed the Stones and Crosby, Stills and Nash (it was with his prodding that they asked Neil Young to join them).

Though Ertegun might not have transformed the face of popular music as drastically as he did from 1947 to 1967, he remained well within the public eye by signing rock bands, attending concerts and being extremely approachable. He even helped start the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was inducted into it in 1987. Though it’d be impossible to accurately designate the title of “World’s Biggest Music Fan” to anyone, Ahmet Ertegun would surely be among the top candidates.

Originally Published