Ahmet Ertegun, the Record Man

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Ashkan Sahihi / Corbis

In one chapter of Robert Greenfield’s ‘The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun‘ (Simon & Schuster), we’re in a funky Atlanta club in 1954 as Ray Charles and his seven-piece band debut a scorching set of new songs, including “I Got a Woman.” In another, 46 years later, we’re hanging over lunch (which includes hot dogs on silver platters, washed down with wine) with Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson. The connecting thread is Ertegun, the goateed Atlantic Records co-founder whom Greenfield describes as “the greatest record man who ever lived.”

Ertegun was more than just management: He was music executive as rock star, a man who lived as large as the musicians and presided over what could be called rock’s greatest era. As Greenfield recounts, Ertegun “could hang out with a prime minister in the morning and do blow with the bass player in the evening,” tearing it up backstage with groups like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. (One story has him convincing a cop that Keith Richards is a clown and his bag of cocaine, face makeup.)

The Turkish-born Ertegun, who started Atlantic Records in New York City in 1947 with seed money from the family dentist, had an unusually close working relationship with his artists. The book outlines how he persuaded Crosby, Stills & Nash to add Neil Young to the lineup, his long courtship to sign the Stones, and how he would persuade rival producers to sign acts he didn’t want. “No one else could cross over to all these different worlds and be comfortable,” says Greenfield, who, in the course of his research, had the cooperation of Ertegun’s family as well as access to his personal papers and recordings of his own oral history. “Ahmet understood that the record industry was a business of personal relationships founded on money,” he writes.

By the time Ertegun died – after complications from a fall backstage at a 2006 Stones concert – the major-label business he loved had nearly passed away with him. But the legacy he fostered – “I Got a Woman,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and so many more – is nothing less than the playlist of our time.

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