Ahmet Ertegun Tribute with Tom Moon

Ahmet Ertegun may not be a name you immediately recognize, however, he is responsible for significantly contributing to the careers of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many others. He was best known as the founder of Atlantic Records and had an ear for discovering some of the finest talent of the 20th century. On the occasion of what would have been his 90th birthday (he died in 2006), Tom Moon, NPR contributor and author of 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, spoke with us about the life and lasting legacy of Ahmet Ertegun.

Ahmet Ertegun was the founder of Atlantic Records in 1947.  He was known for his ear for talent and contributing to the careers of the music icons like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles and many more.

Atlantic Records was originally founded as a gospel, jazz, and R&B label.  There were other R&B labels around at the time, but none of them had the talent or crossover appeal that Atlantic Records did.  Tom commented on Ertegun and Atlantic Records’ success and ability to distinguish itself as the premier record label, “They didn’t just do R&B.  As you said they documented a lot of jazz.  One of the cornerstone early signings was the great New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair.  What they were able to do around an artist like that was put out his record and through him find their way into other worlds and other artists.  They really treated each artist as a portal into a world.”

In the 1960s the popularity of R&B wained.  That being said, Ahmet Ertegun changed up his strategy in the 60s and made rock a focus of Atlantic Records.  Cindy and Tom discussed the almost sixth sense of Ahmet Ertegun and his ability to foresee the “next big thing” in music.  “I think he was just such a open listener. By the time he’s concerned with Led Zeppelin he’s already made records, a bunch of consequential records with John Coltrane.  Once you listen at the level that you need to listen to appreciate what John Coltrane is doing and people who are tightened like that, eventually you develop a kind of radar for sound. What he was able to hear with Zeppelin was a new context of the blues,” adds Moon.

Ahmet Ertegun’s influence is one the music industry is one that cannot not be ignored or replicated, for that matter.  When asked by Cindy if anyone in music today could compare to Ertegun, Moon replied, “No, not the way the music business is presently constructed.  Part of that is the business side of it and the fact that to build the label around so much musical credibility is incredibly difficult but also there isn’t a place for that kind of smart curator, label head figure anymore.  Where Ahmet Ertegun is so important is as someone who knew what he was hearing number one and believed that he could share the enthusiasm that he had for what he was hearing with a large audience.  To me that kind of single-minded focus, the belief stuff, the conviction stuff, that comes [with] just hearing a bunch of music and sort of understanding the context and why a particular voice like Aretha’s would be important over the long term.”  It’s clear that even years after his passing Ahmet Ertegun and his legacy in music will continue to be remembered and cherished.  After all, not everyone has Led Zeppelin perform in honor of his or her passing like Ertegun did.