Nesuhi Ertegun, who rose from a teen-age jazz fanatic to become a powerful record executive, died Saturday in New York after cancer surgery. He was 71.
Ertegun, who was born in Istanbul, created WEA International company, the distributor outside the United States of the music products of Warner Brothers Records, Atlantic Records, Elektra Records and MCA Records. He founded the firm in 1971 and remained its president and chief executive officer until 1987. He was also a writer, historian and producer of recordings by a wide range of musicians.
Son of Ambassador
Ertegun's fascination with jazz began when his father, then Turkish ambassador to Britain, took him to see a Duke Ellington concert at the London Palladium in 1933. When his father became the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Ertegun and his brother, Ahmet, followed. The brothers began promoting jazz concerts in Washington in the early 1940s and had amassed a collection of 20,000 records by the mid-1940s.
In 1944, Ertegun and his first wife, Marili Morden, moved to Los Angeles where he opened a record shop. When the late actor Orson Welles suggested that Ertegun organize a band, he put together the New Orleans immortals Kid Ory, Mutt Carey and Jimmy Noone and founded the Crescent label to record them. Several years later, for the Contemporary label, he recorded such West Coast modern jazz artists as Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Guiffre.
Ertegun lectured in the history of American music at UCLA, considered the first courses on the history of jazz given for college credit in an American university.
In 1955, he moved to New York to help manage Ahmet's Atlantic Records, which the brothers started in 1948. He signed such artists as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus. He also signed pop singer Roberta Flack and produced recordings by Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, the Drifters and Big Joe Turner.
Some performers criticized the Erteguns' motives. Mel Torme, for one, said: "I was ecstatic about singing with them . . . (but) the Erteguns basically are businessmen with a totally commercial approach."
Ertegun was the first president of the National Assn. of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives the record industry's Grammy awards.
A soccer fan, he founded the New York Cosmos Soccer Club, now defunct, which brought international stars such as Pele to the United States.
Ertegun was also known for his flamboyance. Married four times, he spoke six languages and after his retirement, divided his time among his residences in New York City, Katonah, N.Y., and Binot, France.
He is survived by his wife, Selma, his daughter, Leyla, and his son, Rustem.