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Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun looks back on his storied career, signing Clyde McPhatter, vying for Elvis, watching the Beatles slip by, discovering Eric Clapton . . . : The Hits, the Misses

Robert Hilburn is the Times pop music critic

One way to convey Ahmet Ertegun’s preeminence in the music business is to point out that he built Atlantic Records over the last five decades from a $10,000 investment into a multibillion-dollar operation.

Another way is to name all the great artists who have been on the Atlantic roster, including nearly two dozen Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin (see list, Page 72).

Or you could underscore Ertegun’s standing as the most respected executive ever in the record business by simply noting that he is the person who both David Geffen and Phil Spector wanted to be.

“He was certainly my role model and one of the most charming people I know . . . a man who would have been successful at anything he tried,” says Geffen, the entertainment industry titan who was an artists’ manager before Ertegun talked him into starting his own label in the early ‘70s. “I both love and respect him.”

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“He is . . . both the quintessential friend and business executive” the reclusive Spector --a one-time Ertegun assistant who became arguably the most brilliant record producer ever, thanks to such ‘60s hits as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin”'--wrote earlier this year in a Billboard magazine salute to Ertegun.

The son of a Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Ertegun started Atlantic in 1948 with Herb Abramson, largely to pursue his love of jazz and blues. Abramson left the company in he ‘50s, but Ertegun assembled an invaluable new team that included his brother, Nesuhi, who specialized in the label’s jazz roster, and Jerry Wexler, who produced many of Atlantic’s classic soul recordings.

Atlantic quickly became part of a landmark group of scrappy, independent labels, along with Chess and Sun, that championed R&B; and/or country music, the outcast styles that forged the rock highlighted by the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that many in the record industry feel has been lost in this age of conglomerate control.

Of those early grass-roots labels, only Atlantic has survived.

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Ertegun, 74, sold the company to what is now Time Warner in 1967 for $17 million, but he continues to serve as co-chairman and co-CEO of Atlantic, which had its biggest year ever in 1997. Val Azzoli, who has been co-chairman and co-CEO since 1996, says, “Ahmet’s vision founded this company, and his spirit has defined it for five decades. His inspiration underlies everything that we do. . . .”

One reason for Atlantic’s long reign is that, of the early entrepreneurs, only Ertegun adjusted to the changing musical currents, embracing Memphis soul and English rock. Ertegun’s ear for music has been matched by his eye for executive talent. He has brought to the company a long line of respected industry figures, including Doug Morris, who is now chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group.

But much of Atlantic’s legacy--which is being widely feted this year on the occasion of its 50th anniversary--also is due to Ertegun’s personal charm. Though a man of immense sophistication (he and his wife Mica have been A-list names in New York high society for years), Ertegun has always been able to relate to artists on both personal and professional levels. Who else can count both Henry Kissinger and Mick Jagger among his closest friends?

Among his many talents is his storytelling. Some people will swear that Ertegun tells stories as masterfully as Bob Dylan writes songs--and the following anecdotes, just a fraction of the ones he spun during an interview in Atlantic’s Manhattan offices, give you a sense of the way Ertegun’s passion for music, his competitive instincts, his humor and his good fortune combined to make him as big a star in the industry as any of his acts.

In the spirit of the industry he helped pioneer, Ertegun’s stories about the label’s early days are presented in the form of a “greatest hits” album--complete with track titles and estimated listening times.

ATLANTIC’S FIRST BIG HIT (1:02)

This big record distributor in New Orleans called me one day in 1949. He was looking for a blues record that was selling so fast he couldn’t keep them in stock. It was on some obscure label and he asked if I could help him find it. He wanted 10,000 copies.

Now that floored me: The most he had ever ordered of any of our records was 25 copies!

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I had never heard of the label, but I told him that if he’d send me a copy of the record, we’d go into the studio and make an exact copy. The record turned out to be “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by someone named Stick McGhee.

Now the only two blues singers in New York at the time were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. So, I called Brownie . . . and it turned out Stick was his brother.

So, Brownie put me in touch with Stick and I asked him if he’s under contract to anybody. As soon as he said “no,” I got him into the studio and we made our version of “Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”

Within three days, I shipped 10,000 copies. The record went to No. 2. . . .

EARLY HIGH JINKS, PART 1 (1:05)

Soon after we released our first record, I started going to local radio stations trying to get them played, which was hard because we were going up against the major labels.

One day, this promotion man from another label sees me and I don’t know if he’s feeling sorry for me or what, but he says he’ll show me how to get my records played.

Now this is late at night, and the station is pretty much deserted except for the deejay and the engineer. This guy takes me into the record library, where there were thousands of old 78s.

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He looks around to make sure no one is coming . . . and then he takes out this sharp key. He takes this key and drags it along this row of records. In one swoop, he chips about 500 records!

I’m scared.

But he just keeps doing it until there’s a crack in every record in the room.

Then he lays out his records alongside my records and a few more from other labels just so they can’t tell who had cracked the records.

The next day, you turn on the radio and, what do you know: They’re playing our records.

SIGNING CLYDE McPHATTER (0:55)

I used to love Billy Ward & the Dominoes, who had big hits like “Sixty-Minute Man” on Federal Records, mainly because of Clyde’s high voice. He was my favorite singer. I used to always go to see the Dominoes when they came to town, just to listen to him, wishing we had him on our label.

But one night in 1953, the Dominoes came out on stage and there was no Clyde McPhatter.

Afterward, I asked where he was--I figured he was sick or something. But he’d been fired! He’d done something to upset Billy, who ran the group like a general.

I immediately rushed to the pay phone and called information to see if there was a McPhatter listed. There was and I knew it was him the moment this high voice said, “Hello?”

We signed him the next day.

The only problem was the name. He wanted to call his group Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, which I thought sounded too much like a cowboy group. But once you heard the records like “Money Honey,” you knew the name wouldn’t be a problem.

HIGH JINKS, PART II (0:52)

In the early days, the indie labels were scattered all around the country and we would often help each other out by promoting each other’s records. We were all fighting the majors.

It was hard work, but we also had a lot of fun.

One day I call Lew Chudd at Imperial, which had all the great Fats Domino records, and I tell him he needs to do a better job of promoting Atlantic Records on the West Coast because I am doing such a great job promoting Imperial on the East Coast.

He goes: “Yeah, and just how are you promoting my records?”

I tell him that I called up this disc jockey in Atlanta and said: “Hi, I’m Lew Chudd and if you don’t play my [expletive] records, I’m coming down there and break both your legs.”

Suddenly, Lou’s nervous.

He’s telling me: “No! No! Please don’t do that anymore!”

And I can barely keep from giving it all away by laughing, but I tell him: “But Lou, you can bet they’re playing all your records now in Atlanta.”

EDUCATING PHIL SPECTOR (1:22)

I met Phil through Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who came to me as independent producers to record the Robins, who became the Coasters.

I was producing a lot of records by the late ‘50s, and I talked him into being my assistant. My next project was Bobby Darin’s new album and I took Phil along to meet Bobby . . . to kind of show him how you deal with artists.

Now the thing about Bobby is, he was very prolific, but not all his songs were real good. Every third or fourth one would be a gem, so you had to encourage him to go through all his new material.

After all the introductions, Bobby starts playing a song--and it’s pretty bad. But I go: “Great, Bobby, that’s great. . . . What else do you have?”

Then, he plays another song and it’s worse than the first, but I go: “Now, that’s very nice, Bobby, very nice. What else you got?”

And, so it goes for a couple more songs.

All of a sudden, Phil turns to me: “Just a minute, man. Are you crazy or am I crazy? What do you mean these songs are great? They stink!”

Darin puts down the guitar and shouts: “Get this [expletive] outta here!”

Now, a year later, a couple of Bobby’s singles don’t do that well, and Bobby says to me: “Hey, Ahmet, do you think it may be time to use a co-producer? There’s this new kid out here in Hollywood who is very hot. . . . His name is Phil Spector.”

And, I go: “Phil Spector? That’s the guy you threw out of the place last year.”

That’s the music business for you.

ALMOST LANDING ELVIS (0:47)

Jerry Wexler and I loved Elvis. He was the first white guy we ever heard who could sing with black feeling without it sounding contrived . . . and we tried to get his contract. I met in Los Angeles in 1955 with Col. Tom Parker and Elvis’ publishers, whom we knew.

Parker said he was going to take Elvis away from Sun Records and asked if we’d be interested. I got real excited and offered $25,000 for the contract, which was all the money we had.

But Parker wanted $45,000 and he went to RCA.

I always wonder what might have happened if we had made a deal. . . . Not just for Atlantic, but also for Elvis.

The records he made at RCA were great, but I think we could have made better ones. We might have tried a different approach. The music would have been a bit funkier. We wouldn’t have gone pop so quickly with him.

JUST MISSING THE BEATLES (0:25)

We worked with a lawyer in the ‘60s who was given the task of placing the Beatles with a label in America after Capitol first turned them down. Now, he had two music accounts . . . us and Vee-Jay Records. I don’t know to this day why, but he put them on Vee-Jay. That’s how Vee-Jay got “She Loves You.”

Now, they eventually went to Capitol because there were some royalty problems at Vee-Jay, but if they had come to us, we would never have let them go. . . . We would have had all those records.

DISCOVERING ERIC CLAPTON (0:44)

I was in London on a promotion trip with Wilson Pickett in the mid-'60s, and we had a party at a club. At one point, the house band stopped playing and some guys went on stage and started jamming.

I had my back to the stage, talking to Wilson and I heard this great blues guitar sound . . . just like B.B. King.

Now, I know there’s no one who can play guitar like that in England, so I figured it must have been Wilson’s guy and I said to him: “Man, your guitar player can sure play the blues.”

He looked at me kind of strange and replied, “I don’t know who you are talking about, Ahmet, but my guitar player is over there having a drink at the bar.”

So, I turn around and see this guitarist with this beautiful, angelic face, his eyes closed, playing the loveliest solo you ever heard. That was how I first met Eric Clapton and started Cream.

LOSING BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD (0:45)

Buffalo Springfield will always be my greatest frustration because in many ways I thought it was the best rock band in America.

You had Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. To hear three singers and three guitar players like that, all in their teens or early 20s. They were brilliant, but it just didn’t happen, except for the one single [“For What It’s Worth”].

So, we had a meeting in Hollywood with the lawyers in 1968 and the band told me they were going to break up. They wanted their release from Atlantic.

And I tell you something: I begged them not to break up. I actually cried.

Eventually, I said OK . . . they could leave the label if they wanted. Stephen decided to stay with us. Then, of course, he found David Crosby and Graham Nash and that’s when David Geffen, their manager, entered my life.

MEETING DAVID GEFFEN (0:50)

From the very first, David was charming . . . super intelligent, very hip and had a great sense of humor.

He came to see me to get a release for Stephen so he could go on Columbia and start Crosby, Stills & Nash. But I said: “No way!”

So, we made a deal for Crosby, Stills & Nash to record for Atlantic, mainly I think because David and I hit if off so well.

If the negotiations had gone on, we might have relented and let Stephen go. But I convinced David that the group should be with us. When I heard the CSN harmony, it was just magic. I eventually talked David into starting a record company. He was the smartest young person I had ever met.

There have always been people who grew up with a dream about being entertainers. But David had a dream about being involved in this entertainment world--not as a performer, but as a businessman.

HIS OWN REPUTATION (0:20)

I’m embarrassed by all the attention [being paid him during Atlantic’s 50th anniversary this year] because there are so many other people who contributed to the success of the label. Because I’ve been here the whole time, it looks like I’m the one who was responsible for everything, all these records, all these artists. But so many people. It’s been a real family and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.

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Atlantic’s Fame Stable Here are the 21 acts from Atlantic Records or its distributed labels who have been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--which, coincidentally, Ahmet Ertegun was a guiding force in starting. No other label has more than a dozen.

Allman Brothers Band

LaVern Baker

The Bee Gees

Booker T. & the MG’s

Ruth Brown

Buffalo Springfield

Ray Charles

The Coasters

Cream

Crosby, Stills & Nash

Bobby Darin

The Drifters

Aretha Franklin

Led Zeppelin

Clyde McPhatter

Wilson Pickett

The (Young) Rascals

Otis Redding

The Rolling Stones

Sam & Dave

Big Joe Turner

*

Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com


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