A writer trying to organize fifty years of popular music—a sprawling and unruly topic—has several options. One possibility is to pick a single genre, say the blues, and trace its birth and development. Another is to follow the history of an influential record label. A more dynamic approach is to tell the story of one influential musician or band, though any artist’s story is restricted by the particulars of his or her career. The best way might be to recount the life of a non-musician, one who influenced many of the best known musicians of the period. This is the approach taken by Robert Greenfield in The Last Sultan, a compelling biography of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun published in November 2011.
It’s difficult to imagine a more intriguing or colorful character than Ertegun. Son of the Turkish ambassador to the United States, he developed a love for jazz at an early age. As a teenager Ertegun began frequenting clubs and concerts in Washington and New York. At times he would be the only non-African American in the establishment. By the age of twenty he and his brother had collected over twenty thousand 78 RPM jazz and blues records. Ertegun formed Atlantic Records with a friend shortly after World War II. When told by a New Orleans distributor that copies of a popular record were unavailable, he located the original artist and recut the song. “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee (brother of folk/blues artist Brownie McGhee) became Atlantic’s first hit, selling several hundred thousand copies in 1949. Over the next five decades Ertegun worked closely with influential artists ranging from Ray Charles and Bobby Darin to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Rolling Stones, and Kid Rock. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he proved to be adept at negotiating corporate mergers, nurturing the careers of young music business executives including David Geffen. Ertegun never formally retired as Chairman of Atlantic Records. He died in 2006 at the age of eighty-three.
Ertegun’s personality—with its many contradictions—makes for an intriguing topic by itself. A lover and promoter of music made by African Americans, Ertegun and his label were guilty of underpaying, or not paying at all, many of those same artists. As someone who valued, above almost all else, his public persona, he engaged in illegal activities, providing favors to deejays to insure airplay and, on at least one occasion, enlisting the help of the Mob. Though his marriage of many years was clearly important to him, it was marked by repeated infidelities. Ertegun built one of the most successful independent labels of all time, yet was able to thrive as an executive in the corporate goliath of Warner Music.
Author Greenfield, who has written books on Jerry Garcia, the Rolling Stones, and promoter Bill Graham, conducted numerous interviews with Ertegun’s family, friends, and business associates. One of the book’s biggest revelations doesn’t directly involve Ertegun. An attorney for Atlantic, Paul Marshall, relates that in 1963, as general counsel for EMI in the U. S., he sent a tape recording of The Beatles, then unknown in the U.S., to Jerry Wexler, legendary producer and Ertegun’s partner at Atlantic. Wexler turned them down, telling Marshall through a secretary that the group was “derivative.” Wexler never mentioned the incident to Ertegun or in subsequent interviews.
Keeping The Last Sultan to a reasonable length must have been a challenge. The history of Atlantic Records and its artists could easily fill more than one book with facts and figures. In addition to Wexler, there are many fascinating characters associated with Ertegun’s story. Each might have proved a tempting distraction, but Greenfield successfully keeps the spotlight on his subject. Some of the music is overlooked in the process. Atlantic’s extensive jazz catalogue, overseen by Ertegun’s brother Nesuhi, is skimmed over. The 1950’s, when Atlantic established itself as the leading rhythm and blues label, is mostly confined to the careers of Ray Charles and Bobby Darin. Other flaws exist. Greenfield’s writing is clumsy and even confusing at times: “Aside from how much both partners valued Ray Charles as an artist, their need to keep him on Atlantic was compounded by the fact that when Clyde McPhatter’s contract with Atlantic had ended with MGM … ,” etc. And Ertegun’s concerns in his later years—the shifting corporate scene at Warner Music in the 1990’s, his accumulation of a large modern art collection, and his palatial home in Turkey—are topics that pale in comparison to the music he helped to create in the 50’s and 60’s. Perhaps Greenfield could have spent that time on the earlier, more musically vital decades of Ertegun’s life.
All in all it’s difficult to imagine another book on popular music covering this much music history in such a dramatic fashion. Through his involvement with American popular music Ertegun exerted a lasting influence on American popular culture. In The Last Sultan Robert Greenfield proves the best way to tell an exciting story is to simply choose the right person.