NEW YORK, NY: In the City That Never Sleeps, it’s easy to think the whole world has come to you. But being here, you realize that though the senses are treated to a 24-hour international array, there is no substitute for seeing the world for yourself.
I am in the Big Apple as part of an international music festival, where I am showcasing my own collection of obscure sounds from around the globe. In this role, I must tell you about a recently deceased icon of the music industry who embodied internationalism at its best.
Ahmet Ertegün was born in 1923 in Istanbul, Turkey. His father, a diplomat in the post-Ottoman Turkish foreign service, brought the family to Washington, DC in 1935 after being appointed the Turkish ambassador to the United States.
In 1936, the vociferously secular government of Turkey mandated that its citizens choose surnames for their families. In Ottoman Turkey, as in so many traditional and religious cultures, patronymic names were standard (even my Welsh last name, Hopkins, reflects a long-forgotten father named Hob).
Ahmet’s father, Münir, chose Ertegün, which means "living in a hopeful future." The Ertegün sons stayed in the U.S. after their father’s Washington tenure came to an end, and they went on to fulfill the promise of their recently-acquired family name.
Recording the Future
Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi quickly fell in love with jazz, and after securing a $10,000 loan from the family’s Turkish dentist, Ahmet and some associated started Atlantic Records. Nesuhi came on board officially in 1955, and under the leadership of the Ertegüns, the Atlantic label broke down cultural and societal barriers during some of the most turbulent times in American history.
The brothers were not the only remarkable personalities who developed the Atlantic sound. Tom Dowd, a nuclear physicist whose mother was an opera singer, went from the Manhattan Project to the Manhattan office of Atlantic Records, where he invented the modern science of studio engineering.
Dowd’s audio expertise was primarily employed to spread the underground sound of the American South. Ray Charles was only well known on the "Chitlin’ Circuit," the standard string of clubs and juke joints that dotted the heavily-and sometimes militantly-segregated former slave states.
Ahmet Ertegün was unafraid to walk the tightrope of commerce and culture in his adopted home. With a slight accent, he traversed the tense landscape of the southern states and gained a determination to promote the talent he found there.
You can imagine the looks he must have gotten, a foreigner expressing interest in the music of the southern boondocks after generations of intentional suppression by U.S. record execs. Atlantic helped turn the tunes of Big Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles from taboo "race records" into the less abrasive "rhythm and blues" or R&B. Detroit’s Motown label called R&B "The Sound of Young America."
Unity Through Rhythm
Indeed, R&B concerts were some of the first truly integrated cultural gatherings in American history. The two Turkish Muslim Ertegün brothers were responsible for Washington, DC’s first integrated concert, which took place at the only local venue that would permit such an event-the Jewish Community Center.
The dentist’s $10,000 turned into billions through commercial ingenuity and a progressive spirit of bravery that cannot be overstated.
Ahmet Ertegün maintained executive standing in Atlantic and its various incarnations, serving as Founding Chairman until his death on December 14, 2006.
He was buried in Istanbul this Monday, where Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul offered his ringing praise of Ahmet Ertegün as a de facto ambassador:
"Nobody has, or ever will, do what he did for Turkey in the United States," Gul said. "He has left a large void."
Mr. Gul’s words should also include what Ertegün did for the United States. Living at the nexus of geopolitics, economics and art, Ahmet Ertegün brought a new perspective from overseas and transformed the world of music with his life’s work.
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