The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun
By Robert Greenfield
Simon and Schuster; 431 pp; $30.00
By the time Ahmet Ertegun signed the Rolling Stones to his Atlantic Records label in April 1971, the imprint had already launched superstars including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, and fractious hippie supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young onto the global stage. When Ertegun died five years ago at 83, the world lost another member of the vanishing species known as the Record Man. The honorific refers to the group of executives (which included Island’s Chris Blackwell, Electra’s Jac Holzman, and Mo Ostin of Warner Bros.) who helped define the culture of their time by making decisions based on personal musical instincts rather than fiscal pragmatism.
Robert Greenfield, author of the new Ertegun biography, The Last Sultan, is a former Rolling Stone writer best-known for 1974’s S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with The Rolling Stones, about the Stones’ notorious 1972 U.S. tour. Greenfield’s portrait of Ertegun is an incisive and compelling account of the sometimes convoluted story of how Atlantic Records became possibly the most respected label in the business.
Despite its title, The Last Sultan evinces none of the triumphalism that one has come to expect from big-ticket rock books—chiefly because Atlantic’s triumph was forged steadily over several decades, during which the company occasionally came close to melt-down. For instance, after Elvis Presley transformed the music world almost overnight, Atlantic could have been left high and dry if Bobby Darin had not managed to slither up the pop chart in 1958 with the bouncy, Ertegun-produced Splish Splash.
As the son of a high-ranking Turkish diplomat, Ertegun was raised in London, Paris, and Switzerland before his father became Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. in 1934. Ahmet and his older brother, Nesuhi, were fanatical about black American music, acquiring some 25,000 records between them. The teenage Ahmet would frequent black-music venues in D.C., mixing with musicians twice his age; the ability to operate comfortably within disparate sociocultural milieus—perhaps inherited from his father—would ultimately become central to his success.
In 1947, Ertegun borrowed $12,500 from his family dentist and, along with a fellow True Believer named Herb Abramson, launched Atlantic Records. The label did respectable business as a rare source of raw rhythm and blues music during the post-war period, but it hit its stride with the acquisition of leather-lunged stalwart Ruth Brown and had its first breakout hit with Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll. The record was a No. 1 R&B hit three months before Bill Haley’s cheerfully deracinated version took the mainstream world by storm.
Ertegun’s major breakthrough was the 1952 signing of Ray Charles, although it wasn’t until two years later that the label boss and his new partner, Jerry Wexler, a Bronx-born ex-Billboard reporter, cajoled the future icon into recording I Got a Woman, which became a No. 1 R&B track, the first of many hits Charles recorded for Atlantic.
Ertegun’s brother, Nesuhi, who’d been running his own jazz label in Los Angeles, joined Atlantic in 1956, adding new luster to the label by augmenting its roster with heavy-duty acts like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Ertegun consciously cultivated a playboy image. In the 1950s he was a fixture at the fashionable nightclub El Morocco, and the early ’60s saw him slumming alongside the likes of Noël Coward and Jackie Kennedy at the seedy Peppermint Lounge, birthplace of a new dance craze called the Twist. In 1978 a lengthy and dazzling profile in the New Yorker officially granted Ertegun recognition as the jet-setting bohemian-in-chief of the record business.
Although The Last Sultan, which was written with the cooperation of Ertegun’s widow, Mica, is suitably stately in tone, it’s no hagiography. One female music manager—whom Greenfield mentions by name—alleges that Ertegun shoved his hand up her skirt in a hotel room and that he slept with several female artists on his label. “It’s a shame you can’t find oil the way you can find women,” one of Ertegun’s female employees told him. “We’d be the richest people in the world.”
There is one brief episode in The Last Sultan that offers trenchant insight into Ertegun’s self-image. Wexler pays a visit to the Erteguns’ new, $100,000 brownstone on the Upper East Side, where he is clearly unsettled upon discovering that the master of the house has employed a pair of manservants. The high-born Turk did not fail to register his partner’s disapproval. Ertegun later explained, “I was very happy to get back to what I considered as normal.”
Given Ertegun’s deep-rooted countercultural predilections, it comes as something of a surprise when Greenfield mentions a substantial contribution Ertegun made to William F. Buckley Jr.’s right-wing National Review magazine, then reveals the record mogul’s friendship with Donald Rumsfeld—whom he stoically defended in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ertegun’s close relationship with Henry Kissinger helps account for the former Secretary of State’s glowing blurb on The Last Sultan.
When Atlantic Records decided to enter the Rock Era in earnest by signing the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, it effectively acquired a license to print money. Sadly Ertegun did not have access to this capital, because back in 1967—despite his fervent desire to maintain Atlantic Records’ independent status—Ertegun was outvoted by his two business partners and the company was sold to Warner Brothers—Seven Arts. In a year that saw Atlantic landing an astonishing 18 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, its three principals were bought out for a modest $17 million in shares. Wexler, who was raised in the most humble of circumstances, later explained that his personal motivation for selling the company derived from his long-term anxiety about the extreme volatility of the music business.
In a clear portent of the record industry’s future modus operandi, according to which record companies were routinely bought and traded like so many poker chips, Warner Brothers—Seven Arts was sold to the parking-lot conglomerate Kinney in 1969, for $400 million.
Although Ertegun continued to act as Atlantic’s dapper figurehead after the label’s sale, the later chapters of The Last Sultan consist of one extended diminuendo. Greenfield discusses Ertegun’s voracious acquisition of expensive artworks, his Louis Vuitton luggage fixation, his Gulfstream habit, and his undiminished appetite for the tonier aspects of New York nightlife. The veteran mogul relinquished control of Atlantic Records to younger men. “There’s a lot of work to do around here,” Ertegun told a writer at one Atlantic event. “Fortunately I have people to do it for me.”
In a poignant scene from Ertegun’s anticlimactic third act, an Atlantic colleague decides to play Ertegun some music by one of the label’s successful 1980s bands, the grotesque heavy-rock outfit Twisted Sister. “I don’t like it, but what the f–k do I know?” said the man who gave the world Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles, and countless other music icons. “I haven’t had a f—king hit in seven years.”