One of the most influential figures in the history of American popular music was born on this day in 1923 in perhaps the unlikeliest of places: Istanbul, Turkey. The son of a high-ranking diplomat, Ahmet Ertegun enjoyed a cosmopolitan upbringing that included stops in Switzerland, Paris and London before his father’s appointment as Turkish ambassador to the United States brought him to America. Intelligent, well-educated and well-connected, Ertegun had attractive career opportunities to consider when he graduated from Maryland’s St. John’s College in 1944, but his Americanization had already gone too far. “I had to decide whether I would go into a scholastic life or go back to Turkey in the diplomatic service,” he recalled many years later. “[But] what I really loved was music…and hanging out.”
To hold those priorities as a recent college graduate is one thing, but to turn them into a hugely successful career of great historical and cultural significance is quite another. Along with his older brother, Nesuhi, Ahmet was a jazz and blues aficionado. Together, the two Erteguns had amassed an enormous record collection of mostly black artists—artists who had little hope of mainstream success in the segregated America of the 1940s. While Nesuhi went west to take over a Los Angeles record store in 1944, Ahmet remained on the East Coast, moving to New York City to establish an independent record label with partner Herb Abramson in 1947. That label, Atlantic Records, would play a pivotal role in breaking down the racial barriers that characterized the postwar music industry.
At Atlantic Records in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ertegun worked with artists like Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, The Drifters and Ray Charles to lay down the foundations of a musical style that future Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler had only recently christened “rhythm and blues.” The future styles called “soul” and “rock and roll” would also evolve out of the sounds that Ertegun helped to popularize, and the early Atlantic catalog would be instrumental in inspiring the blues-based rock that British bands like the Rolling Stones brought to America in the mid-1960s.
When Herb Abramson departed Atlantic in 1958, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun joined on as partners, and after another incredibly successful decade as a true independent, they sold the label to the forerunner of Time Warner in 1967. Atlantic retained a distinct identity within its parent company, however, even as it moved from the music of Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin in the 1960s and 1070s to gangsta rap in the 1990s.
Born on this day in 1923, Ahmet Ertegun died in 2006 following a fall backstage at a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City.