Don't call me Axl...and why Ahmet Ertegun is a hero
Someday, when a big wad of cash comes my way, I would love to start my own record label. The world is full of far too many albums that either never made it to CD, or which are just plain out of print. Cryin' shame that you can't buy either of Urge Overkill's two Geffen CDs, or Game Theory's Lolita Nation. And those are just three examples of amazing music which belongs in circulation. But until the label happens, I have been devouring all the history I can on other record labels, and reading Billboard and FMQB daily. I try to ask everyone I know who is in the record "industry" as it exists for them what the scales of economy are, and what to expect. All of them tell me to expect to outlay a whole lotta cash, and to maybe see some of it come back your way. But of course, for me (as with most people), the primary motivation isn't to score shitloads of cash; it's to get the music out there. Lord knows that there are 1,001 ways more efficient than starting a record label to earn obscene amounts of money in a hurry (real estate, exploiting illegal immigrants and downtrodden citizens, arms dealing, etc.). I can only imagine that most record labels of any lasting consequence were started because the founders actually at one time gave a damn about the music they released.
Atlantic is a case in point. Up until Warner Music Group's recent post-AOL issues, Atlantic was always a label that I have mad respect for. Sure, they made at least one very egregious transgression of integrity in their past*, but by and large, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and Neshui Ertegun contributed a whole lot of amazing music to our mundo artistico.
In Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie's excellent biography of Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records called Music Man, they relate this wonderful tale of how Atlantic came to sign the Rolling Stones back in 1969, as they were leaving British Decca (London Records in America). When Mick first told Ahmet that the Stones wanted to sign to Atlantic, it was in the Whisky-a-Go-Go club in L.A. and Ahmet was roaring drunk, passing out as Mick was telling him the news. This had the unexpected effect of pleasing Mick; he was so used to people kissing his ass, that to have a label head react to this huge news by passing out, Mick must've thought, "Here's a guy I can make records for!!"
But of course, the story wasn't as simple as that; Atlantic still had a bit of wooing to do to win the Stones. The Glimmer Twins were still entertaining offers from Columbia Records, and other labels. Wade and Picardie relate the story like this:
Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records (another independent label that had just become part of the Warner empire), saw Ertegun in London during this period. They met at 9am at a hotel to discuss whether Warner's music division should record the upcoming Isle of Wight pop festival -- but Ertegun's thoughts were on other, more pressing matters. "I got to the door and there was Ahmet reading an Arabic newspaper, but I could see his mind was preocupied," says Holzman. "He had been out all night with Mick Jagger and he was paying very little attention to what I was saying. Suddenly he picked up the phone and said, 'Got to make a call.' He called Mick and said, 'Wasn't that a wonderful time we had last night?' -- and Mick on the other end apparently agreed. Ahmet had been courting and wooing the Stones for about a year by then, and he said to Mick, 'It's probably time for you and me and Prince Rupert (Lowenstein, the Stones' then business manager) to sit down and make a deal.' And Mick said, 'Well, Ahmet, I'll be happy to sit down and talk about a deal with you -- just as soon as I've spoken to Clive Davis at CBS.'The facts bear out that Atlantic did indeed sign the Stones, and together the two entities enjoyed more than 10 years of connubial bliss, until the Stones did ultimately sign with CBS in 1983, after which they'd proven that the last of their true masterpieces had come out under the Atlantic logo (well, the Rolling Stones logo mf'd and dist'd by Atlantic, if you want to be technical). Either way, Ahmet Ertegun is one of my heroes, despite his flaws. The world would be in that much rougher shape if Atlantic Records had never existed.
"All the color drained out of Ahmet's face. He looked old at that moment: He was tired, and he had been up all night, and God knows what he had done to his system over the year, being pals with Mick. He got off the phone, and I could see it was futile to continue our discussion.
"He waited about a minute, said nothing, then picked up the phone and said to Mick, 'I've been thinking, and I understand what you're saying about wanting to talk to Clive Davis. But look, I can only sign one major act this year, one act of Rolling Stones caliber. So I want you to know unless I get an answer in a hurry, it is going to be Paul Revere and the Raiders.' And then he hung up. Twenty seconds later the phone rings. Ahmet doesn't pick up. The phone rang consistently for forty-five minutes while we finished the rest of our meeting... That was the biggest demonstration of cool I had ever seen -- before or since."
*The big sin I'm referring to was the sly contractual lingo which sailed over the heads of the naive principals of Stax Records at the time of the 1965 distribution pact which ultimately would rob Stax of its own recordings. Shameful of Atlantic, and in hindsight Jerry Wexler admitted in his autobiography just how wrong that move was.