The new documentary Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built, an “American Masters” installment, is required viewing for anyone who’s ever scanned the Billboard charts or tapped a foot to an R&B beat.
In it legendary music executive Ahmet Ertegun recalls how he unleashed the wild side of Ray Charles by teaching him a number called “Mess Around.” It’s a giddy treat, listening to archival tape of the young pianist punching up the standard chords as his producer belts out the lyrics in a voice made for drunken karaoke and little else.
Ertegun wrote the song, but freely admits he lifted the melody from Cow Cow Davenport’s boogie-woogie classic “Cow Cow Blues,” written decades earlier. And when he explains how Charles took “Mess Around” and rejiggered it into the megahit “What’d I Say,” it’s with a sense of pride and not a drop of bitterness.
That anecdote perfectly illustrates Ertegun’s role in music over the past 60 years and the reason everyone from Ben E. King to Bette Midler agreed to participate in this two-hour film, lovingly written and directed by Susan Steinberg. Ertegun couldn’t play an instrument, wrote only a couple of songs that could be considered gems (most notably the oft-recorded “Don’t Play That Song”) and preferred designer suits that seemed as out of place in a rock club as a gorilla suit.
But Ertegun was pop music’s bridgemaster, transporting the jazz and blues of Harlem’s heyday into the mainstream of `50s R&B, `60s soul, `70s rock and even modern rap through his label, Atlantic Records. He persuaded Ruth Brown to stop imitating Doris Day and get nasty; allowed Ben E. King to add strings and Latin beats to his unlikely first solo hit, “Spanish Harlem,” and encouraged Led Zeppelin to turn the blues up to 11.
It makes perfect sense that he was the son of a Turkish ambassador, a job for which he was being groomed until the music of Louis Armstrong got the better of him. He spanned the space between the hip fringes (aka black music) and square society (aka Bing Crosby) and masterfully brought them together. Who but a diplomat could charm the Rolling Stones into signing a contract by dozing off during negotiations - a move, deliberate or not, that convinced Mick Jagger he wasn’t dealing with a pushy character?
Ertegun’s acceptance of a wide range of styles kept Atlantic Records on top for decades, even if it soiled the label’s class-act reputation. Partner Jerry Wexler, interviewed at length in the documentary, pays high respect to his longtime friend but also makes it clear that the label’s commercial choices disgusted him and led to him leaving the company he helped found.
Too much time is spent on the divineness of Bette Midler, perhaps because she is the film’s narrator, while Ertegun’s last major discovery, Kid Rock, gets more praise than Bobby Darin. “You’re gonna be bigger than Elvis Presley,” Ertegun remembers thinking the first time he saw Rock, who is sitting beside the aging maestro as the tells the story. It’s one of many star-studded chitchats recorded over the past four years as Ertegun took jaunts down memory lane with Phil Collins, Solomon Burke, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton and other hall of famers.
Almost all get a gleam in their eyes as they talk about the wild and crazy days, yet few details are provided. It’s akin to two people sharing a private joke that you’re dying to hear.
Ertegun’s wife, Mica, shrugs off questions about her husband’s reported dalliances, saying she didn’t think people were built to be with only one person, and leaves it at that. When someone asks Ertegun if he ever did drugs, he takes a calculated beat and responds: “Well, I inhaled.”
A more complete biography of Ertegun will have to wait. This documentary is as much about the history of rock music as it is about an ambitious executive. It’s telling that Ertegun died Dec. 14 after collapsing backstage at a Stones concert, just as this documentary was wrapping up.
It conjures up the old show-biz adage about performing until the very end. If there’s anything Ertegun knew, it was the classics.
ATLANTIC RECORDS: THE HOUSE THAT AHMET BUILT
9 p.m. EDT May 2