The Last Sultan

The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun

by Robert Greenfield

1 December 2011

Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun signed and/or recorded many of the greatest musical artists of all time. Always hip, he lived in the grand manner but was never happier than when he found himself in some down-and-out joint listening to music late at night.
cover art

The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun

Robert Greenfield

(Simon & Schuster)
US: Nov 2011

Excerpted from Chapter 1: Coming to America from The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield. Copyright © 2011 by Schoolyard Productions, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

The older I get, the more I realize how Turkish I am. I display the prime characteristics of Turkish vices: indolence and excess.
—Ahmet Ertegun


As much as any man who ever lived, Ahmet Ertegun loved to tell stories. That many of them happened to be about himself was never the point. In his unmistakable nasal hipster’s voice tinged with the black inflections of the street and the syncopated rhythms of the jazz music he had loved since childhood, Ahmet always knew how to find the groove when he talked. With the smoke from a cigarette curling into his eyes and a drink in his hand, he was a born raconteur who could command an audience of any size. Taking just as much time as he needed to build to the punch line, Ahmet would tell his favorite stories over and over again, carefully polishing each one like a jeweler.

In a business where everyone loved to gossip and those who ran the world’s leading record companies were constantly on the phone talking about one another in the most vulgar way imaginable, no one ever refused to take a call from the man whom they always referred to by only his first name. But then long before most of his colleagues had made their bones in an industry where the ordinary rules of conduct did not apply and the only way to stay on top was to continue putting out one hit after another, Ahmet was already a legend. On any given day during even a casual conversation, there was no knowing what might come out of his mouth. It was just one of the reasons people liked being around him.

Over the years, one story Ahmet loved to tell about himself was repeated constantly by those who would have never dared to criticize him in their own words. God only knows who told it to Steve Ross but David Geffen first heard the story from him. Mo Ostin and Joe Smith in Los Angeles knew it as did Robert Stigwood in London. Outliving the man it was about, the story was posted on a well-read music blog after Ahmet was no longer around to tell it. In its simplest form, the story goes like this.

During the early 1970s, Kit Lambert and Bill Curbishley, the current and future managers of The Who, found themselves locked in a particularly difficult and contentious negotiation with Ahmet in his second-floor office at Atlantic Records in New York City. Although Atlantic had made a ton of money distributing “Fire,” a huge but very unlikely worldwide hit by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown that Lambert had produced on his own label, their discussion soon reached a sticking point.

No matter what Lambert or Curbishley said, Ahmet simply would not budge. Knowing he had nothing to lose, Lambert, who in Curbishley’s words could sometimes be “a bit Barnum and Bailey,” suddenly leaped to his feet and stormed out of the office in a rage. Returning a few seconds later, he threw open the door and shouted at Ahmet, “Do you know why there’s so much anti-Semitism in the world?”

Always unflappable, most especially in situations where money was on the line and he was the one who would have to pay it, Ahmet said, “No, Kit. Why is that?” “Because,” Lambert replied, “Turks don’t travel.” Slamming the door behind him, Lambert then made his final exit as Ahmet collapsed with laughter behind his desk.

More than most people in the music business, Kit Lambert would have understood the historical basis of his remark. Like his father, a well-known classical composer, he had been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also the grandson of the painter who had been commissioned by the Australian government to document that nation’s crushing defeat by Turkish forces commanded by Mustafa Kemal at the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I.

Whether any of this was actually on Kit Lambert’s mind that day, no one can say for sure. However, the man who was the butt of his joke did not need anyone to explain it to him. In a business dominated by hard-driving Jewish businessmen, Ahmet was the ultimate outsider. On some level, this was also always his role in the world.

Although Ahmet loved to mingle in the most rarefied circles of high society, he never truly belonged there either. In the most famous piece ever written about him, an unnamed woman who seemed comfortable in this world noted there was no one Ahmet did not “feel snubbed by.” Whenever another of his socialite friends sensed he was about to say or do something inappropriate, she would caution him by saying, “Ahmet, don’t go Turkish on me. Don’t go Turk.” In order to warn the Rolling Stones that Ahmet was about to appear backstage before a show, their tour manager would tell them, “Boys, Ataturk’s coming.”

Although he left his native land at the age of two and was shocked to see what Turkey was like when he returned there for the first time six years later, everything Ahmet was and all that he became was shaped by the place of his birth. Had it not been for the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent creation of the modern Turkish republic, his own life would have followed an entirely different and far more predictable path. And yet to the very core of his being, he could not have been more Turkish.

For countless generations, “the Turk,” in the words of Stephen Kinzer, the author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, had always been viewed in the West as the “scourge of civilization. His chief characteristics were thought to include mendacity, unbridled lust, sudden violence and a passion for gratuitous cruelty.”

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