If you’re a pop music buff and don’t recognize the name Ahmet Ertegun, you have to watch “Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built.” If you know who Ahmet Ertegun is, you’ll need no prodding to make the “American Masters” program appointment viewing.
Ertegun might be the most influential contemporary music figure who never made a record. To clarify, Ertegun wrote and/or produced thousands of records; he just didn’t perform on them. Ertegun founded Atlantic Records, the label that brought black music into the mainstream.
Dubbed the Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg of music, Ertegun built or advanced the careers of Ray Charles, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, the Drifters, the Clovers and the Coasters, among others, in the 60 years since he started the label. He discovered Bobby Darin and turned him into the label’s first white star. He found Bette Midler at a hairdressers’ convention.
On a talent-scouting trip to London at the dawn of the British invasion, he recruited Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and helped make them international superstars. Ertegun heard a demo of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and suggested it needed more drums. When they were added, the track became a classic, which Ertegun would later play for aspiring artists as an example of what a hit song should sound like.
The respect and admiration for him in the business are illustrated by the people who participate in the PBS profile, which was four years in the making: Charles, King, Clapton, Collins, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, to name just a few. The program was designed to be a series of conversations between Ertegun and the artists. However, when he died in December at 83 - after falling backstage at a Rolling Stones concert - Midler jumped in and agreed to narrate.
If the two-hour program has a flaw, it is that there isn’t enough time for more than snippets of the myriad classic tunes that came out of Atlantic Records.
Ertegun was an unlikely giant of American pop music. Born in Turkey, the son of an ambassador, he could have followed his father into the diplomatic corps. However, while living all over the world, he became obsessed with American black music. When his family was assigned to New York, he haunted the hot spots in Harlem. On a visit to the Plantation Club, he wowed the musicians with his knowledge and appreciation of jazz. They were flabbergasted when they learned he was in the seventh grade.
As he grew older, he would invite artists such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald back to the Turkish embassy for after-hours sessions, which, it is said, often drew the attention of the police.
Ertegun had an ear for more than great artists. He also brought the famed songwriting team of Jerry Lieiber and Mike Stoller, whose work is celebrated in the Broadway musical “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” to Atlantic Records.
“(Ahmet and his brother Nesuhi) convinced us that we should make records for them because we knew how to make them but we didn’t know how to sell them,” Stoller said in an interview to promote the special. “So we became, as they told us, the first independent record producers.”
Atlantic was at a low ebb, bereft of hit-makers, when Stoller and Leiber arrived. It was during the payola era of the early `60s, when you either paid DJs to put your music on the air or your records weren’t heard. When Ertegun couldn’t meet the demands of prominent DJ Alan Freed, who could personally make or break a record, Freed shut out Atlantic, according to “American Masters.” The hits created by Stoller and Leiber revitalized the label. Not long after, Ertegun recruited Phil Spector, who brought his “wall of sound” to Atlantic.
“The House That Ahmet Built” is packed with interesting and amusing anecdotes. However, it omitted one ribald tale Leiber seemed to relish recounting. Asked at a PBS news conference what he thought was Ahmet’s proudest achievement, Leiber quipped, “It was to see how many 12-year-old girls he could stick in the backseat without being arrested.”
“American Masters” executive producer Susan Lacy looked as if she could see her life passing by her eyes as Leiber’s audience roared with laughter.
“Actually what (Ahmet) said to us is that if he could be remembered for one thing,” Lacy interjected, “it would be for bringing dignity and recognition to African-American music in this country.”
OK, that too.
AMERICAN MASTERS: ATLANTIC RECORDS: THE HOUSE THAT AHMET BUILT
9 p.m. EDT Wednesday