M1 Tell us how Jerry Wexler joined you and then Natsui as well police. In the first few years of Atlantic we had enough success to make Atlantic one of the most important R and B labels. We were one of the few dozen such companies as ours. They included companies like Myracle Specialty. I met many, many other small labels, and when Herb Abramson, who was my partner, we were really a three man, a three person company, Herb and I did virtually all the recording work in our work promotion and publicity and all of that. Miriam Abramson. Now, Miriam Bienstock was the office manager. She was in charge of everything that they're not directly involved music and that included all the office work, bookkeeping. They gave royalties and everything else. And when Herb had to go in the Army, Miriam and I decided that in order to keep the company going and it was growing very fast and we needed more personnel. And that's when we decided to try to get Jerry Wexler, who was a close friend of all of ours, who had been a jazz record collector and who was a at the probably the most prominent critic, music critic at Billboard magazine. And we tried to talk him into joining Atlantic Records and we succeeded. And he became a most important person in the development and history of Atlantic Records. At the same time, or a few months later, my brother Natsui, who was living in California and was doing a myriad number of things. He was an archive for a contemporary records and was teaching at UCLA. And he called me and told me that he had been approached by Lou Chad, who is the owner of Imperial Records, one of our competitors. And the foremost artist was Fats Domino and Little Chad of Natsui, a partnership and an Imperial Records. And that's what he called me up saying that he was considering accepting this since it was a company that may be a little more successful than we were at the time and that. And I thought, oh, my gosh, I said, well, why would you think that was that was that as we said, he told me figure that if one brother could do it, so could the other. So I said, well, look, we'll offer you a partnership. And in Atlantic, we just made JWT a partner. So now we became a company with five partners with Jerry Wexler, Natsui, Marium and myself, in addition to Herb, who has gone overseas with the army on army duty and have returned for a short period but has to be bought out because after he came back, he and Miriam were divorced and it became not very comfortable in the office after the divorce for them to stay together. So we, we bought her about and in the end we were four partners. Natsui myself, Jerry Wexler and Miriam and Miriam. Soon thereafter we got married to Franny Bienstock and and decided she wanted to leave and we bought her out as well. And in the end we were three partners and and then we sold our company to Warner seven Arts which later became Warner Communications, which later became Time Warner, and that unfortunately became AOL Time Warner. So that's how that all went.

M7 But I think that that the great the great thing that happened to Atlantic Records was that. JWT and yes, we became partners and became the most important people in the company to, they were responsible for so much of the success that I've been I've been acclaimed for. Susan, do you need anything else?

F3 No, but I. And Speed more disturbing was the talking in the hall, by the way. OK, guys. OK, thank you. You know about Ahmed, you are obviously a man of boundless energy, mental energy. And what do you attribute this all to?

M1 My energy. Aha. I thought that I was a person with less energy than most lethargic person I know. I put everything off till tomorrow and that I have all the defense that I that I try to avoid with people I work with.

M7 But I think that I have enthusiasm about projects and I became very excited and interested and and things where I see that there's a light coming at the end of the travaille and. And it's most interesting when when you have and you have an artist and you have a vision of that artist achieving a certain kind of musical climax, and when you reach that sort of climax on a on a record, it's a it's a very, very it's a big it's a big payoff for people who are really who love the music and who love being involved in the creation of it. That's been my biggest driving force. But I get interested in other things. I get interested in collecting art. I get interested in and certain projects having to do with helping people less fortunate than ourselves. I get, well, all sorts of literary projects and dramatic projects, and I have, you know, the kind of ambition to achieve achieve. Something that I can be proud of and something that maybe other people will appreciate, you know, that that is as beautifully spoken.

F3 But what I was thinking about with your energy, what I was thinking was a mental energy, not so much a physical energy, which obviously I know you when you were quite a bit younger. But the mental energy that you have, it seems to never stop. I mean, for instance, when we're with your aunt in Turkey, talk a little bit about here you are, you don't have to do anything and you're still seem to be exploring new horizons.

F11 Can you talk a little bit about what's your what are your goals right now? What are projects? You know, what are you sort of still looking to achieve? It seems like you've achieved everything.

F1 Well, you know, one of the things that I really would like to do is to serve my native country, which which was which country, which was a country, which is an impoverished country. Well, was was extremely impoverished country at the time of my birth, which is right after the First World War and the Ottoman Empire, which was the country in which I was born, disintegrated then. And I had just been defeated in a major war and. My I grew up under very privileged circumstances because my father was an ambassador and a leading Turkish statesman, and he he from the age of two, I was with him and the rest of my family living abroad and large embassies. And however, my father used to always remind me that it is the Turkish worker and the Turkish peasant who is paying for everything I had and that and that not to get too proud or too cocky. I just think that were wonderful, great people because we really are servants of those poor peasants who who at the end of the day said they work all day and they have a loaf of bread. They cut that loaf of bread half and pay it off as taxes and they only have a half a loaf to eat. And that's it. That half a loaf that they pay, it's paying for your education, for the water that you run when you run. And showers don't run it too long because it's not your money. And I've always felt an obligation to the Turkish worker and the Turkish president and the Turkish person of the street who who has had who have had a very, very difficult time over the history of the last hundred years. And so I have an obligation that I must do something as I promised my father I would before he died, that just that I have a debt to pay for that come to that country. And I hope to be able to do that in the next few years.

F2 That is very admirable. Do you have me is there a particular way you see doing there?

F1 Well, I have I'm friends with a lot of people in Turkey. Some of the intellectuals and my friends are my I'm friends with the people who are in the government. And I think we have a wonderful group of people now who are working hard to elevate Turkey's economy. And Turkey's standing in the European community. They have pointed out various things that they thought that what was needed and in my limited capacity, I have been trying to help to get investments in Turkey and to help with the with the sector as much as possible to some degree with the educational system in Turkey, which is they've been know there, then I think in the last 10 or 15 years have 20 new universities have opened in Turkey. And there's a tremendous a serious hunger on the part of the people for education. People whose children used to not go to school are now trying to get their children to go to universities, to get an education abroad and to to be become important to me in that general realm of things. In and in Europe, as you know, Turkey is applying to become a member of the European Union. Whether that happens or not, it's going to be a 15 year process then that 15 years. I think that Turkey will make tremendous strides in reorganizing its system of justice and reorganizing its army and its police force and and in general, making making it a place that people will want to come to. Our tourism is an incredibly.

M4 Especially because we have a beautiful coast both on the edge and the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and we're blessed with wonderful, wonderful landscapes and wonderful waters to slay. And it's it's a heaven it's a heaven heavenly destination for tourists from all over the world.

F3 I can attest to that. That was lovely. Now, let's talk a little bit about On the Horizon for you about your record, the music business, so to speak. Are you working with any new artists right now?

M4 Well, I'm not working directly with any new artists, so I am what I'm listening to a lot of artists who want to be on the label and and be happy. And people ask me what I listen to every day, eye to eye. I hesitate to tell them that I listen to the worst music that anybody listens to because I listen to everything that comes in.

M8 But Apple applicants to be to become singers, there's always the off chance that you stumble on some great new stuff. However, I'm involved with very much with the career of Kid Rock, who is my biggest one of my biggest artists. I have been mostly involved in and meeting new signings or meeting managers or potential new signings and bringing them in. I have not been working in the studio the way I used to because I have not been working in the studio the way I used to, because the recording techniques have changed a great deal and I really have not found somebody that I really want to go in and do do something with. I have a few ideas. I'm hoping to be going in the studio and very soon to do an odd kind of record. I have some very special standards with Harry Belafonte and those whom I've known for many years and who is a very, very fine singer, a very special type. There's none like him, but he is not a jazz singer. He's not he's not a singer, a soul singer or anything. And that really, in my estimation, basically a folk singer, the way people think it's like he is. I think he's a great singer of straight ballads. And I will we will try to make a meaningful, meaningful record.

F2 Wonderful. I hope we can be there with you. You you once I read something somewhere I was thinking about when we were in Turkey and you were talking to an artist, too, there. I read somewhere about an Atlantic philosophy, about the things that that you believe go into making a great record and and bringing an artist to bear. Do you remember that you want to talk a little bit about your philosophy of of or do you want me to tell you about it? And you can kind of tell me? Well, it said there were two things that go into making a great record. First, there's the understanding an artist, what is appealing about them and where their fire comes from and letting the artist flourish. That's the perception. The other essential thing in producing a record is to bring to the artist all of the things out of which you hope the magic will evolve, the material, the setting, the instrumentation and so forth. And in the end, you have to move the listener so that they actually want to. So I was just thinking a little bit about that philosophy. First of all, does it still hold? And second of all, can you kind of give it back to me in some way because it's so, so clear.

M8 I tell you my basic philosophy. And making a record is I always start. Thinking about the end product and what effect that will have on a potential investor, so you really start with the fact that you're trying to produce and the effect is a sort of a a.

F5 A feeling in the listener that brings him pleasure, a feeling that lifts them up to a point, and then there is a release that brings about pleasure.

M8 So that has to be achieved. Now, you start with what the listener has to have time to love that music because it gives them this feeling. So then you go from that to the song and the singer and the arrangement and all of that have to produce the magic that creates this feeling in the listener. So when you hear, see and hear an artist and a new artist, that is that nobody knows and you don't know except you just hear them perform.

F7 You have to be able to put together in your mind what that artist with that capability could do with a particular song, because without the song, there is now sometimes that artist has this or have can write the song or does the song that creates that magic. But many times the artist is not a songwriter. And so you have to find the songs that and sometimes the artists themselves don't realize that when they hear this, they may not like it, but until they do it, until they do it, they don't realize that that is what creates that magic now. It's very hard, it's very hard to be able to match material with the hardest successfully as a result, most records made are flops and somebody looked at the book that came out that was hard.

M4 When I say that some people put together a lot of quotes from me. It's a song about it's a book about all the artists and the songs that made Atlantic Records famous, all the hits. And it's a very big, heavy book. And when somebody said to me, Oh, this book is so big and happy, I said, there's a book that could come out that would be three times as heavy as that said. What is that? I said the history of Atlantic flops and that the history of Atlantic flops will be one of the biggest and heaviest books that you will never want to relive.

F7 But it's but for every hit record we made, we made many, many, many dismal failures, sometimes with great artists and sometimes with artists who went on to have success in other places. But where you have to be right enough times to make up for the wrongs. And if you don't. If you don't have. A certain amount of success is then you walk, you won't be around to talk about it.

F8 Many, many of the record companies that were great at one point all disappeared and they disappeared because they couldn't keep up. The percentage of it's it's it's not an easy struggle. And there are very few, very few labels who have survived. Even some of the great labels like RCA, Victor, Delta and Columbia, who were the big majors in America, have now become minor, minor sub sub labels of other companies if they exist at all.

F2 It's very interesting. I want to ask you a couple. I do want to talk to you at some point and I will have to about the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, that filter. But I wanted to just ask a couple more personal questions, because then we're going to go up and say, you're going to go up from there. Perhaps Nick wants to meet you alone first or second, OK? Because he said he hadn't seen you in such a long time.

F9 So is Nicole here?

F3 Oh. Do you think you could call Lisa and tell her to come down five minutes to get Mr. Erdogan to go meet me and I'll just finish up here? Would that be all right, though?

F9 OK, thank you.

F2 I wanted to ask you, have you seen Mike? I did. I saw the show last night. It was phenomenal. It was the best show I've seen ever. And I've seen his shows. I'm not for 35 years. He was his voice has gotten better. I don't know what happened. But anyways, looks great on it. I want to ask you a couple of personal things. You know, it strikes me very clear. You are a man who has so much children. Did the decision ever come into your I mean, how how did it come about? I mean, that you was that you and Mika not having children? It seems that.

M6 Oh, look, that's you don't want to talk about. Mika was married before she tried to have children. And she was told that if she had, she probably would die.

F2 So, OK, never mind. And that's why I never minded. I wanted to also, you know, we started this to her.

M6 I knew when I married Mika, she told me she couldn't have children and I married her in spite of that.

F3 So, OK, I'm sorry if you thought I was being too personal. This is a biography, you know, but everyone does have certain regrets in life. And after a certain age, you know, one can't help them. Do you have any regrets?

M6 I don't regret that I have children because I have I have so many nieces and nephews and they are like my children.

F4 And I think that if Mika and I have had children.

M8 We went we both have been so busy that there would have been brought up the way I was brought up by nannies and governesses and and but I was very lucky that I had an aunt, my mother's aunt, who brought us all up. And she was an angel and she was a wonderful girl. And she was my real parent. My mother and father were both too busy, all how I saw them every day for half an hour before dinner every Sunday when I was thinking of regrets.

F3 I wasn't just thinking of that. I was just wondering if there were other things in life that you have regrets about.

M6 I have regrets about a lot of things, but I try not to think about that because, you know, you think about all the things you could have done, so said the things you wanted to do and you were taught that. I came very close to by the island of St. Barts. At least two thirds of the island was for sale. And I was going to buy it. And that and that means said I should buy it with with a partner. And I thought, well, Edmund Safra, I was a very good friend of mine. I thought maybe I could be and belong to the Rockefeller. And that and the day ADMA went to look at the at the property and say, but he went on a boat on a private boat and there was a big storm and I could never get close to the island. So he decided it's too dangerous to drive by it. But I, I should have bought it on my own. But you know how those things are going to regret. You regret a lot of things.

M8 You know, I regret not being more forceful about I regret not signing Elvis Presley. I could have done it if I thought about borrowing money from the bank. How much would. Twenty five thousand dollars. Not much, but but it never occurred to me because I never I never borrowed money and I don't believe in anything. But people in business do all the time and. Anyway, a lot of you know, you'll regret a lot of things you didn't do, but thank God you did some things, you know.

F9 It's absolutely how do you feel this is the kind of thing.

F2 But how do you feel, you know, being among this library of American Masters with so many people that you admire and whose careers you help like Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, who obviously can help Eugene O'Neill, your friend, Truman Capote, Ray Charles, et cetera. Do you ever think about being part of this library?

M8 Well, I certainly don't deserve to being in that company for any artist from any artistic point of view. I think that I'm very lucky to have done what I did, and I've had a great deal of fun doing it. I you know, I I worked and what I loved. So it never seemed like work, but and I still do it. And I what I would hate not to be able to go to the office of a record company every day, which I do. And I'm very, very happy with a group of people. I have had Atlantic Records now that they are very, very wonderful, wonderful group of people. And we have some some very, very important new artists. And we're signing and I feel very, very, very happy and confident about the future. I'd think at this point, are you able to tell me who any of these new artists are?

M6 Oh, I'm very happy to give you a long list of all our new signings. Both of those names will mean nothing to you because they will not there they don't mean anything to anybody until they become stars more than once. You know, people have one right here. Most people don't know their names, but if they have two or three, that's when the name becomes known in the general to the general public.

F2 You know, it'd be really nice to come to your office one day and just have you play some a few of those for me, because I'm I'd be happy to. OK, that would be very interesting.

F3 One last thing right now, when you think about, you know, how you both like to be remembered, your legacy, is it obvious or do you have something else that you would like to say about it? I'm sorry. When you think of your legacy and you think of of what you want to be remembered for, is that things you've touched upon or if there's something you want to say about that.

F7 I think that.

F6 I think that the.

M8 The important thing, I think, is that when my brother and I were young kids and we first came to America with great jazz bands and we loved American music and we love really what we love was black American music. And we loved some of the music that was played by white musicians who are equally equally impressed by black American music. But we really were interested with black American music. And I think that we're able to at a time when black singers and black musicians were not generally helped by the act, by the.

F8 By society in America at that time, we tried and were able not only to help them, but to build something ourselves, which which became important label, which devoted a lot of energy to jazz and blues and rock and roll. And and we kept our you know, but necessary. I loved the great music of the important, but they called in for serious composers like the Gershwins, the Rodgers and Hart and and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Sam and Noel Coward and all those people whose music also was our music and the. And it all in all melded together and. The other evening, I heard went to play a couple of my grandma saw play a couple of old stallions with such great feeling, with such great soul. And there is a point at which all this music comes together, there's a point at which all this music comes together. I have the blues, the music of the 20s, 30s and 40s and 50s. The music of. Of the the music that Louis Armstrong heard when he was growing up, and that enabled him to express so much feeling in his music and all of that was part of something that we did. That's when I felt and and somehow, against all odds, we are able to make something out of it. And I'm proud of that.

Ahmet Ertegun Interview #3
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Ahmet Ertegun Interview #3, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 16 Nov. 2005,
(2005, November 16). Ahmet Ertegun Interview #3, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Ahmet Ertegun Interview #3, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). November 16, 2005. Accessed May 20, 2022


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.