Greenfield (A Day in the Life: One Family, the Beautiful People, and the End of the Sixties, 2009, etc.) delivers a compulsively readable, evenhanded biography of Atlantic Records’ founder.
The pampered son of the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Ahmet Ertegun (1923–2006) began promoting jazz concerts as a teen in Washington, D.C., with his older brother. Financed by a loan from his family dentist, he launched Atlantic in late 1947. With original partner Herb Abramson and ex-journalist Jerry Wexler, who joined the firm in 1953, Ertegun led one of the top independent labels of the wide-open ’50s, releasing major R&B hits by Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Ray Charles. Presciently diversifying during the ’60s and early ’70s, Ertegun profitably tapped the rock zeitgeist by signing Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash and, in his biggest coup, the Rolling Stones (the subject of two previous books by Greenfield). Though Atlantic was sold to Warner-Seven Arts for $17.5 million in 1967, Ertegun stayed on with the company for nearly four more decades, serving as chairman through a period of unprecedented upheaval in the record industry until his death at 83. Though many of Greenfield’s tales have been spun before—notably in George W.S. Trow’s celebrated 1978 New Yorker profile and a 1991 biography by Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie—his book is rich in detail and benefits from new interviews with several principal players. The author entertainingly delineates Ertegun’s on-the-money musical taste, flamboyant personal style, antic prank-playing and ability to mingle with personalities ranging from Henry Kissinger to Kid Rock. Though the author obviously admires his subject, he pulls no punches. Ertegun’s bare-knuckled dealings with Abramson and the volatile Wexler, both of whom were pushed out of the company they built, are unflinchingly recorded. His complex, often adversarial relationships with such industry peers as David Geffen and Doug Morris reveal a crafty gamesman who was never willing to surrender the upper hand in business. Ertegun emerges as a man of gargantuan gifts and equally heroic appetites who was ruthlessly adept at looking out for No. 1.
A flavorful, balanced piece of music-biz history.