Paying Tribute to Music Legend Ahmet Ertegun

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My Word tonight is about a great man I used to work for 35 years ago who died yesterday. His name is Ahmet Ertegun, one of the founders of Atlantic Records, which is one of the most important recording companies in the history of American music.

The Atlantic roster of artists includes: the Rolling Stones, The Coasters, The Drifters with the great Clyde McPhatter, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and even the Blues Brothers, which was two comedians accompanied by the greatest rhythm section of all time, the Memphis guys who were also known as Booker T. & the MG's.

Of course, Ahmet's greatest artist — even if it was only by a nose over Aretha — has to be Ray Charles. The scene from the Oscar-winning film "Ray" in which Ahmet Ertegun guides a young Ray Charles in his first Atlantic studio session is absolutely true to fact down to the dialogue. I know because I have heard the tape from that session many times. It was recorded by Atlantic engineers that day for reference, but has been preserved as a priceless artifact of history by Ahmet's partner in Atlantic, the man who produced Aretha Franklin, Jerry Wexler.

In the tape and in the movie you hear Ray Charles starting the session sounding like Nat King Cole because Ray desperately wanted to be a hit. As the session progresses you hear Ahmet coax the real Ray Charles out of hiding — the Ray Charles sound we know now from all the great recordings that followed.

Ahmet was the son of the Turkish ambassador to the United States, and his teenage years were spent in Washington, D.C., listening to the great African-American blues and jazz artists. He came to New York and started his record company in 1947, and I would argue he was the greatest music man of our time for not only the huge volume of great material Atlantic produced, but also for Ahmet's love of the music and the people who made it.

I was 25 years old when I went to work for Ahmet at Atlantic Records. I didn't know it then, but that might turn out to be the best job I ever had. Among other things, it put me in proximity to Ahmet and gave me a few classic Ahmet Ertegun stories. They're too long to tell here, but I can tell you that in the 35-year news career that followed, I have yet to met anyone as fascinating, as outrageously fun, or as accomplished as Ahmet Ertegun.

Ahmet died yesterday from a brain injury sustained six weeks ago at the Rolling Stones concert for Bill Clinton's birthday when he fell in the darkened backstage. At 83 he went out as he lived: backstage with his musicians, the Stones, having his usual great time.

Ahmet Ertegun... you may not realize it, but you will miss him.

That's My Word.

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