Atlantic Records Co-Founder Ahmet Ertegun Dies

Music pioneer, 83, helped launch careers of Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and more.

Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder and longstanding chairman of Atlantic Records and the man who helped introduce the world to Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and countless others, died Thursday (December 14) of a brain injury. He was 83.

The mogul — born into the wealthy family of a Turkish ambassador — never retired and was attending a New York concert by the Rolling Stones (one of the many bands he signed) on October 29 when he fell and incurred the injury. Perhaps fitting of the two worlds he brought together, the event was a 60th birthday party for former President Bill Clinton.

Ertegun, who survived triple-bypass surgery in 2001, later slipped into a coma and died with his family at his side.

In recent years, Ertegun was immortalized in films like “Beyond the Sea” about Atlantic artist Bobby Darin and “Ray,” which portrayed how he not only discovered Charles, but promoted him before R&B was a genre, produced much of his music and wrote hits like “Mess Around.”

He’s also namedropped in Atlantic artist Kid Rock’s single “You Never Met a Mother—-er Quite Like Me” in the verse, “I’m a seasoned vet/ Educated on jazz by my man Ahmet/ Ertegun my friend.”

Indeed, Ertegun was an avid aficianado of jazz as well as blues when, in 1947, he borrowed $10,000 from his dentist to launch Atlantic Records. He never pigeonholed the label, though, and opened his arms to then-genre-defying artists like Charles and soul singer Aretha Franklin, two of his biggest early successes. Ertegun once described Atlantic as “purveyors of African-American music” long before the arrival of Motown Records.

Ertegun was widely known for his ability to befriend anyone, and that showed in his label, as Atlantic expanded into rock and later hip-hop.

As legend has it, Ertegun persuaded the Rolling Stones to sign with Atlantic after pretending to fall asleep at a Chuck Berry concert they attended together, knowing Mick Jagger despised pushy execs.

He’s also credited with convincing Crosby, Stills & Nash to tour with Neil Young, spawning one of the greatest supergroups in rock. Through Atlantic and its offshoots and affiliates, Ertegun had a hand in seminal works from Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Otis Redding, the Drifters, Sam & Dave, John Coltrane, Bette Midler, Sonny & Cher, ABBA and many, many others.

“Ahmet touched the lives of artists, producers, songwriters and countless others who were blessed by his creativity, wisdom and humor,” Atlantic President Julie Greenwald said Thursday. “He changed the music and he changed the music business, and he is the inspiration to an entire new generation of music people who will strive to follow in his amazing footsteps. Equally at home in New Orleans juke joints and foreign embassies, Ahmet was a human being of rare character, style and humility. He was the real deal, and the world will be a far lesser place without him.”

“Ahmet brought integrity, vision, style and class to the music business,” added Jerry Heller, co-founder of Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, with whom Ertegun released hip-hop’s first West Coast gold record. “A giant among mere mortals, his presence will be sorely missed by those of us who had the privilege of knowing him.”

Along with his Atlantic work, Ertegun was also a founder and chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1987 and gave the Museum’s main exhibition hall in Cleveland his name.

“From Aretha to Zeppelin, Ahmet was instrumental in breaking many of the iconic artists of the last 50 years,” said Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would not be what it is today without his leadership.”

In 1993, Ertegun was presented with a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy, and in 2000, he was honored as a Living Legend by the United States Library of Congress. “Ahmet Ertegun was a true visionary whose life’s work had a profound impact on our culture’s musical landscape,” Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said. “This is truly a sad day for the music industry and for music lovers everywhere, but his legacy will shine on forever.”

“I feel so privileged to be able to say that Ahmet Ertegun was a mentor,” added Lyor Cohen, Warner Music Group’s U.S. chairman and CEO. “Here was a man who combined substance and style like no one else, who affected millions upon millions of people through the music his artists created, who nurtured those artists under his watchful eye. We were blessed to have him.”

Ertegun will be buried in a private ceremony in his native Turkey, although a public memorial service will be conducted in New York early next year.