Monday, September 10, 2012

"The Last Sultan" by Robert Greenfield (2011)

Robert Greenfield has done a masterful job in this sprawling biography of both Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records. As a matter of fact, the stories of the two are almost inseparable. Author Robert Greenfield, using the words of many of Mr. Ertegun’s friends and business associates has put all of the stories, and history, together in a most readable manner.

From his birth in 1923 to an aristocratic family in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, to ruling over his own fiefdom in the music industry, Ahmet Ertegun was a man who loved to tell stories and live life fully. He was also one of the most beloved men in an industry filled with back stabbers. A hard negotiator when necessary, he could also be enormously generous to the artists who signed contracts with him and his label, Atlantic Records.

Mr. Greenfield does a thorough job of acquainting the reader with Mr. Ertegun’s background and how he came to America. Then he begins the real story of how this man’s love for black music, at a time when Jim Crow still reigned supreme in the South, built an empire consisting of some of the greatest musical talent of the time.
Whether he was down South, or roaming the streets of New York, London, or Los Angeles, he was always in touch with the rhythm of the “scene”. He had a natural “ear” for what was good or bad. In short, he had his fingers on the pulse of a generation, and he used that insight to bring some of the greatest music to the forefront of our lives.

From his very beginnings in the record business, until the end of his storied career, he knew no color, unless it was green. A man of many contradictions he would buy his suits of the rack for a hundred bucks, and then have them re-cut by a hotel tailor for 50 bucks more. And, even with that strategy he managed to make the list of the 10 Best Dressed Men at least 5 years in a row.
From his relationships with Bobby Darin, Professor Longhair and Ray Charles; whom he lost to another label; to his “scouting” out new talent, the man was a visionary. He helped to propel Steve Stills, of Buffalo Springfield fame, to the top of the charts; and then was instrumental in putting together Crosby, Stills and Nash. His friendships with Phil Spector, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie are well known, but in Mr. Greenfield’s hands these stories seem to come alive.

One of the most illuminating parts of this book concerned the Payola scandal, in which record companies were accused of paying disc jockeys to play their records. The federal government got involved and all the record companies were coerced into signing an agreement with the government barring this type of conduct in the future. Only two companies refused to sign. One was Chess, and the other was Atlantic. Their mutual attorney, Paul Marshall, argued correctly, that the original charges used to ruin Alan Freed’s career were baseless. The charges all hinged on the belief that all gratuities paid to the disc jockey belonged to the stations. Mr. Marshall countered that these “gifts” were merely “tips”, and if tipping was not in violation of the disc jockey’s terms of employment, then no crime had been committed.
He further argued that since the crime of payola, which stated that it “consisted of changing and affecting public taste”, did not apply when the disc jockey, or artist were already known. Since they were already recognized by the public, no change in taste could be affected. I found this section particularly interesting.

From race records to pop music, Ahmet Ertegun affected a whole generation of music lovers, leaving behind a whole world of music. His presence, at a time and place when social mores were changing, left us with years and years of music to enjoy. And that’s not a bad legacy at all. Filled with stories about almost every artist you can imagine, this book will leave you very satisfied, as well as a bit more knowledgeable about the music industry in general.

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