May 17, 2007
Ahmet Ertegun was the greatest Turk since Kemal Ataturk, but unlike Mustapha Kemal, he never killed anyone, especially a Greek. In brief, Ertegun was the supreme record man ever, the signer of the most important rhythm & blues, jazz, pop and rock artists of all time, the founder and builder of Atlantic Records, a company he began with the ten thousand dollars he borrowed from his dentist. He was a diplomat’s son, his father having served as ambassador to Paris and Washington among other posts. I met him in 1956 and we stayed friends until his death last October, when he slipped at a jazz concert, fell and hit his head and never recovered.
The first time I met him, we happened to be walking down Third Avenue on a mild summer evening when he heard some cool jazz coming from an Edward Hopper-like house where a party was going on. A tall good-looking man surrounded by young girls waved us to come up, which we eagerly did. Our host was Michael Butler, polo player, man-about-town, and later on producer of Hair. It was my first party in the Big Bagel and I got some good tips on how the game was played. Ahmet was cool, to say the least, and we came off with some good addresses. His first big signing was Ray Charles, quickly followed by Big Joe Turner, Bobby Darin, Esther Philips, Otis Reading and Aretha Franklin. Atlantic Records became America’s pre-eminent independent label, and in the mid-Sixties, Ertegun expanded Atlantic’s focus from R&B and soul music into the emerging sounds of rock&roll. He signed Sonny and Cher, Led Zeppelin and Buffalo Springfield. Then he hit it big with the Rolling Stones—and also began partying with those very naughty boys. Ahmet was a big party and ladies man. Phil Collins, Kid Rock and James Blunt came later.
Throughout his life Ertegun remained friends with music people as well as those of us who couldn’t tell the difference between Eric Clapton and Andres Segovia. Last month his widow, the beautiful Rumanian Mica, threw a bash to celebrate his life at the Rose Theatre, which he had financed and founded on Columbus Circle. 700 people crammed in for his farewell. All I can say is had there been a charge for the blast, it would have been the blockbuster box- office hit of all time. Three hours of entertainment and speeches from the famous stars he had developed and nurtured throughout: Among many performing were Phil Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Eric Clapton,Stevie Nicks, Bette Midler as MC, Mick Jagger as the piece de resistance at the end with a funny speech, plus Henry Kissinger, Oscar de la Renta, Mayor Bloomberg, David Geffen (who got his start from Ahmet) and some acts like the Dreamers, whose songs even an oldie like myself knew by heart when I was young.
It was a hell of a send-off, and it continued on throughout the night for some of us at the Central Park Boathouse, where we were wined and dined by his loyal and generous widow. Ertegun was a very rich man, an elegant dresser of the old school, a civilised tycoon whom many of his rather uncivilised artists tried to copy.
Two weeks later, yet another friend’s farewell, this time at West Point, where Commander Tim Vogel was buried with full military honours. Some of you oldies may have seen the film The Bridges of Toko-Ri, starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Frederic March and Mickey Rooney. Holden played a pilot based on Tim’s father, a hot shot jet fighter who died in North Korea in 1951. The film had changed his name and presented him as a reluctant hero. Tim’s father was nothing of the kind. Sully Vogel was the strongest midshipman at Annapolis and became a legend in Korea for his aerial exploits.
But Timmy outdid his old man. He won two DFC’s and 17 other awards for flying 200 missions over some of the most heavily defended real estate in North Vietnam, and set a record for successfully performing over 600 landings on a carrier. He and I became good friends after his return, and like most heroes he never talked about his exploits. The old joke was, of course, that he was Grace Kelly’s son. Late one night at Elaine’s this is how he was introduced and people thought he was a Hollywood type. Timmy contacted MC, a more vicious cousin to Multiple Sclerosis, and was given a year to live. He stretched that to ten years, finally giving in on April 28. All his classmates showed up for his funeral and he was laid to rest with his fallen classmates of 1965, under the maple and oak trees that line the military academy’s cemetery. One brother was a submarine commander, the other a Marine colonel. The outrage was that towards the end, Timmy was needy and some of us had to pass the hat. Coming from such a family that had given so much to Uncle Sam, it was more than an outrage. It was a crime against America’s bravest and best. While the sofa Samurais who send other young men to fight and die eat their donuts and double portions of pizzas, men like Tim Vogel die in less than comfortable surroundings. I hope the neo-cons choke on their pepperoni.