By Andrew Tobias
“…Ahmet Ertegün is unquestionably the most powerful and most respected man in the $2-billion music business, bar none…”
William F. Buckley Jr. you know about. Mick Jagger and Jacob Javits, likewise. The Engelhards (minerals) and the Dohenys (oil)— maybe, maybe not. Litho-Fayne Pridgon undoubtedly needs an introduction. She was born in the section of Moultrie, Georgia, known as Dirty Spoon. It wasn’t black or white—just poor. She picked cotton. She moved to New York. She shacked up with Jimi Hendrix for four years in the mid-sixties. One night he caught her accepting a “peck on the jaw” from another man in the front row of the club he was playing on 76thStreet and Broadway. He leaned over the stage in mid-song, and without missing a chord, knocked her out cold with his electric guitar. After that they only saw each other from time to time. Then in 1970, Hendrix, aged 27, choked to death on his own vomit. Litho-Fayne went out to the coast for a while with Sly, of the Family Stone. And between times she was kept, in style, by an AC/DC ex-Harlem-dope-hustler-turned-legit who needed a fly front. (That’s AC/DC as in sexual orientation; fly, pronounced “flah,” as in Super Fly.) She had her own ten-room apartment at 1274 Fifth Avenue, a car, furs, and jewelry. But this June, on her way down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record her first blues album, and perhaps on her way to stardom, she had a studio apartment with no phone, courtesy of Atlantic Records, and some food stamps, courtesy of the New York City Social Services Department. Warner Bros. had paid her for her part in the forthcoming Hendrix documentary, but she had blown that money at the tables in Las Vegas. Atlantic Records had given her a $700 stereo, but she pawned it for $125. No matter: by next year at this time Litho-Fayne Pridgon could be a star.
Bill Buckley, Mick Jagger, Jack Javits, the Engelhards, the Dohenys, and Litho-Fayne Pridgon—along with perhaps a thousand other present, past, and future “prominent people”—have one thing in common (and maybe only one): they are all friends of Ahmet Ertegün.
Ahmet Ertegün, president of Atlantic Records, man of the world. Ahmet Zahireddin Sabuhi Munir Ertegün, or Uncle Ahmet, as some of his younger associates call him: the first Moslem to be given a testimonial dinner (1970) by the United Jewish Appeal; a white corporate executive who really does have some black best friends (can you think of another?); a millionaire fat-cat who, when the revolution comes, will probably be allowed to keep at least one of his chauffeurs. Ahmet Ertegün—though noticeably less chipper in the wake of the Columbia Records scandal—is unquestionably the most powerful, most respected man in the $2-billion music business, bar none. He is a superstar.
It’s not just that his highly successful company handles the Stones, Yes, or Led Zeppelin; Roberta, Aretha, or Bette. It’s also that he was digging records before any of them were born. And it’s not just that he chartered a plane in order to make it to Mick Jagger’s wedding in St. Tropez. It’s also that Jagger was really glad Ahmet could come. Says one rock critic: “Ahmet can out-hip, out-glamour anyone in the business.” Says another: “He doesn’t win over his artists by giving them drugs. He does it by giving them love and attention.”
And the odd thing, Mr. and Mrs. Middle-Aged America and Bing Crosby fans everywhere, is that this superstar of the flipped-out, revved-up, now-generation (and now scandal-ridden) record business does not boogie-woogie his way through life with bubblegum between his molars, pink-tint motorcycle shades on the bridge of a Brooklynite’s nose, or headphone-radio antennae sticking up like goal posts from his million-dollar ears—the way some other in the record business do.
No, he is middle-aged himself (49), highly cultivated, the son of a Turkish diplomat who was once ambassador to the United States and dean of the Washington diplomatic corps. He is a naturalized American citizen who looks something like Mitch Miller and sounds something like an FM disc jockey—enthusiastic but calm—with a trace of British in his English, a trace of sophisticated-but-not-put-on hip, and (don’t ask me how it got there) a trace of what sounds to me like Desi Arnaz. He is dignified, but warm; almost aristocratic, but not at all pompous or stiff, with an outsize, pranksterish sense of humor. He is fluent in Turkish, English, and French; faltering in Italian, Spanish, and German. He buys his clothes at Hunstman, in London, or from his friend Bill Blass; and his shoes at Lobb’s in Paris. He says he rarely smokes marijuana, which he pronounces “marry-huana,” because it is illegal, and because it only makes him sleepy, anyway. He doesn’t play any musical instrument, but does play a mean game of backgammon. His tennis is fair; he plays it on grass courts. He likes old cars—a 1934 Bentley, a 1957 Sunbeam, a 1965 Rolls. He also likes the convenience of having two chauffeur-driven Fleetwoods—one green and one blue (the Fleetwoods); one white and one black (the chauffeurs). And he and his Rumanian-born second wife, Mica, who is well known for her interior design firm, MAC II, and for her lavish dinner parties, like houses. They have one on East 81st Street, featured in House & Garden; one, featured there as well, in Southampton; and another under construction in southern Turkey, as yet unfeatured. Amidst their large collections of originals by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Larry Rivers, among others, as well as a number of huge works of the white-on-white and red-on-red variety, hangs a recently acquired painting by Ahmet’s favorite artist, Henri Matisse. Ahmet has what one observer terms “an apparently boundless appetite for the Good Life.”
“…It’s not just that Atlantic Records handles the Stones. It’s that Ahmet was digging records before any of them were born…”
So what was a gentleman-superstar like this doing recently at a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, personally producing the first album of an unknown singer named Litho-Fayne Pridgon? Why wasn’t he at The Four Seasons or “21” hyping the stock of his parent company, Warner Communications, which had fallen from $39 earlier this year to $13? After all, he owns more than 150,000 shares of the stock (which, he says, represents about 60 per cent of his net worth), and thus is down nearly $4 million on the year. Ahmet Ertegün was in Muscle Shoals recording Litho-Fayne because he digs the blues, man.
For the last 43 years, from the time he was six, with the exception of a brief period when he dreamed of becoming a bicycle racer, Ahmet Ertegün’s chief interest has been music. Particularly jazz and rhythm-and-blues. By the time he was fourteen, he had made friends with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. As a teen-ager, he spent hours on end in Waxy Maxy’s secondhand record store, in a black section of Washington, buying records for 10 cents and 25 cents, trading them—he had a complete set of Bessie Smith, in triplicate, he remembers—and learning what records black people bought. He and his older brother, Nesuhi, would hold interracial Sunday-afternoon jam sessions at the embassy, which his mother would explain to her conservative Turkish friends as “research into the American folk tradition.” By the time he graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, he and Nesuhi had amassed 15,000 records, mostly by black artists. While studying Aristotle and Aquinas at Georgetown, but marching to the beat of Big Bill Broonzy, he started Atlantic Records “on the side” with $10,000 borrowed from a Turkish dentist, now a millionaire. He planned to quit the recording business after a year or two and return to Turkey as a public servant. The music would not let go. Instead of returning to the mosques of Istanbul, he spent much of his time up at the Apollo, the Baby Grand Café, Small’s Paradise, the Palm Café, and other Harlem clubs, looking for talent, totally at ease among the jazz musicians and aficionados.
Though Ahmet is indeed upset about Warner’s depressed stock, he prefers to leave the broad corporate and financial worries to Steven J. Ross, chairman and president of Warner Communications, whom he considers a financial genius. (Unfortunately, one problem with financial geniuses is that they tend to build capital structures only another financial genius can understand, and Wall Street these days is bearish on things it doesn’t understand.)
For his part, Ross is happy to leave the recording business to Ahmet. Ahmet says he can sign a $1-million-an-album deal without so much as a phone call to Ross. Ahmet is a shrewd, intuitive businessman—which is altogether different from being a “modern corporate executive.” He has an ear for talent and a talent for negotiating. He knows the value of money, having started his own business and licked his own postage stamps. But the Atlantic Records organization chart, if there were one, would read like a bowl of tossed green salad, and Ahmet knows it. For example, Nesuhi is in charge of: “international distribution, the art department, the jazz department, Roberta Flack, and LP production,” Ahmet says, while his other partner, Jerry Wexler, heads “studio operations, Atlantic promotion, and, ah, ah…is lord of the funk department.” Indeed, the only elegant thing about this organization is that it works. Very low turnover of personnel and tremendous esprit de corps keep it chugging along quite successfully. Ahmet didn’t know offhand just how many employees his company had—something under a thousand, he thought—though he could get the figure back at the office if I wanted it.
In short, you don’t win in the record business by computerizing your billing system or refining your cash flow projections, though such things may help. You win by knowing what will sell and by luring it onto your label early, for a reasonable price.
Ahmet’s team, highly regarded by the rest of the industry, does just that. Together they will rack up some $75-million in sales this year, and the highest profit margin of any major firm in the industry—about 25 per cent before tax. The $22 million in cash and stock that Warner Bros.-Seven Arts paid for Atlantic in 1967, of which Ahmet’s share was 42 per cent, proved to be well spent. The money did not dampen the drive of the top management, as so often happens when an entrepreneur and his partners transfer ownership of their company and pocket the bucket at the end of the rainbow. For one thing, Ahmet smiles, “When Warner bought us, we wound up owning Warner—so the incentive of ownership was still there.” At least as important, Ahmet and his partners, unlike most businessmen, are in the game as much for their love of the product (music) as they are for the excitement and rewards of the game itself.
In 1969, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts was itself acquired by Kinney, which sold off its rent-a-car and funeral businesses and changed its name to Warner Communications. Atlantic now contributes nearly a fourth of the entire Warner Communications earnings, which even in this market are valued by Wall Street at $300 million. So the company that was sold in 1967 for $22 million is now valued, in a sense, anyway, at $75 million (i.e., one-fourth Warner’s value). By the same reasoning, earlier this year, when Warner stock was higher, Atlantic was worth about $200 million.
In addition to heading Atlantic, Ahmet is chairman of the committee that coordinates Warner’s music companies, principally Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic. Atlantic has its roots in jazz and rhythm-and-blues, though its product ranges from Manu Dibango to Archie and Edith Bunker. Warner is West Coast rock oriented. Elektra specializes in folk and classical music. Through their common distribution system, the three will sell nearly a quarter-billion dollars of records and tapes worldwide this year. Only Columbia Records boasts higher dollar sales (close to $400 million), though the comparison is somewhat distorted because Columbia includes the sales of its pressing plants. The Warner companies subcontract pressing—sometimes to Columbia, as a matter of fact.
Ahmet is in his second-floor office at 1841 Broadway, in the shadow of the Gulf+ Western Building. Small and unimposing, with a Lasko space heater in the corner, it is not the office of a superstar. There are two hanging KLH speakers, a Kenwood KR 77 amplifier, a Dual 1219 turntable, and a Sony TC-850 reel-to-reel tape deck that practically grabs the tape out of your hand to help you thread it. The coffee table is covered with Soul, Creem, The L.A. Free Press, New Musical Express, Soul Sounds Magazine, Cash Box, Sounds, Sepia, Fusion, The Village Voice, Insider, Rolling Stone, Circus, Country Life, and Record World. Someone must have borrowed The Harvard Business Review.
Norm Weiss comes in to see Ahmet. He is much taller than Ahmet, has an even darker tan, and, with the identical Ertegün beard, he actually looks much more the menacing Turk. Now, Norm Weiss is not to be confused with Nat Weiss, James Taylor’s manager, who comes in to see Ahmet later in the week; nor with Steve Weiss, Led Zeppelin’s lawyer, who calls Ahmet all the time. (The record industry is not exactly a goyish stronghold.) Norm Weiss is Bette Midler’s agent. The night he dragged Ahmet down to the Upstairs at the Downstairs to see his new talent, they arrived just as the show was ending. Bette (pronounced “bet”) had been playing to a convention of 350 hairdressers, who were now jumping up and down on the tables, or so the story goes, screaming for an encore. Ahmet signed Bette on the spot. Her first album has sold over $1 million, retail, which is the criterion for a “gold album.” After all expenses, including more than $100,000 of promotion, but before overhead and taxes, Atlantic expects to clear well over $500,000 on this album. Now Norm Weiss was bringing “a rough demo” of another new artist for Ahmet to hear. “I’ve never heard anything that wasn’t ‘a rough demo,’ ” Ahmet says wryly, as the TC-850 grabs the tape from his hand and begins threading itself.
The artist has his three minutes in court, and now the verdict: he has a nice sound in the lower registers, Ahmet says, but it’s the wrong material. He could be right for country-and-western, but he’s not that kind of person, is he? Well, no, probably not, Weiss agrees. To end the meeting on an encouraging note, Ahmet predicts that “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” Bette’s latest single, will be “a smash.” (Since that prediction seven weeks ago, it has climbed from 85 to 14 on the charts. “The charts,” incidentally, are everything.) Exit Norm Weiss.
Enter Litho-Fayne Pridgon, wearing a blue-jean jacket, blue jeans, a Taurus patch, and shades. She is warm, charming, open, trusting, and articulate once you get the hang of some of the words you might not be used to, like “bad,” which means “good.” And she is beautiful. She has brought a tape for Ahmet to hear.
Litho has written a notebook full of the blues over the years, songs which are distinctive for their contemporary lyrics. She even has one called “Wall Street Blues” (“I ain’t investin’ nothin’ in love/‘cause it’s always down a quarter”), which seems particularly apt these days. Ahmet is by no means certain that Litho will become a star, or even who her audience will be. But he thinks she has something to say, and that they will record good, honest blues down in Muscle Shoals. He scoffs at the idea that he can “make” a star by revving up the Atlantic promotion machine, and in turn getting air play. Any given record, he says, will have a range of potential sales, such as a minimum of 75,000 copies and a maximum of 200,000. The promotion people do all they can to realize the top potential; but no amount of repetition on the air, he says, will turn a mediocre song into a hit.
The tape, which has been playing “Green-Eyed Monster,” about the jealousy Litho has aroused in men she’s known, comes to an abrupt NNnnniwwzh—in mid-sing as Ahmet takes a call. Noreen Woods, Ahmet’s (black) right-hand (wo)man for the last fifteen years, tells him who is on the line.
“Hah-low?” Ahmet says in that way that reminds me of Desi Arnaz. “How are you, man?” Litho and I smile at the interruption in her tape. “…the best harp player I know. Hah-low? I’ve lost touch with him, though. He’s a chef at a barbecue place somewhere…” Ahmet is unconsciously spinning a 45 around his index finger the way another company president might bounce a pencil off the arm of his chair. He frequently interrupts his phone conversation with “Hah-low?”—as though he’s afraid he’s been cut off. “…Yeah, George Plimpton on the kazoo or something, in the background, if the boys don’t mind…”
— zhwwinnnNN. The tape starts up again. NNnnniwwzh—. Steve Weiss, Led Zeppelin’s lawyer, is on the phone. “Yeah, man,” Ahmet confirms, “fifty thousand in Tampa, fifty—hah-low?—fifty-seven thousand in Atlanta.” Those are attendance figures, at $6 a head, and they are higher than the crowds the Beatles drew in those cities. Can you imagine that? Fifty thousand in Tampa? Kids would kill to buy some of the records Atlantic sells, which makes the record business a little different from, say, the soap business (and substantially larger than even the television, movie, or pro sports businesses). “…I’m flying to New Orleans to give the boys a little party. Hah-low? They’ve been working awfully hard on this tour…”
The conversation turns to Warner Communications stock, in which both men have a significant interest. Ahmet himself has been buying Warner stock on the open market, 1,000 shares here, 2,000 there, as high as $32 a share.
(Although the music companies that he coordinates contribute about half Warner’s profits, and although Ahmet’s picture is second after Steve Ross’s in the latest annual report, Ahmet says he is not an “insider” for the purposes of trading Warner stock, because, as he is quick to point out, he is neither an officer nor a director of Warner. He does not report his purchases to the S.E.C. or feel required to hold the stock he buys for six months before selling at a profit, as officers and directors must—though in fact, he says, he has never sold any stock, anyway.)
— zhwwinnNN. The tape runs on to the end uninterrupted. Litho tries to convince Ahmet to take the train with her to Muscle Shoals—it’s only seventeen hours—because she doesn’t like to fly. Ahmet suggests Warner’s Gulfstream II, if it is available. He and Litho obviously live in different world, yet they get along famously. “I love him madly,” says Litho, with her broad, infectious smile.
Ahmet goes to the recording studio across the hall to look in on the other new act he has taken under his wing, Barnaby Bye. Two of the four young men in this group are identical twins; all four are from New York. “It’s about time for a New York group to happen,” Ahmet explains.
This studio is kept constantly busy, two shifts a day. (Litho will be going to Muscle Shoals because that is a hub of blues music, with a variety of local artists to call on as the recording season progresses.) This studio makes a 747 cockpit look simple. It is charged out at $140 an hour to outsiders, $75-$100 to Atlantic artists. Barnaby Bye have already spent 150 hours in the studio, with more to go, and have used some twenty reels of the sixteen-track Scotch tape (really) that looks as wide and as strong as an Ace bandage, and retails for about $100 a reel.
Artist royalties are figured as a percentage—anywhere from 4 to 16 per cent—of 90-per-cent-of-the-list-price-of-the-album (i.e., anywhere from about 22 cents to 85 cents on a $5.98 LP), less a small “packaging allowance,” less recording costs (which may run from $15,000 to $60,000, or even more).
Barnaby Bye have a typical “four-and-one” contract, which runs for a year and gives Atlantic four one-year renewal options. In each of the five years the group is obligated to produce two albums. Atlantic is obligated to advance them the cost of recording the albums, and to release at least one of the two each year. Where their deal is not typical is in the dollar advances and percentages, which are better than new artists usually receive: the royalty ranges from 8 per cent in the first year to 14 per cent in the fifth; and the cash advances and recording advances add up to more than $500,000 over the five years, should Atlantic exercise its renewal options. Atlantic probably will, since record companies must invest a great deal in promotion to launch a new group, and it is often not until the third album, if ever, that the investment begins to pay off. For example, Roberta flack recorded “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” four years ago, on her first album, which sold only 35,000 copies in 1969. Eventually, Roberta Flack “happened.” Atlantic has now sold more than 2.5 million Roberta Flack albums and more than 5 million singles.
“…Of course, if some promotion man is laying ten bucks a week on a DJ in Cleveland, he is not going to send Ahmet a receipt…”
Anyone can identify, and possibly buy, the established acts. The trick, as with Bette and Roberta—and perhaps Litho-Fayne and Barnaby Bye—is to sign them early, and extend their contracts early, before they can demand, and get, the very top dollar. The 50-cents-an-album difference between paying out a 5 and a 15 per cent royalty is all the difference in the world.
The top royalty that artists can command has been inching up over the years. Some artists have gotten 16 ½ percent (of 90 per cent of list less packaging, etc.), but Ahmet says Atlantic will never go that high. If you go too high, he says, you eliminate the margin you have to work with artists who “should” be recorded, even though there is no expectation of much financial success. For example, he says he hopes to record some of the white jazz musicians of the thirties who are still around, still playing, who have been overlooked, and who will die soon. Naturally, too, the higher the royalties, the lower the profits—and Ahmet is not shy about profits.
As a result, Atlantic does not lure artists to its label by outbidding everyone else. “Usually when the bidding gets really high, Clive gets it, “ he told me before Clive Davis was fired by CBS. Artists come to Atlantic for its highly respected production capabilities, and for Ahmet. “You’ve got to understand,” says Manny Gerard, a music industry analyst with Roth, Gerard & Co., “that Ahmet Ertegün is a superstar. In his way he’s as big a star as the Rolling Stones.” As a matter of fact, Ahmet says that Atlantic did not offer the highest guarantee for distribution of the Rolling Stones label, but got them anyway. Ahmet is said to have told Mick Jagger to go around to the top executives of the other companies that were bidding and ask them to name some of the Rolling Stones’ hit songs. Jagger did, and found that they came back with hit songs, all right—but hit songs by the Beatles, and others—which did not go over at all well with the Stones. That little exercise (and a $5-million cash advance) did the trick.
It should also be pointed out that the size of the cash guarantee, which is what much of the bidding is about, becomes irrelevant once sales of an album surpass the number needed to cover the guarantee. From then on, it’s who can sell the most, not who has guaranteed the most, that makes the difference. Many artists think Atlantic does a better job of promoting and distributing than the other labels. Where companies get hurt, says Ahmet, is in guaranteeing $1 million on an album that earns “only” $700,000.
Mica Ertegün joins her husband to visit Atlantic’s new offices in Rockefeller Center, slated for occupancy August 17. National Kinney Corp. is renovating to Mica’s specifications two floors of the building, which used to be occupied by Esso. Ahmet is inspecting the premises for the first time since the work began. He and Mica are joined there by Jerry Greenberg and David Geffen. Jerry, 30, is Atlantic’s general manager. He is reported to have turned down the top job at two major record companies. Brooklyn-born, he and his wife now live in Greenwich. He is wearing jeans, a leather jacket, suede pixie boots with one-and-a-half-inch heels, and sunglasses. He looks like a happy, curly-headed kid. David Geffen, a likable 28-year-old egomaniac, runs the Asylum label for Atlantic from Los Angeles. He is in town with Joni Mitchell, his biggest artist, and he keeps telling me I shouldn’t bother writing about Ahmet, I should write about him. Back in the office are several posters of him standing naked in the jungle somewhere (all leaves from the waist down), with a twig in his mouth. He says he made $2-milion managing Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The new offices are at least twice the size of the old ones. Ahmet’s office overlooks “21” and is again on the second floor. He is afraid of heights. The waiting area outside his office is large, as everyone agreed it must be; and the office itself, like all the rest on the floor, has a modern eight-foot acoustic-tile ceiling, which hides the air-conditioning ducts that have been installed above. Ahmet likes high ceilings. Mica explains that the celling has to be where it is to make room for the air conditioning. Ahmet doesn’t care about that: he wants his ceiling raised—even if it means taking out the air-conditioning ducts. Mica explains that that would cut off the flow of air throughout the rest of the offices, and that there is nothing that can be done. Ahmet jumps at the ceiling with his arms upraised and puts his fist through one of the acoustic tiles. After some further discussion, the tour moves on. By and large, Ahmet is pleased with the new quarters.
Ahmet suggests a quick lunch. Two restaurants are in sight, and “21” is ruled out because, though they could supply David Geffen with a tie for his open collar, they could never dress Jerry Greenberg up to “21” standards. So we go to Schrafft’s. David leans over to Ahmet as we are being led to our table, past scores of lovely-little-old-ladies, and says, “Someone ought to come into this place and shout ‘F---!’ Wouldn’t you love to see that?”
After a lunch that is only a marginal improvement over the Burger King Sam Lefrak had bought me some months earlier, we return to 1841 Broadway.
Steve Weiss is on the phone inquiring after a deal Ahmet had been leaning toward accepting, but which Jerry and David had dissuaded him from at lunch. “Holler at me, holler at me,” Ahmet says quietly, as Weiss hollers at him.
The floor plan for the new offices is brought in and placed on the coffee table, with the news that this is the last afternoon offices can be switched around without tremendous additional expense. All the key honchos appear in Ahmet’s office, each with his own idea of how the gummed labels that represent people should be moved around the plan. No one has much patience for the project, or for the confusion, and Nesuhi is particularly irritated: “Ahmet, I can’t fool with this now—were doing the Roberta Flack deal today. I have six lawyers in my office!” Jerry Greenberg is crawling around the plan on his knees, pulling up and pasting down labels. It is agreed after a while that this is not a job to be done by committee; Ahmet and Jerry will do it later.
Negotiations have been in progress this week with one of Atlantic’s major groups, and the ball is now in Ahmet’s court. Ahmet, David, and Jerry think the group is asking too much. They are trying to decide on a counter-offer. David explodes with a great idea—buzzes one of the girls outside for a cigarette—and then reveals his idea: instead of paying them the royalty they want, why not offer them a million in cash, and a lower royalty? “We’d just be giving them their own money,” says David, “but those cheesy little assholes will take it.” Ahmet, who has been sitting quietly and listening to the advice of his younger associates with genuine interest (he says he relies on it heavily), thinks the group is too smart to go for the million. “And besides,” he reminds them, “the deal they agree to today they won’t sign on Monday. This is already the fourth deal.” Nonetheless, a deal is struck later in the day. It is a compromise.
“…‘I’m really not very rich,’ Ahmet says. ‘Not nearly as rich as most of my friends’…”
On my way out of Ahmet’s office, I see Litho-Fayne, with her six-year-old daughter, Fifi, making final arrangements for the trip. Fifi is a magnificently behaved, brightly dressed, adorable little girl. (Litho got married once about eight years ago, after a fight with Jimi, but she returned to Jimi the next day. The African student she married was deported shortly thereafter. She ran into him in a parking lot five years later, and has seen him from time to time since. They are getting a divorce.)
Ahmet is at home in Southampton on Memorial Day weekend. Though he is trying to place a trans-Atlantic call, and though servants and a houseguest or two walk past every so often, his modest estate seems very quiet, practically empty, in contrast to the hectic activity of the week.
I ask Ahmet whether he has any particular personal or corporate goals, the way some men shoot for $1 billion in sales or an ambassadorial post. He can’t think of anything right off. He isn’t the kind of person who makes lists for himself or who is doing what he is doing to get to the next plateau. Ahmet is doing what he’s doing—which is not too much different from what he was doing fifteen years ago—because he enjoys it. He lives life from day to day, he says, doing the things that “amuse” him.
I ask Ahmet how he manages to reconcile his own taste in music with what he sells. Steve Paley at Columbia Records was quoted in Forbes as saying, “This business is amoral. If Hitler put together a combo, all the top executives would catch the next plane to Argentina to sign him up.” Are there any acts Ahmet wouldn’t touch out of some principle or other? How about Alice Cooper who struts around with a pet boa constrictor as he performs? Ahmet says he happens to like Alice, who is a Warner artist. He says he probably would not sign a “Las-Vegas-type” act; he would have a hard time relating to that kind of mentality. But other than that, despite the fact that he says Atlantic really digs its artists, he can’t think of acts he would refuse to sign on grounds of personal taste. As David Geffen pointed out at Schrafft’s: “You have to have a second, commercial taste as well as your own personal taste. Without the commercial taste, you can’t afford the personal taste.”
I ask what reforms he would make in the record industry if he could play God. (This is a few days before the Columbia story breaks.) He says he would straighten out the pricing system, which is now chaotic. The $5.98 list price on most albums is fiction—almost no one pays that much. There used to be set prices for distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, he says, but now there are all kinds of deals. So, in the first place, he would make pricing more realistic. And then he would make prices higher. He says there is not enough margin for profit in the industry. Although Atlantic earns 25 per cent before tax, it used to earn more, and most companies don’t do as well.
Finally, I ask whether he ever feels guilty about his life-style and his wealth—the starving people in India, and all that. I expect him to tell me about the mobile hospital he is helping to set up in Turkey, about his co-chairmanship with Carl Stokes of a New York Urban League fund-raising dinner or about any number of other worthy activities he is involved in. Instead, he looks at me in surprise, genuinely perplexed by my question. “But I’m really not very rich,” he says. “I’m not nearly as rich as most of my friends.” He reminds me of the real estate man who once sighed, with genuine remorse: “If I had only put $2 million into that deal, I would be a rich man today.”
The recording session in Muscle Shoals goes fairly well. “Wall Street Blues” and “Green-Eyed-Monster” come out okay; “Junky Blues” has to be thrown out. They have gotten about half an album done, and will probably finish up at the studio in New York.
It occurs to me to ask Litho how old she is. “Ahmet says to say I’m 25.” How old is she really? “32.”
That seems a little old to be starting out, but Litho says she is patient—she knew her turn would come. “I’m so glad to be starting out at the top,” she says, referring to Ahmet.
Clive. Three days before Clive Davis got the ax, Ahmet Ertegün was asked whether he thought his good friend and rival at Columbia Records was in any trouble. After all, Davis had made a number of widely publicized high-pay-out, low-pay-off deals over the past year or two that could hardly have pleased CBS. Ahmet said that Clive was in solid, that he was brilliant, that there was no one at Columbia, or anywhere else, really, who could take his place. With the rest of the record industry, Ahmet was shocked by Clive’s dismissal. He says he tried to call, as a courtesy, but Clive was not taking calls.
It was clear from the outset that more had to be involved in the Davis dismissal than a $20,000 expense-account bar mitzvah and $54,000 of apartment redecoration. Those expenditures, even if they went beyond the bounds of record-industry executive privilege, were merely confirmation that this is an industry drowning in money, drowning in conspicuous consumption. When teen-aged guitarists earn more in a year than the president of General Motors, it is not hard to lose touch with the economic reality that affects most of the rest of the world. It was argued by some that the $20,000 bar mitzvah was just another in the line of lavish parties record moguls must throw to remain competitively glamorous, competitively decadent.
What really had everyone in a sweat, particularly CBS (no doubt fearful for its numerous broadcasting licenses), were the drug and payola investigations that a Federal grand jury was, and is, conducting.
A month after the scandal broke, some of the people who were at first predicting a blow-up of fifties-payola proportions are now predicting a gradual blow-over. But no one is lighting up any joints of thanksgiving just yet. One of the more interesting of a spate of rumors that have been flooding the industry is that Rocco Laginestra will be removed from the top job at RCA—not because of any scandalous involvements, but to make room for a new top man: Clive Davis.
Drugs. Few of Atlantic’s 250-odd artists are into heavy drugs, Ahmet says, and only one is an addict, so far as he knows. Atlantic has paid that man to enter a methadone program. “The road to hard drugs leads away from good music,” Ahmet states emphatically. “Drugs are my biggest problem. I would be crazy to give my artists drugs. It would be like a father giving booze to an alcoholic son.” (Though Turkey was until recently the poppy garden of the world, Turks don’t use heroin. Ahmet says: “They don’t even know how to make it.”)
If he ever found anyone smoking grass in the office, he says he would fire him on the spot. During my (unannounced) wanderings through the otherwise rather insane Atlantic offices, AND even through the recording studio, I failed to sniff out any evidence to the contrary.
Litho-Fayne, for one, says that she and Jimi went through all the drugs—smack, coke, reefers, acid, speedballs (snorting cocaine and heroin together, “a luxury”)—but it has been years since she did any. “I think I only did it because the gang was doing it,” she says, “but now I don’t want it for myself.”
Naturally, Atlantic artists and employees may be smoking, snorting, and shooting about as much as the artists and employees of the other record companies, however much that is. But where some other industry executives might feel they must break out a tray of goodies in order to out-hip the competition and “relate” to their artists, it is reasonable to believe that Ahmet would not feel the same pressure to conform. He did not become a superstar by rolling tight joints.
Sipping a huge Scotch and declining a joint every time it came around at an artist friend’s studio in Southampton, Ahmet recalled a press party in Houston for one of his very big British acts. (“You can’t print who it was or they wouldn’t be allowed back in the country.”) “[The band leader] was on the phone to his junky, d’you know,” Ahmet recounted, “shouting into the phone in the same room with the entire Houston press, d’you know, shouting, ‘I’ll kill you, you motherf----r! That was cocaine like it was my ass, you motherf----r!’ d’you know, and I’m standing there trying to pretend he’s just joking, d’you know: ‘That’s just a routine he does,’ I said. ‘He does it every place he goes. He’s being funny—‘ d’you know, and he’s shouting, ‘I’ll take a week out of this tour if I have to find you, and when I do I’ll kill you!’”
Ahmet says he convinced the press that it was just a joke.
Payola. “Payola is the greatest thing in the world because it means that you don’t have to spend time with some shmuck you don’t like, eating dinner and all that—you pay him off and tell him to f--- himself.” So says Hy Weiss, a record industry veteran in no way connected with Atlantic, but quoted in an entertaining book called Making Tracks: The Story of Atlantic Records, by Charlie Gillett, to be published by Dutton in the fall.
No one from Atlantic was called to testify before the Senate subcommittee that investigated payola in 1960, and the company is rarely mentioned in the 1,500 pages of testimony the committee compiled. Like all the other record companies, Ahmet says, Atlantic was warned not to engage in the practice in the future.
“Payola is still the industry’s little bastard. No one will admit to him, but everyone pays child support, and the little devil keeps coming back for more—not openly, of course—but quietly in sneakers.” So says Roger Karshner, a former Capitol Records vice president, in a vitriolic condemnation of the industry called The Music Machine (Nash, 1971). I figured after reading that book that if anyone would have something damning or cynical to say about Ahmet Ertegün, Roger Karshner would. But Mr. Karshner, who comes off without vitriol over the phone, had not a single unkind word.
This is not to say that Atlantic may not shell out forms of payola along with everyone else. It may. In fact, it is generally agreed that payola is most used with the black stations, whose disc jockeys are poorly paid and poorly regulated; and Atlantic has more than its share of black-oriented artists on its label.
Ahmet says that payola is strictly against company policy. He freely admits that press and radio people are entertained handsomely, but points out that entertainment is part of any company’s marketing budget, record company or otherwise. Where does entertainment end and payola begin?
“We haven’t taken any special steps [since the current scandal broke],” he says. “I just told my heads of departments to be sure nothing like this was happenings, and they assured me it wasn’t.” Of course, if some promotion man is laying ten bucks a week on a DJ in Cleveland, or a dime bag of heroin, he is not going to send Ahmet a postcard or a receipt.”
*A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 1973 issue of New York Magazine.