"American Masters: Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built
9 p.m. Wednesday, May 2
WFYI (Channel 20)
Since “weasel” so often follows the words “record company,” it’s wonderful — if a bit unnatural — to see the love heaped on Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built.
t by all accounts, Ertegun, who died last December at age 83, deserved the adulation because unlike his counterparts, he lived for the music, not the marketing. As Ray Charles says here, other record execs “couldn’t tap their foot to a march.” This two-hour show traces Ertegun’s life and career, from borrowing $10,000 from his dentist to start Atlantic to signing artists from John Coltrane to Kid Rock. Clearly, the man had amazing ears. And along with Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, he had a hand in writing, producing or recording hundreds of classic records.
Ertegun is seen here chatting with music royalty, including Mick Jagger, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, among others — all of whom pay thanks for his help in nurturing their careers.
Is there hyperbole? Sure. He tells Aretha Franklin that British rock ’n’ roll royalty took up the first 20 rows at her late-1960s Hammersmith Odeon concert (20 rows?) and remembers saying to Kid Rock, “You’re going to be bigger than Elvis Presley.” You can forgive him, though, since he also helped get better royalty rates for early R&B and blues artists — albeit decades late.
The filmmakers fill the show with exceptional musical moments — vintage Ruth Brown doing an absolutely smoking version of “Teardrops From My Eyes,” Ertegun and Charles singing “Mess Around,” Page and Clapton tearing off several dazzling leads, Aretha belting out “Don’t Play That Song” and Otis Redding spreading joy with “Try a Little Tenderness.” And they don’t overlook negatives like the 1950s radio payola scandal.
This isn’t a complete history of popular music, but Ertegun’s achievements make it seem awfully close.