Sunday, December 17, 2006

A tribute to Ahmet Ertegun

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Ahmet Ertegun, cofounder of Atlantic Records and close personal friend to the members of Led Zeppelin, died Dec. 14 at the age of 83. A fan of music until the very end, he had been in a coma since Oct. 29, when he slipped backstage at a Rolling Stones concert. The Turkish-born legend died at a hospital in New York with his family by his side.

It has often been said that Ertegun was more than just a label boss. He was also a companion and guide to the many musical artists he signed and whose careers he helped to nurture over his six decades in the industry. Ertegun's sustained influence on the members of Led Zeppelin was particularly evident in a number of ways, most clearly with the mutual support they fostered during the band's dozen years of existence and extending into the ensuing 26 years afterward.

Led Zeppelin's relationship with Ertegun began in 1968, when band manager Peter Grant closed a monumental record deal that November with Ertegun and his partner, Jerry Wexler, then vice president of Atlantic Records. With a simple handshake, the band was signed -- sight unseen -- to a generous five-album contract of previously unheard proportions.

Grant reflected on this time during a two-day interview in 1993 with Tight But Loose editor Dave Lewis. "The good thing was," said Grant, "in those days you weren't dealing with giant corporate companies like now. The Ertegun brothers [Ahmet and Neshui, who preceded his brother in death in 1989] owned the company and we shook on a deal. That's how it was back then."

One stipulation in the Atlantic deal gave the band complete creative control over its musical releases. This provision was tested in 1969, when Phil Carson, the head of Atlantic in the United Kingdom, wanted to issue "Whole Lotta Love" as a single in the country. The band objected. Grant told Dave Lewis in 1993 that it was Ahmet Ertegun who came to the rescue, asserting that the label had no right to issue anything without the band's approval.

Ertegun often traveled with Led Zeppelin, and in May 1973, while the band was soaring high across America on the strength of four Platinum LPs and a new one called Houses of the Holy, Ertegun threw a party for the album-oriented rockers in New Orleans. This grand reception was held at a place in the French Quarter, and many local musical attractions performed, including Ernie K-Doe, the Meters, and Roosevelt Sykes, also known as Honeydripper.

Led Zeppelin returned the favor to Ertegun the following year by inviting him to the launch party for the Swan Song record label on Halloween 1974. The band had formed Swan Song under a new contract with Atlantic, under which Ertegun's company would continue to distribute records by Led Zeppelin -- and all others on the start-up label. "Ahmet was the finest record man of all time," Grant said, "and every time we negotiated and he said, 'Peter, shake on it,' you knew it was done."

While Led Zeppelin toured Europe in 1980, the group would soon be due to sign another contract with Atlantic. Ertegun met up with Grant along the way, during a stop in Frankfurt, West Germany, and the two made a verbal agreement for renewing their contract. "We did many a deal with Ahmet on trust," Grant said in 1993, "and the paperwork would follow many months later." That plan in the summer of 1980 had been for Led Zeppelin to hash out a new deal with Atlantic within a year, but that plan had obviously fallen through by the end of 1980, after John Bonham died and the group disbanded.

The promise was not forgotten, however. In fact, Led Zeppelin still had one more album to deliver under its existing contract, and so a new plan was developed in 1982 to release a posthumous album. "Ahmet was great and paid an advance," said Grant, "even knowing that it was substandard and [if] we couldn't find enough material for a decent set, then the advance would be refunded." The surviving members got to work and assembled Coda. This album of eight tracks, representing all eras of its existence, placated Ertegun and offered what would be the final record from Led Zeppelin for the rest of the decade.

Grant went through what he called a "period of darkness" in the 1980s, which by some estimates lasted about four years after Bonham's death. In 1993, he credited Ertegun as being the sole person who wanted to lure the former Led Zeppelin manager out of his self-imposed withdrawal. Grant said, "It's interesting that Ahmet was the only one who has ever said to me that I mourned too long over John. Maybe he was right."

In 1988, the year after Ertegun was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a celebration was organized in New York to recognize the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records. The former members of Led Zeppelin took to the stage at the May 14 event with Jason Bonham on drums, in only the second reunion of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.

This year, a special tribute show just for Ertegun took place on June 30 in Montreux, Switzerland, and Plant was again in attendance; Page's planned appearance had been sidetracked by surgery.

During this tribute, which ended up being one of Ertegun's final public appearances, he was photographed onstage with a scruffy-looking Plant and guitarist Nile Rodgers. It was a reunion of sorts for the three; in 1984, they had co-produced an EP of rhythm and blues covers from the 1950s and 1960s. It was Volume One, the only studio set ever released by Plant's big-band side project, the Honeydrippers (yes, named after Roosevelt Sykes, good memory). Two of the EP's five tracks, each with Plant's golden voice, earned a fair amount of success on radio and television.

Ertegun's Honeydrippers production credit is marked by the backwards spelling of his last name -- Nugetre, the same pseudonym with which he is elsewhere credited in writing some songs. He had always longed for a sequel to Volume One, but it never surfaced, despite rumors of other existing studio tracks -- namely Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell on You." Newly released live Honeydrippers material is now available on Plant's new box set, Nine Lives, which also includes footage of a recent interview in which Ertegun comments on Plant's solo career.