December 15, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun

I just learned the sad news that Ahmet Ertegun is dead. Is there a linguistic angle, one that could make it a Language Log topic? Oddly, there is. Ertegun was the son of the legal counselor to the man who gave Turkish its excellent writing system. His father, later a distinguished diplomat, started out giving legal advice to Kemal Atatürk, who founded modern Turkey. On November 1, 1928, Atatürk ditched the Arabic system that the Ottomans had made do with, and introduced overnight by edict a much better one based on the Latin alphabet. General literacy went up from 20% to over 90%.

However, this indirect family connection to orthography reform is not the reason I shed a quiet tear in Ertegun's memory.

What was important about Ahmet Ertegun, I think, was the way his life reminded us that language, culture, race, and religion are distinct parameters of humanity, and can be transcended: they enrich us, they do not trap us or divide us. Ertegun was not an African American, but he fell in love with African American music in the 1940s (just as I did later, far away, as a white boy at a high school in England), and he founded Atlantic Records to immortalize it in recordings. He was a Turkish-born, Turkish-speaking Muslim who worked for years alongside American Jews like business partner Herb Abramson and producer Jerry Wexler, producing records with non-Muslim non-Jewish singers and musicians. He understood the music he recorded, and valued it, and loved it from when he first heard it at the age of 9. His record company (started in 1947 on a $10,000 loan from the family dentist) made the careers of many African American jazz, R&B, and rock musicians.

And white musicians too: Ahmet Ertegun didn't think good rhythm and blues was restricted to one race (even though it was called "race music" in the trade weeklies when he was starting his business). It's a cultural thing, not a racial thing. Ertegun recorded the legendary genius Ray Charles, but he recorded Bobby Darin too. (I guess I was never really a Bobby Darin fan, but any unbiased judge would have to say that some of Darin's early records rock with the best of them. My favorite of his performances on Atlantic: the little-known B-side Bullmoose, a classic piece of black-style piano-pounding rhythm and blues.)

At 21, Ertegun was in graduate school at Georgetown University, studying medieval philosophy — heck, that's just about as arcane as theoretical linguistics — but he was spending hours each day in a a rhythm and blues record shop in a black district of Washington DC, and hours at the Howard Theater or various jazz and blues clubs each night. In the end he decided not to become an academic but to devote his life to the music he loved, and went into the record industry.

I went the other way. After five years playing soul music in groups such as the Ram Jam Band in the late 1960s, I decided that being on the road as a musician was a tedious way to make a living, and went back to higher education, and into academia. But my life was forever enriched by the music that Ahmet Ertegun discovered and promoted and recorded and wrote (he has a songwriting credit on Chains Of Love and other songs) and even sang (he's one of the backup singers on Joe Turner's original Shake, Rattle and Roll). On October 29 he was backstage at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan for a Stones concert for Bill Clinton's 60th birthday (where else to be on such a night) when he had a fall and suffered a brain injury from which he didn't recover. But the music he and Atlantic Records brought into my life will be with me forever.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 15, 2006 12:15 AM