The House That Ahmet Built|
Atlantic Records 60th Anniversary Tribute to Ahmet Ertegun
4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
If everyone had the luxury of having a documentary filmed of their life and it was as thoroughly engrossing as “The House That Ahmet Built,” there wouldn’t be enough room on the shelves at Blockbuster to stock the DVDs. Ertegun, the diminutive, manipulative genius behind Atlantic Records, passed away in 2007 after falling backstage at a Rolling Stones concert. (Now that’s living and dying for your art.) Ertegun went to that great studio in the sky shortly before this tribute was to his life was released. And what a life it was. Ertegun discovered, promoted and recorded many of music’s most influential acts, including Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Bobby Darin, Otis Redding, The Rascals, Cream, Blind Faith, Aretha Franklin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, and Phil Collins. Many of the aforementioned artists are interviewed and appear in live performance clips that validate Ertegun’s staunch belief in their talents.
Ertegun was a pioneer, the first to promote an integrated jazz band in Washington, D.C. and one of the first producers to intentionally promote black artists to a white audience. He’s most proud of the later accomplishment, as are the participants in the biography. The film is narrated by Bette Midler, a minor league talent who impressed Ertegun with her major league chutzpah. But Ertegun is the story and there are so many interviews, clips, photos and videos of the charismatic mogul that it might as well be an autobiography. And who better to tell his own story than Ertegun himself?
Shot in chronological order, the DVD begins with tales of an adolescent Ertegun’s passion for jazz and the blues. The son of a Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Ertegun recalls when he was 13 and pulled an all nighter in Harlem to see “Hot Lips” Page and James P. Johnson, whose friend slapped a drink out of Ertegun’s grasp, handing him a joint because she was afraid that underage drinking was against the law. His career was shaped by the death of his father in 1944 when he was 24. Dad’s passing meant Ahmet no longer had to worry about following in his footsteps. Challenged by his brother Neshai to follow his dream, Ahmet borrowed $10,000 from his dentist and founded Atlantic Records.
Ertegun loved jazz but was smart enough to realize it wouldn’t sell. So Ertegun did what he felt was the next best thing, championing black R &B artists, beginning with sassy Ruth Brown, who is seen performing “Teardrops For My Eyes.” He promoted and wrote songs for The Clovers, a forgotten trio that Ertegun refers to as “A superior singing group” and “More sophisticated than the other doo-wop groups around at the time.” (He’s right.) Ertegun and his partners next discovered blues belter Big Joe Turner, who gave the label a much needed hit with the original version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and later scored with “Honey Hush,” “Corinna, Corinna,” “Boogie Woogie Country Girl,” and “Flip, Flop and Fly.” Ertegun gushes over Turner, who he describes as “A big, wonderful man, who if he has some training could have been a great opera star,” and marvels that Turner’s voice was so powerful he didn’t need a microphone. But Ertegun’s most notable early discovery was Ray Charles, with whom he shares some pleasant memories as the two sit together at his piano.
An astute businessman, Ertegun could sense when his brand of blues and R & B was out of style (about the time that The Beatles conquered America and Ray Charles signed with another label). Ertegun changed with the times, but his partner, grumpy Jerry Wexler, admits he was hardheaded, saying if they’d followed his wishes to keep recording only R & B and jazz, the label would have gone under. It was Ertegun who signed Bobby Darin, the label’s first white artist, after Wexler gave him the brush off and kept the actor/singer waiting outside his office. Ertegun heard Darin playing “Splish Splash” on the piano and knew it would be a hit. Ertegun realized that rock and roll was the label’s future and he scouted and signed the label’s most successful acts. The DVD trots through Atlantic’s rock period a bit too quickly, making brief stops for Cream, Led Zeppelin and Phil Collins. Collins credits Ertegun with giving him the courage to record his first solo album, and Ertegun returns the favor, saying anytime a new artist came into his office to tout a record, he’d put Collins’ first album on and tell them, “This is what a hit record should sound like.” Clearly, when Ertegun liked an artist he stood by them, as evidenced by his rapport with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Collins during their interviews.
Bette Midler appears by the grace of being one of Ertegun’s pet projects. He loved burlesque comedy, and appreciated Midler’s approximation of a modern day Fannie Brice. An iron-lunged novelty singer who first pursued her craft in gay bathhouses, “The Divine Miss M” became a star because of her acerbic wit, rat-a-tat enthusiasm and generous diplays of décolleté. Despite Ertegun’s support, Midler’s career almost didn’t happen because her producers (one of whom was the normally placid Barry Manilow) were at war with each other with the still green Miss M stuck in the middle. Once she made it to center stage, Midler could toss out enough one-liners to make a porn star blush. When an interviewer asks Midler to explain her act, saying, “Was the idea to titillate?” Midler’s response is knee-slapping and priceless.
The performance clips are crisp, clear and spectacular – the only fault is they’re not played out to the end. A young Ella Fitzgerald effortlessly sings “How High the Moon” with stalwart bassist Ray Brown plucking an upright in the background; The Clover’s gather around the mike to harmonize on “Little Mama,” a tune written by Ertegun; Bobby Darin showboats through “Mack the Knife,” and Aretha Franklin displays her overlooked talent as a pianist on “Don’t Play That Song,” another tune co-written by Ertegun, which serves as the soundtrack’s theme. Otis Redding, backed by Booker T. & The Mg’s, sweats his way through “Try a Little Tenderness.” I was never a big fan of Otis’ full-bore gottagottagottahaveyou over the top style, but this clip bears witness to Ertegun’s claim that Redding was a dynamic live performer. Solomon Burke, often praised and neglected, exudes more testosterone than a football squad at a sorority party. Rock giants Led Zeppelin, seldom captured adequately live or on film, show some charisma during a sparse take of “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” with Jimmy Page bent so far over his guitar he looks like he’s swallowing a blimp while John Bonham pounds his drums into dust. Unfortunately, the second Zep clip shows the band thrashing their way through “Achilles Last Stand,” a deadly Trojan horse bore live or on record. Plant even relays that his “lady” said to him, “I love ya, but I don’t wanna be left alone in a room with that music.” (She should right reviews.) Bette Midler’s double entendre performance entry is hilarious, and the legendary Ray Charles is… legendary. The piece de resistance is a performance of “Georgia on My Mind” by Steve Winwood at the tribute to Ertegun (y’all know how I feel about Steve), which is superimposed over a grainy performance by Ray Charles. Winwood recorded the song at age 15 when he was the child prodigy and lead singer for The Spencer Davis Group, “the white Ray Charles,” and he still has the ability to amaze.
In addition to the footage, what makes “The House That Ahmet Built” a must see is the magnitude of the man himself. Balding, pot-bellied and pop-eyed, Ertegun looked like your favorite square uncle, but was as cool as Ted Williams’ torso in cryogenic freeze. His unwavering love of black music, business smarts and talent for shaping the marketplace come across vividly. He conned his share of artists--Ruth Brown recalls laboring as a home care worker, hearing her song on the radio and wondering why she wasn’t getting paid. She subsequently sued Atlantic Records and hit the jackpot – but Ertegun made amends by setting up an improved royalty system for the label’s past and present artists. Ertegun thumbed his nose at Jim Crow, established the Rock and Roll and Jazz Hall of Fame museums and gave artists like Led Zeppelin carte blanche over their material. He also signed the heinous Kid Rock to the label, so he wasn’t perfect.
One complaint -- (Surprised? There’s always one). The many acts from the 60s that kept Atlantic in the red aren’t interviewed, and too many aren’t heard or even mentioned. Buffalo Springfield gets a brief nod, with Stephen Stills looking dapper and dangerous as the group performs “For What It’s Worth,” and Crosby, Stills & Nash is represented by a cleaned up clip of the group performing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at Woodstock. But no kind words from C, S, or N? I can understand not sticking a mike in front of Crosby, who never had anything nice to say about the establishment, while Stills has spent most of his life whittling away at a very large chip on his shoulder, but nothing from the diplomatic Nash? No Mott the Hoople? (Okay, maybe that’s a stretch), no J. Geils, Iron Butterfly or Vanilla Fudge? And how about Abba and the Bee Gees, who together have sold enough records to circle globe three times? No Rascals? Unlike the Bee Gees, Aretha and Ray Charles, the Rascals spent the vast majority of their career on the label and aren’t even mentioned. Virtual hit machines (“Groovin,” “Good Lovin’,” “A Girl Like You,” “People Got To be Free,” “A Beautiful Morning,” etc…) the group was discarded, eventually signing with Columbia after lyricist/vocalist Eddie Brigati balked at their contract and walked away, creating a rift between themselves and producer Arif Mardin. An even better example is Ertegun’s beloved Big Joe Turner, who earned millions for the label but at age seventy-four, suffering from diabetes, arthritis and the effects of a stroke, was still forced to perform because he was virtually penniless. Ertegun’s wife, Mica, scratches at some of the dirt below the surface commenting nonchalantly about his many affairs, and when asked whether he did drugs, Ertegun smiles, hesitates and says, “Well…I inhaled.”
Watching “The House That Ahmet Built” is like going to the college of musical knowledge. It’s clear that Atlantic Records was not just his Ertegun’s house, it was his home, and he was the foundation. If you’re a fan of music history, or just like discovering cool acts you never heard of, this house is worth an investment.