In 1932, a nine-year-old boy from a devout Muslim family living in London — his father was a diplomat and legal adviser to Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic — was taken by his elder brother, Nesuhi, to see the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway orchestras at the Palladium theatre in London. “I’d never really seen black people except pictures of great artists like Josephine Baker,” the boy in question, Ahmet Ertegün, later said. “And I’d never heard anything as glorious as those beautiful musicians, wearing great white tails playing these incredibly gleaming horns with drums and rhythm sections unlike you ever heard on records.” The childhood epiphany sparked by this cultural ménage à trois would go on to change the course of popular music.
As teenagers, the family having moved to Washington, D.C., the brothers would comb black neighbourhoods for rare old recordings, and amassed a collection of some 25,000 jazz and blues records. Having earned a bachelor’s degree at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Ertegün studied medieval philosophy at Georgetown University, but his soul still danced to a groovier beat. “In between [classes], I spent hours in a rhythm and blues record shop in the black ghetto in Washington,” he said later. “Almost every night I went to the Howard theatre and to various jazz and blues clubs. I had to decide whether I would go into a scholastic life or go back to Turkey in the diplomatic service, or do something else. What I really loved was music, jazz, blues, and hanging out.” The pair had also been organising gigs at the Turkish embassy on Sunday afternoons.
It was not with his brother but his friend Herb Abramson that Ertegün co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947, initially operating out of an office in a derelict ground-floor office space in the Jefferson Hotel in Manhattan. Two record label launches had already failed, but this time Ertegün had financial wind in his sails, thanks to an investment of $10,000, borrowed from the family dentist. “I knew that the major companies were not making enough of the kind of records the black market demanded,” he said, and the likes of Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker were among Atlantic’s early successes.