Biographies of record men have become more and more common in recent years. Often these works are quick cut-and-paste jobs offering little in the way of original research and even less of an understanding of a very complex business. As the record business continues to fade out slowly but inexorably it is a good time to visit with two recent endeavors. In terms of black music and how it was performed, recorded, promoted and sold, Ahmet Ertegun and Norman Granz were important figures.
Granz was older and while he began recording (July 1942, Lester Young-Nat Cole) before he began promoting, it was as a promoter that he was best known in the first few years of his career. When the first JATP records hit in 1946, he realized their potential and recorded almost everything he promoted for many years. He also was active in recording studios with his artists and had an especially astute vision for major projects such as The Jazz Scene, The Astaire Story and the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks. He was a publicity magnet and a very good businessman.
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice by Tad Hershorn (University of California Press) is a thorough piece of work and examines it’s subject from every possible angle. The strengths of the book are an extensive investigation of his early years and an equally imp-ressive look at his life in Europe in the last part of his life. And the title is a bit misleading. Granz surely did do battle with public accommodation laws (and attitudes) in many locales and fought for his artists at all times. A liberal politically, Granz had a token membership in the Los Angeles County Communist Party for a period in the mid-40s. But the idea that Granz was a crusader for Civil Rights above all else is simply not true.
What Granz did do was build a major international touring organization, Jazz At The Philharmonic, by himself, from the ground up. He also built his own record label Verve (which consolidated his earlier Clef, Norgran and Down Home labels) by a series of very savvy moves. This combination gave him unrivaled power in the jazz business. As a record producer, he used the best players and left them alone. The number of memorable sessions he produced between 1945 and 1960 is remarkable. It was a rare occasion to find a copy of Down Beat or Metronome (the jazz magazines of the era) from that time without some mention, pro or con, of Granz. He was not shy about writing letters or rebutting his critics.
Granz could also be curt, irascible and arrogant and get away with it. Herschorn goes to great lengths to show that Granz was probably not a very likeable man. By 1960, when he sold Verve, he consolidated his promotional enterprises and moved to Switzerland. He returned to the record business, with Pablo, in 1973 but with little commercial success and a great-session batting average well below that of his earlier venture. There is much in this work about his friendship with Picasso and his interest in art.
If there is something missing here it is an idea of how Granz negotiated the mine field of a record business. It’s a shame that friends such as Saul Zaentz or Mo Ostin were unable to contribute to this work. There isn’t much here to suggest the visceral excitement that one hears on the JATP recordings. The highly contentious relationship between Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet is barely hinted at. Or Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie: more collegial but just as competitive read this work in galleys when it was a considerably longer work. There are a number of niggling little errors, some of which seem to have been introduced in the editing process. Yet overall, this is an extensive look at a man who did it his way and absolutely didn’t care whether you liked it or not.
Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006) was a record man of immense accomplishments and a man who could be at ease in virtually any social setting. His father was a diplomat and he was raised in a series of Turkish embassies, arriving in America at the age of twelve. His brother Nesuhi, older by six years, was the major influence in his life. The Last Sultan: The Life And Times Of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield (Simon and Shuster) gets some of it right, some of it wrong but is saddled with a task that would need at least twice the length to do his subject justice.
Greenfield’s major weakness is the early music of Atlantic, formed in 1948. He gets the principal characters right, he gets the relationships right but he talks about records that he never heard-always a bad sign.
Among the major errors are Mitch Miller telling Ahmet that Mercury “would not distribute masters they didn’t own” (not true since they had a deal with Norman Granz doing exactly that)). He has Ahmet convincing Lionel Hampton to start a label called Hamptone (the label existed long before Ahmet got into the record business) and that many of the sessions recorded in 1947 and 48 were “just thrown in the garbage” when in fact most of the sessions produced something issuable. Stuff like this can be easily checked.
On the plus side, the story of the first Atlantic hit, “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-De-O-De” is delivered in perfect detail. But, then, some of the Ruth Brown story is mangled as is the Willie McTell episode. The history of the 50s music is has so many bobbles that it is quite annoying. Jesse Stone, an important part of Atlantic during the first decade, is quoted about a trip to New Orleans that is pure fiction. It is this constant inconsistency that should have been rectified.
Greenfield is on firmer ground when dealing with the 60s onward. The Ertegun-Wexler producing partnership was over by 1959. Atlantic had become so successful that a division of labor was necessary: Ahmet worked on most of the English rock and California pop while Wexler stayed with Black music (Nesuhi was in the mix as well, handling Jazz and International A&R). Those combined efforts produced a spectacular track record of hit records across the idioms.
Like many of the original R&B record men, Ahmet was lionized by the British rockers, many of whom he helped to stardom. They, in turn, always enjoyed his company. Famous for being in the Atlantic offices any day he was in town (but never before noon), it would not be unusual to find some member of Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills & Nash or The Rolling Stones hanging out with him. \r\nThere was also a high society component to his life. His wife, Mica, was a successful interior designer and together they became one of the great New York power couples. Friendships with Henry Kissinger, Oscar de la Renta and Pat Buckley were just as important to him as friendships with Jimmy McPartland, Hal Jackson and Mabel Mercer.
Ahmet Ertegun is a member of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Soccer Hall of Fame (he convinced Time Warner to buy the New York Cosmos and was involved in the great success of the team in the late 1970s). He endowed the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz At Lincoln Center. All these accomplishments could have been emphasized to a greater degree. Yet many of the classic stories are repeated here and there is lots of insight gleaned from interviews with Jerry Wexler, Doug Morris, Paul Marshall and younger record executives. That Ahmet Ertegun was a complex, multi-talented, individual is obvious. What one also gets out of The Last Sultan is that nobody ever had more fun in the music business. In the end, isn’t that what a life should be about?
Bob’s book reviews also appear in the IAJRC Journal.
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