Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Oxford University owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Erteguns - and "Stick" McGhee

"Stick" McGhee
Ahmet Ertegun (or “Omelette” as Otis Redding apparently called him) was undoubtedly the most intriguing record company boss of the last century. And with his widow’s announcement that his estate is donating £26m pounds to Oxford University to fund 35 annual graduate studies scholarships in the humanities, with as far as one can tell, no strings attached – the great man just became even more intriguing.

For those of you not acquainted with this music industry giant and all round Good Egg, Ertegun was the Muslim-born son of a highly respected wartime Turkish Ambassador to the United States (when dad died, his body was eventually shipped back to Turkey in a US warship by order of President Truman – now, that’s respect!). Already a devotee of jazz and blues, the young man borrowed $10,000 from his dentist (after graduating from college) to form Atlantic Records and proceeded, with the help of producer Jerry Wexler, to create one of the two most influential record labels popular music has known (Sun Records was the other).

One of my all-time favourite LPs is the Atlantic compilation album, History of Rhythm and Blues Vol4: The Big Beat 1958-60, which includes classics by The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Carla Thomas and Bobby Darin – and it came out after Ray Charles had left the company, and doesn’t include anyone from their copious jazz roster. The 1960s and 1970s were, if anything, even more glittering: Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton – the list goes on and on.

Ertegun, a producer and as well as a canny businessman, somehow found time to write “Mess Around” for Ray Charles, and to be one of the backing singers on Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”.

What a hero!

Not only that, he is generally described as one of the most civilised and most cultivated record company executives in a business more commonly associated with illiterate, carpet-chewing, crooked thugs.

And all because he and his elder brother developed a love of black music as kids in America, and because his musical mother bought him a record-cutting machine when he was a teenager. From the fact that Ertegun turned down many offers of jobs from relatives back home in Turkey after completing his college education in the States, it seems he was simply fated to change the face of popular music. Thank God!

Ahmet & Mica Ertegun
A really intriguing question, of course, is why the great man’s money isn’t being spent on scholarships in the States or Turkey. Well, who cares (apart, obviously,  from academic institutions in those countries)? The donation was made by Ertegun’s widow, Mica, who today said: “'For Ahmet and for me, one of the great joys of life has been the study of history, music, languages, literature, art and archaeology… In these times, when there is so much strife in the world, I believe it is tremendously important to support those things that endure across time, that bind people together from every culture, and that enrich the capacity of human beings to understand one another and make the world a more humane place.” Mrs Ertegun said she had a dream “that, one day, Ertegun scholars will be leaders in every field – as historians and philosophers, as archaeologists and literary scholars, as writers and composers, as statesmen and theologians".

Lordy, what a significant thing to do with your money! And what a relief it’s not being spent on Climate Change or AIDS or famine relief or any number of far trendier causes. This is about higher education for exceptionally clever young people. It's  about fostering excellence rather than about seeking universal approval for being compassionate. Good on you, Mica!

Much of the money was apparently generated by Led Zeppelin’s 2007 O2 Arena comeback concert, held in memory of Ertegun who died in 2006 following a fall backstage at a Stones concert. The group’s bassist, John Paul Jones, who was present attoday’s announcement, said he was “very proud” that the concert had resulted in the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme.

A quick glance at comments posted below the relevant news items on the Mail and Guardian websites prove that there really are some disgusting people in this country: I especially liked the indignant Mail reader who hoped that the scholarships would only benefit proper English graduates rather than bloody foreigners – apparently not having grasped the fact that Mrs Ertegun is just a teensy bit, well, foreign (aristocratic Romanian émigré, to be precise)! As for Guardian readers worried that the money will entrench the British class system and encourage elitism (not to mention rowdy Bullingdonian-style  behaviour) – oh God, how awful it must be to be these people! As for Lord Patten, the Oxford University Chancellor using the occasion to whine about government funding for universities – put a sock in it, fatty! (Is there any super-ligger job this ghastly old liberal twerp hasn’t yet managed to snaffle?)

I’m sticking Ahmet Ertegun in my Heroes section, because he was already a hero of mine – but I’d never heard of Mica Ertegun before today’s announcement, and she’s going in as well: it was her husband’s genius which generated the cash in the first place, but, after all, it was her decision how to spend it. Gawd bless you, ma’am!

Atlantic released 19 singles before they had their first hit with Granville "Stick" McGhee’s classic “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”. I wonder what Stick would have thought had he been told that his exuberant hymn to alcoholic excess would help found a recording empire that would one day pay for Oxford graduate scholarships? I hope that every member of the university will tonight be raising a glass in honour of Mica and Ahmet Ertegun, Led Zeppelin – and, of course, Stick McGhee.


  1. I have just read your last four posts [ Jazz, Bierce,Erteguns]. You have struck a rich vein so far this week. Your former employer continually fails in fulfilling its Mission Statement ["....inform, educate and entertain"] and you are showing them how to do it. So thanks. And more of the same, please.

  2. That's very kind of you, SDG. I shall do my best!

  3. Great piece, Scott. I was also an admirer of Ertegun.

    In a business dominated in the US by so many Jews, a Muslim record company CEO was indeed a rara avis. I did hear from a friend who worked for Chris Blackwell's Island Records that Ertegun was rumoured to be a Donmeh.