AMERICAN MASTERS. 9 tonight, Channel 12.
IN THE SLICE-and-dice world of today's music industry, where the demos that matter are the demographics, you don't often hear the music of Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Bobby Darin and Bette Midler all in one place.
Much less that of Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Phil Collins and Kid Rock.
Not even "American Idol" has a theme night that covers all that.
So if tonight's exuberant, Midler-narrated edition of PBS' "American Experience," "Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built," feels at times as if you're listening to a well-fed iPod on shuffle, you can thank the celebrated taste of Ahmet Ertegun.
A Turkish diplomat's son who'd been taken as a child to see Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington's bands by his older brother, Nesuhi, years before he stepped foot in the United States, the future co-founder of Atlantic Records dreamed of a country full of gangsters, cowboys, showgirls - and jazz musicians.
But when his father was appointed the ambassador to the United States and the family moved to Washington, young Ahmet found himself instead in private school, "where there's no gangsters, no cowboys, no Hollywood showgirls, no jazz, no nothing . . . and these people who are much less sophisticated than we are," he recalls in tonight's film.
Ertegun then regales "Ray" director Taylor Hackford - one of a number of celebrity interviewers executive producer Susan Lacy enlisted to entice the far-from-reluctant storyteller - with the story of a boyhood visit to New York.
He was staying with the family of the Turkish consul when, under the pretense of going to a movie, he sneaked off to Harlem. With the help of a cab driver, the jazz-crazy seventh-grader found his way to the Plantation Club, where he somehow managed to pass himself off as a college student, stayed for two shows and then was invited to a party afterward.
Meanwhile, of course, his hosts were frantic, and he was sent back to Washington under guard.
It was the only time his father ever hit him, Ertegun says, but "it was all for the love of jazz."
Ertegun never stopped loving jazz, and what he called "black American music," but he also never stopped loving the music that followed, from the songs written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to just about anything that struck him as new and worthy. Until shortly before his death in December in the aftermath of a backstage fall at a Rolling Stones concert, the dapper 83-year-old was still showing up daily at his office, no doubt hoping to find another hitmaker.
"We hear a lot of things that are great talent for yesterday," he says at one point during a segment with Kid Rock. "But it's the talent for tomorrow that counts."
Rock then recalls playing a Hollywood party where Ahmet was the only one actually listening.
"He seems like one of the only people that just loves music. Everybody else wants [to know] how we're going to market this record, and where we're going to put it out in a set, and he's like, 'Yeah, man, turn it up,' " says the musician.
Whether it's the singing of Philadelphia's own Burke - whose impression of Ertegun is not to be missed - or the record company founder singing along with Ray Charles on "Mess Around," you, too, just might want to turn it up tonight. *
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