Classic Rock Review

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The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield (2012)


Review As a professor of music at an ivy league institution, a huge fan of early R+B and soul music and a total Stones freak, I pre-ordered ‘The Last Sultan’, was up all night reading it and am currently considering making it required reading for my course on popular music.

I have followed Greenfield’s writing since his STP: Stones Touring Party book, and fell in love with his oral biography of the great rock promoter Bill Graham from reading ‘Bill Graham Presents’, which I consider to be the Bible of what used to be known as the music biz. I also enjoyed his bios of Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary and of course Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones.

I’ve always appreciated Greenfield’s writing because he tells it like it is, and isn’t some fan boy poseur impressed by fame or stardom. At the same time, he isn’t a muckraker. I’m about 3/4 through ‘The Last Sultan’ and I think its his most readable book to date, and pleases much like the great pop music which Ahmet Ertegun himself produced.

The stories in this book are utterly priceless. My favourites include a scene in which a large woman wearing a muumu happily greets Ahmet at some social function only to have him respond, ‘sorry, but I don’t think we’ve met’, to which she responds, ‘Well, I’m your ex-wife’. In another scene, an extremely hungover Kid Rock (whom Ahmet refers to as his ‘young elvis’) comes over to Ahmet’s house for lunch and complains that he hasn’t slept and is having girl trouble, to which Ahmet responds ‘You want a Baby Ruth, man? That’ll make you feel better’, at which point a butler brings out a silver platter of Baby Ruths and Butterfingers.

On a more serious note, the amazing history of Ahmet’s father, a Turkish diplomat to the United States, and Ahmet’s childhood with his brother Nesuhi (a jazz fanatic who ran his own label and recorded and produced everyone from Ornette Coleman to Sonny Rollins and even designed their album covers) is extremely interesting and noteworthy.

Of all the people Greenfield has written about, Ahmet Ertegun is the most fascinating and unbelievable personality of all, trumping even Bill Graham IMHO. To be able to have lunch with Henry Kissinger and then ‘do coke with the bass player’ in the same day is hardly understandable. As Kid Rock notes, Ahmet had more energy and partied harder at 75 years old than people half his age. But more importantly than the sex and drugs was the music. Ahmet was one of the few ‘record men’ who actually wrote songs and produced them in the studio. (Ray Charles’ ‘Mess Around’ comes to mind) In another great scene, a young Andy Johns (who recorded ‘Exile’) is mixing a Stones song in the studio when ‘some old guy walks in and says Hey, kid, you should turn up the bass and add some bottom to the guitars’, and as Jonhs says, ‘I did, and the thing gelled’. Asking Keith Richards ‘who was that?’, Keith responds, ‘that’s Ahmet Ertegun and he’s been producing hits since before you were born’.

Anyhow, I’ve written too much, but as someone who loves and teaches the history of this music for a living, all I can say is, this book rocks.

Review I’ve always been drawn to businessmen that have come from rather humble beginnings to being the best of the best. How did they get there? What was the tipping point in their careers? The Last Sultan, his real name Ahmet Ertegun, grew up the son of a high-ranking Turkish diplomat, would end up changing the record business forever through his record label Atlantic Records.

When he first moved to the US he used to sneak out and listen to black-roots music in the local clubs when no white record exec would dare do so. He ended up falling in love with this music and would later start a record label to bring it to the masses. Over the next five decades as different genres faded and others took shape, Ahmet was usually the visionary leading the charge. He signed some of the biggest music legends in history including: Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Sonny and Cher, Nash & Young, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bette Midler, and Kid Rock.

The most interesting theme of the book were the comments artists had about Ahmet Ertegun. Even early on in his career before he was a legend, artists had a deep respect for Ahmet’s innate ability to hear, modify, and help create #1 records. Because of Ahmet’s active social lifestyle, he found it very easy to connect with artists on multiple levels. Both the The Rolling Stones and Kid Rock were amazed that Ahmet could out drink and out socialize even them, not get any sleep, and be alert, well dressed, and well versed for a business meeting hours later. And Ahmet was always the best-dressed person in the room.

Ahmet Ertegun’s life was one part music visionary, one part businessman, and two parts the show “Mad Men”. And this is exactly why several major tv networks have tried to produce a series around Ahmet’s life. The book is also a rock and roll history lesson that takes you from the late 1940’s through present day. I enjoyed the book and you will to, although I guarantee your life will seem very boring after you read about “The Last Sultan”.

May 14, 2013 Posted by | Book The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield | | Leave a comment