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Wed May 2 11:18:51 EDT 2007


May 2, 2007
TV Review | 'American Masters - Ahmet Ertegun'
Revealing the Innovator Behind the Music

The rise of the music producer Ahmet Ertegun was more like the intensely
groovy embellishment of the lofty status he was born with.

The son of a Turkish diplomat who was appointed ambassador to the United
States in 1935, Mr. Ertegun arrived in Washington at 11, a worldly,
dinner-jacket-wearing little gentleman, besotted with jazz and ignorant of
Jim Crow.

Tonight PBS¹s ³American Masters² series cannily presents Mr. Ertegun¹s
biography ‹ along with the story of the great pop musicians of the 20th
century ‹ on ³Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built.² Each soaring
career on display here, including those of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Aretha
Franklin, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, is well worth
seeing and hearing again.

PBS deploys black-and-white concert film and studio footage with imagination
and humor, as when an image of the young Ms. Franklin looking haughty is
used to stand in for the look she might have given the young, permed Mr.
Clapton, to whom Mr. Ertegun introduced her with a diplomat¹s interest in
social intrigue.

But the chief thrill of the program comes in witnessing, in slow motion, Mr.
Ertegun¹s unlikely confrontation with American music. The drama¹s off to a
running start when, with the particularly gorgeous gall that rich embassy
brats have, skinny little Ahmet ditches his parents¹ friends from the
Turkish consulate in New York and hops a taxi to Harlem.

At 12 or 13, Ahmet made his way to the Plantation Club, where he marched up
to Oran (Hot Lips) Page and introduced himself. Mr. Page evidently asked the
seventh grader where he went to college, and Mr. Ertegun answered,
³Harvard.² Mr. Page assured him he¹d be taken care of, and Mr. Ertegun
remembers that a showgirl was assigned to him. He ended up, after an
after-party, many scotch and sodas, a joint and a night of pure jazz, with a
hard slap from his father, who had never hit him before. He was hooked on
the music anyway.

The filmmaker Susan Steinberg takes a perceptive approach to her subject,
having Mr. Ertegun interviewed by a revolving cast of music-world gods and
egomaniacs: figures like Ms. Franklin and Mr. Clapton, but also Robert
Plant, Lyor Cohen, David Geffen, Mick Jagger, Phil Collins and Mr. Charles
(in his last filmed interview). This could have seemed forced, but the
reverse is true: the scenes ‹ in part because both players have roughly
equal status ‹ really do come through as a series of conversations, with
both parties seeming to enlighten each other.

When Mr. Ertegun tells Ms. Franklin, for example, that the Beatles were in
the audience at a concert she gave when she was just starting out, she is
amazed. The interplay between them on this point ‹ it¹s brief ‹ is
fascinating; viewers might form a deeper understanding of music history, as
seen right there in the triangulated relationship between African-American
soul, British pop and the diplomat superproducer. Does Aretha Franklin care
about the Beatles, and did she ever? Did Ahmet Ertegun think she should

Though the program, which is solemnly narrated by Bette Midler, was not
initially intended as an elegy for Mr. Ertegun, who died last year, ³The
House That Ahmet Built² ends up functioning that way. It is a rare
combination, possible only with an idiosyncratic subject like Mr. Ertegun: a
lovely tribute, and compelling television.


Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built

On most PBS stations tonight (check local listings).

Written, directed and co-produced by Susan Steinberg; Phil Carson, producer;
Susan Lacy, executive producer of ³American Masters.²

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