Because a lot of my work involves recovering royalties for artists, it will probably come as no surprise, I had a much harder time than most people reconciling what Ahmet Ertegun accomplished with what he knew was being done to artists with his full complicity. I particularly hated that I had to essentially beg him to make Atlantic pay benefit contributions to AFTRA for LaVern Baker after her stroke to keep her coverage active.
This is my best Ahmet story:
In 1995, I attended the R&B Foundation Pioneer Awards dinner in Los Angeles. As luck would have it, I was seated between Sam Moore of Sam & Dave and Charlie Thomas of the Drifters. Across from us was Ahmet.
Charlie was telling us that he never knew the Drifters’ “White Christmas” was used in “Home Alone” until he went to see the movie, and that he never saw a dime of the license fee. I told him and Sam to look under the table at Ahmet’s feet. They both ducked under the tablecloth. Ahmet, of course was wearing some gorgeous custon made slip-ons.
“See those shoes, Charlie?” I said. “There’s your “White Christmas” money.”
They started laughing while their heads were still under the table. It caught Ahmet’s attention. Sam looked at him across the table and said “Omelette, Charlie wants his shoes.” Ahmet had no idea what he was talking about, and Charlie and Sam collapsed again in laughter.
During the evening, Sam tells the story of Charlie’s shoes to Junior Walker and Lloyd Price. Both of them tell Ahmet that Charlie wants his shoes. By the end of the night he is completely befuddled by the people coming up and telling him that Charlie wants his shoes.
A couple months later, I had to call him to get another contribution made for Lavern. He wouldn’t agree until I told him what the business was about Charlie’s shoes. I told him. He didn’t think it was funny.
Ahmet Ertegun was a colossus of 20th Century music history. There can be no doubt of that. However, from the perspective of those artists who found themselves periodically underneath his very expensive bootheels waiting for a royalty payment, his stature and reputation had a real cost. Sadly for everyone, his death diminishes our world without rectifying the problems he helped create.
FRED WILHELMS is a lawyer who represents musicians and songwriters. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org