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Sing it Loud

The man who shaped American rock & roll has a lot to say

By Gina Arnold

AMERICANS NEVER FAIL to be blown away by British people's love of the blues. What, they wonder, does a people whose cultural landscape, music and history is so cold, so bleak, so different from our own, see in the swampy Delta sound of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Big Joe Turner--among others--to relate to?

Something, that's for sure, because the fact is that most of the best rock & roll music of the '60s and '70s--what's now referred to as "classic rock"--was made by white English men trying to imitate what they heard.

Much as rap music has been co-opted by white acts like Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine, so too did bands like Cream, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin turn the Delta blues into something particular, a romantic vision of a foreign land in what was, indubitably, a watered-down and strangely translated statement about American racial oppression.

There's an argument to be made, however, that this mid-20th-century taste for the blues doesn't come from England, but from--of all places--Turkey.

After all, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun was responsible for much of that music getting recorded and heard in a mainstream arena. Thus, it is his fascination with the American black vernacular that informs the entire idiom, from Atlantic Records' first hit, Brownie McGhee's "Drinkin Wine Spo Dee O Dee," (1948) to the Rolling Stones, whom Ertegun signed in 1968.

Ertegun is neither English nor American, neither black nor white, but the son of a rich Turkish diplomat who served as ambassador to the U.S. Somehow, Ertegun's international upbringing--and his role as a privileged outsider--made him hyperaware of the charms and virtues of the ever-evolving hybrid of jazz, blues and pop that soon was known as "rock & roll."

In What'd I say, Ertegun's massive new book, it takes 565 pages of text and quotations from most of his artists, including nine essays by esteemed critics like Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskins, not to mention thousands of supersized photos, to explain just what it was he saw in American rhythm and blues.

Given the vastness of the subject, perhaps the book's girth and verbosity is justified: the pictures alone--beautifully reproduced--are well worth its heft. From early shots of non-Atlantic acts like Sarah Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix to more candid shots of Atlantic acts such as Aretha Franklin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Abba, the MC5, the Velvet Underground, Lil' Kim and Leann Rimes, the book's greatest virtue--like the label's itself--is its breadth, its depth and its eclecticism.

So just how did a 25-year-old Turkish kid develop this incredible roster of acts? What'd I Say tells us in exhaustive detail. Although they grew up in Washington, D.C., Ahmet Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi spent their teenage years in '30s New York seeing jazz and blues shows. Thanks to their nights spent in Harlem and some trips through the South, they had much better ears for R&B than dopey white guys at the majors like RCA and Columbia--and a lot more sympathy for their artists.

Later, Atlantic signed its share of duds--Vanilla Fudge, anyone?--but in the '60s it banked on more guitar-oriented acts, like Led Zeppelin, as well as signing super-arty acts like the Velvet Underground and the MC5; in the '70s, it financed prog-rock acts like Roxy Music, ELP, Yes and Genesis, while in the notoriously musical-talent-free '80s and '90s, it turned more to jazz and light R&B.

What'd I Say carries an unfortunate price tag--about $75--and it's a heavy package, but to my mind, it's worth every penny, and every pound.

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From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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