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The black Atlantic

Or, 2006 – the year the music died



RIP Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006)

The terrible news came last Friday evening, courtesy of one of my dearest friends in Manhattan: Ahmet Ertegun, founding chairman of Atlantic Records, had died at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He passed away after lingering in a coma for weeks as a result of a fall backstage at the Beacon Theatre during the Rolling Stones' command performance for Bill Clinton. And so I immediately scrapped the year-end opus I had been laboring on most of last week that was meant to run in this space; what do the fancies and follies of today's parade of callow pop stars matter when a real record industry giant like Ahmet Ertegun has gone to Glory? That this loss of someone I never even met should impact me so might seem strange to some. And yet I am devastated. Truly, the demise of Mr. Ertegun feels like an amputation -- this in a time when my heart is already cleft in two.

The year 2006 was, for me, the year the music died. As early as late January when we saw Terence Malick's Powhatan saga The New World -- illuminating our ancestral heritage just in time for Jamestown's 400th anniversary in 2007 -- and then my ailing mother undertook her last voyage to the Motherland (South Africa), sounds had begun to disenchant in the wake of the high point of British singer-songwriter Lewis Taylor's sole U.S. show (at New York's Bowery Ballroom). And these last six months have seen me turn recluse, inured to electric ballrooms, record fairs and such. Only the release of Gnarls Barkley's magnificent St. Elsewhere (Downtown/Atlantic), the soundtrack to my mother's fadeout in the spring, penetrated my perpetual fog.

Even if regular readers, family, friends and foes are tired of my sorrow, the immensity of the loss of my mother this past summer cannot be overstated. Yet the impact and aftereffects of this life-altering death were considerably worsened by the music world's losses, in rapid succession, of Malian master Ali Farka Touré (I lived as a child in Mali, when my mother became the third black woman Ambassador in American history, appointed to steward U.S. interests in that country of the Western Sudan); Southern rock 'n' soul legend Phil Walden Sr. (whom I vainly attempted to eulogize in this space with a paean to the leaders of the new Dixie-fried breed, Hobex and Mofro); swamp-rock cult hero Johnny Jenkins (one of Walden's artists on Capricorn Records); (my Philly acquaintance and erstwhile Atlantic artist) Rufus Harley, the world's first soul-jazz bagpiper; and one of my all-time rock 'n' roll heroes, Arthur Lee of Love, the Singing Cowboy and O.G. Pied Piper of Freak-Folk.

Arif Mardin, another Turkish émigré legendary in the 20th century music business and an intimate colleague of Ertegun's at Atlantic Records (aka The House that Ruth Built) in its early postwar heyday, died within a day of my mother, also in Manhattan, of the same brutal pancreatic cancer.

I had met Mr. Mardin and was friends with his producer/musician son, Joe. I too am acquainted with Jerry Wexler, through my Southern gentleman mentor Stanley Booth, and friends with his musician daughter, Lisa. Papa Dip Wexler has not only been influential to me as the onetime music journalist who coined the term "rhythm & blues," for helping foster the Skydog and shepherding Aretha Franklin to her greatest heights, but also for kindly regaling me with personal tales of the immortal soul icon Donny Hathaway, extolling the virtues of session legends like the late great Eric Gale, and turning me on to Dusty in Memphis and the glories of King Solomon Burke (whose latest CD, Nash8ville, was among the triumphs of the year).

I had dealings with various younger Waldens as well, throughout the 1990s while I toiled on the trail of such new wave Southern rock outfits as Gov't Mule. But, despite having never encountered the man Otis Redding called "Omlet" in the oh-so civilized flesh, I can never forget that the first person I ever knew of in the record trade was him. He was my first hero, besides my mother -- the first person outside of my immediate family of whom I have any consciousness whatsoever. And I will never forget the immeasurable contributions he made, not only to the music industry, but to American culture itself -- and that of the African Diaspora. Indeed, the sole reason to look forward to the imminent return of Black History Month in February will be to heavily rotate Atlantic recordings from Brother Ray to the Dirty South's current favorite Rev. MC, Cee-Lo (as half of Gnarls Barkley).

If we people who are darker than blue put the African in Atlantic during the centuries of our bodies and spirits' theft via pernicious Triangular Trade, then our Afro-Asiatic cousin Ahmet Ertegun ensured that the Atlantic remained black in the most crucial era of the Civil Rights Movement, which irrevocably transfigured the very Southland we live and listen upon this day.

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