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(Credit: Alamy)

Music

How Ahmet Ertegun changed the world by signing Led Zeppelin

In 1968, Jimmy Page had a vision: a band in which all members carried equal weight, sharing creativity and pushing each other to reach great heights without overshadowing the others. Page’s experience as the star of The Yardbirds, supplanting his old friends Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, became an exhausting slog. He wanted contrasts of light and dark, volume and quiet, rock and folk. He needed something that didn’t exist yet.

When the pieces of Led Zeppelin finally came into place, Page put his own money forward to book the sessions that would eventually produce the band’s debut album. This was part of the plan, too. The Yardbirds were signed to Epic Records, which received a heavy hand thanks to label head Clive Davis. Page wanted to interference on the business side, so once The New Yardbirds morphed into Led Zeppelin, Page jumped ship and went to another prominent American label: Atlantic Records.

At the time, Atlantic didn’t have rock artists among its ranks. Premier talent like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin appeared on the primary label, while heavier acts like Cream, Iron Butterfly, and Vanilla Fudge were distributed on the Atco sub label. When Page arrived to Ertegun’s office with the master tapes for Led Zeppelin, he laid out a contract with a set of then-unheard of demands: prominent royalties, no label interference, and Zeppelin would become the first rock act under the main Atlantic label.

Perhaps sensing the shifting tides of the music industry (or perhaps just to spite Davis, who felt he already owned Zeppelin due to their connection with The Yardbirds), Ertegun agreed to Page’s lengthy list of requirements and took on Zeppelin as Atlantic’s new headlining act. Zeppelin would record with Atlantic all the way through 1973’s Houses of the Holy, and when the band created their own label Swan Song Records, they made sure that a distribution deal with Atlantic was apart of the business plan.

Ertegun’s ability to shield Zeppelin from the manipulations was largely what kept them on a continued path forward. Forging an alliance with manager Peter Grant, Ertegun made a conscious effort not to interfere with the creative side of Zeppelin: he took the albums as they were, with no comments or cuts or label interference.

Ahmet Ertegun was instrumental in the rise of Led Zeppelin. (Credit: Alamy)

Years later, Robert Plant would explain to writer Scott Colothan just how monumental Ertegun’s influence was on him. “Ahmet was a genius who worked with the most amazing voices – Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack – but couldn’t sing a note. He’d say to me ‘Robert, why don’t you not sing that bit?’ If he liked something he’d say ‘The thing about you, Robert, is your soul goes so deep.’ No one taught me how to sing”.

Plant added: “Let’s face it, I tried to steal from so many people. I wanted to be Steve Merrick, Terry Reid, Ov Wright, Otis Rush. So I owe Ahmet a lot. He would turn up at our shows with Henry Kissinger and the guy who owned most of Manhattan with lots of his nieces following behind. I got to know a few of them as the years went on”.

While Ertegun’s musical legacy is secured, some of the more sour points of his life have been conveniently brushed aside in favour of his grand achievements in culture. These include his propagation that the Armenian Genocide was a myth, likely instigated by his strong tied to the political leadership of his homeland in Turkey. Ertegun also has been accused of sexual assault from an incident back in 1987. As is the case with most public figures (and indeed a few members of Led Zeppelin), there are less savoury aspects that reveal a more nuanced and less deified reality to Ertegun’s life.

But in terms of pure rock and roll, Ertegun remains in the same conversation as figures like Brian Epstein and Sam Phillips: behind the scenes workers who were instrumental in bringing guitar rock to a massive global audience. In turn, through Led Zeppelin, Ertegun helped define the sounds, styles, and fashions of the 1970s. The ultimate acknowledgement of his influence came upon his death: when the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert was organised in 2007, Led Zeppelin briefly reunited to pay tribute to the record executive.

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