Commencement 1991


Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun delivered the 1991 commencement address—transcribed below—to graduates and their families.

Ahmet Ertegun

It is an honor and a privilege to be addressing you today. In me they have picked the oldest person still messing around with rock and roll. As one great writer once said, "There are advantages to being old, but I can't remember what they are." I believe the man who said that was Mark Twain, but I can't remember.

Seriously, for the graduating class, this is a most important junction in your life. Some of you who have the inclination and the means, may continue your education in post-graduate studies. Others will seek gainful employment as performers, producers, arrangers, composers, or as employees or entrepreneurs in the music industry.

Whatever direction you choose to embark on, remember that you have had an opportunity that most people in the world will never have. That is the benefit of a higher education in this marvelous institution. I hope you have made good use of it, and will continue to make good use of it throughout your life.

Many of your peers threw themselves into the real world when they finished high school, or even before. While you continued your scholastic career, they have had the advantage of years of experience at whatever they decided to do. You have the advantage, however, of a deeper foundation, a wider exposure to general and specific knowledge.

Quincy Jones, Leonard Bernstein, and Arif Mardin had that foundation. Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and Charlie Parker did not, because they had no access to it. But they perservered nevertheless because of their talent and genius. All of which means that your degree does not automatically qualify you for a successful career, or even for an immediate job. You will still have to fight to make your way, and you will be better equipped due to your work and achievement during your years at Berklee. And, of course, you have to determine what it is you want to do. And, most importantly, where your talent lies.

Which brings us to the key question of how you choose your career, or at least where you start. In the dialogues of Plato, a main thesis was that a human being's greatest goal is happiness. And that happiness is many things. Its highest state is when a person gains understanding of truth that is the discovery of knowledge. It is also attained when one can create an object of beauty that is an imitation or interpretation of nature—an object of fine art, whether it be a painting, a literary work, or fine piece of music. The state of happiness is also attained by leading a morally and ethically good life. That is by developing a set of habits which makes you choose right instead of wrong almost automatically. That is what makes you a good person, which is even more important than being a successful one.

To quote my partner at Atlantic, Doug Morris, "The way you have behaved during the ages of 20 and 40 will determine what people will think of you for the rest of your life." But as important as these principles are, they are universal truths and they are abstract thoughts. You will be facing now the reality of life. You may not have the luxury in the future of doing anything but what accidentally becomes available. The most important thing is to be able to work at something you love.

There are people that love nothing passionately. They get into whatever makes them the most money. And they get to love it for the sake of that goal. There are those who have to take whatever opportunity they get just for survival. The person who loves the theater but works as a clerk has a very different quality of life than a person who loves literature and teaches it at a university or is a book editor or literary critic.

So if you do have a love, try to pursue that. Because then, work is no longer work. But it is what you enjoy doing the most. Your goal does not have to be grand or grandiose. But it has to be something that you dedicate yourself to.

Several years ago, I had a new brick facade put on the back of an old brownstone house my wife and I had bought. I went to the building site, and an elderly Italian gentleman was laying the bricks, one by one, and building a truly beautiful wall. There were gathered there, to my astonishment, four or five other brick layers. They had come there to see him work and were watching him lovingly.

Then one of them sidled over to me and said, "That's no bricklayer, that's Michelangelo." That master obviously loved his work, and so did his followers.

There is true happiness in achievement in any field that you undertake. And you look forward to be able to work. And no hours are too long. No problem too complicated. And there is nothing you would rather do. That is ideal. It is not always possible. But it is what you should strive for.

I went to a small liberal arts college, St. John's in Annapolis, where I studied philosophy, literature, and science. I graduated when I was 20 and spent the next three years attending Georgetown University, where I studied Medieval philosophy and St. Thomas Aquinas.

In between, I spent hours in a rhythm and blues record shop in the black ghetto in Washington. And almost every night, I went to the Howard Theater and to various jazz and blues clubs. My love for jazz had been kindled by my older brother Nesuhi who, when I was only eight or nine years old, took me to see the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Palladium in London in 1932. My newfound interest in jazz never wavered thereafter.

I had the great fortune of having Nesuhi as my older brother. He was my mentor, not only in music, but in the fine arts and literature, guiding me toward a sound education in the classics of the Western world. I owe everything to Nesuhi.

I hope that you have someone you can look up to, whether it is a brother, a friend, a parent, or just an acquaintance. It is important to know who you are, that is, what it is to be a human being living in the end of the 20th century. And what we are is a result of everything that has gone on before us. That is the history of the world. But not only the history of events, but the history of ideas, and of arts, and physics, and mathematics and science. The knowledge of that will enlighten where you stand in the technology of mankind.

By the time I finished college, I had studied enough to know how very little I knew. When my father died in 1964, I was 21, a college graduate, philosophy student, jazz lover, a hanger about at jazz nightclubs, and as Jerry Wexler once pointed out, I was totally unemployable.

After a quick pass at doing odd jobs, I had to make a decision. What little my father had left in his estate was barely enough to take care of my mother and sister, who had returned to Turkey. Nesuhi was in Los Angeles where he had a small label dedicated to recording the last surviving New Orleans jazz players. He was also teaching a course on Afro-American music and jazz history at UCLA.

I had to decide whether I would go into a scholastic life or go back to Turkey in the diplomatic service, or do something else. What I really loved was music, jazz, blues, and hanging out. Since I was not a musician, I decided that I would become a record maker, what we call today a record producer.

In the mid-40s, America was in the midst of the second World War. There developed a great shortage of shellac, the raw material needed to make records. The domestic economy was booming. The war had created a manpower shortage. And people who were previously unemployed had jobs at factories and plants all over the country. As a result, there was a new market for recorded music.

The three major labels faced a new problem—tremendous demand and very limited supply. So they only pressed records by their major pop artists, bypassing most of the hillbilly, jazz, and race division. Hillbilly and race are now what we call country and rhythm and blues. This opened an opportunity for independents who had access to shellac and record pressing plants. New labels emerged all over the country, specializing in country, jazz, r&b, or whatever the majors neglected. Most of these small independent record companies were started by people who had no musical background, and knew little or nothing about the history of American pop or jazz music. They were nightclub owners, jukebox operators, or just rough-and-tumble entrepreneurs.

The newly affluent black population was searching for entertainment, and music was at the top of the list. In this atmosphere, I decided to start my own company. I thought I had one advantage over my future competitors: I knew a little bit about the music and the musicians. And I felt that my many hours in Waxy Maxy's retail store in Washington had given me a sense of the public taste.

I managed to convince my dentist to invest $10,000 in what appeared to most of my friends to be a hare-brained adventure. I also got an old friend, a jazz fan and collector, Herb Abramson to be my partner. He had worked part time as an A&R man for National Records, one of the early indies, and knew the ins and outs of the business. The music was one thing, but the business was totally new to me.

One thing stood me in good stead, and this is very important. On the surface there is really little relation between classical philosophy and the record business. But the most important thing that I learned and was able to use is logic. Logic is the key to success in any endeavor. It is what makes you think clearly in order to reach correct conclusions.

In those days, we worked night and day, and we loved every minute of it. The quest for a great artist, a hit song, or a new sound was our nighttime activity. Promotions, publicity, and sales took up our daytime hours.

I don't have time today to tell you the whole story of what happened to Atlantic and me over the past four decades. But just let me give you a few musical highpoints. I have had so many thrills since we first started. And thank God they don't stop.

From "Drinking Wine" by Stick McGhee in 1948, our first hit, to "What I Say?" by Ray Charles, to Sam & Dave's "Hold On," to the Coasters' "Yakety-Yak," to Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine," to Aretha Franklin's "Respect," to Cream's "Crossroads," to the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance," to Sonny and Cher's "The Beach Goes On," to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," to Eric Clapton's "Layla," to Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," to the Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'," to John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," to Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Sweet Judy Blue Eyes," to Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven," to AC/DC's "Back in Black," to Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," to Chic's "Le Freak," to Phil Collins' "In the Air," to Modern Jazz Quartet's "Bag's Groove," and to En Vogue's "Hold On," the thrills of special records and special artists keep coming and coming.

There are far too many other artists for me to mention. We have had many successes and many failures. I think we are good at what we do because we are dedicated. But we have also been lucky.

Since I started Atlantic 44 years ago, music has gone through a series of incredible changes. Styles have come and gone, merged and evolved, become transfigured and transformed. Today we can talk of an endless variety of musical forms, from rap to alternative, from house to metal, fusion to new age, from pure pop to jazz purism.

But the true bottom line is, and will always be, talent and excellence regardless of category. Whatever you decide to do, the important thing is to do it well. You can't always find the job or opportunity you may most desire, but whatever job you do get, do it well. And it will lead to other opportunities.

It is a great life, the life of music and life in the music business. And remember that the music business is also an art. It is a tough and competitive business, and we—my partner Doug Morris and I—have learned to approach it with humility. In your careers, some of you will reach success. Some of you will face failure. For those who fail, I would strongly advise you not to accept it. Keep going. Because most of the great people in our business have gone through many trials and tribulations before making the grade.

For those of you who succeed, whether sooner or later, please remember that the greatest attribute of a winner is humility. You all must have great pride in whatever it is you may achieve. But you also must never lose sight of where you came from. You must retain a humble outlook toward the world around you as you face the new challenges that await you. Learn this lesson from your heros, like Eric Clapton, Arif Mardin, Ben E. King, and especially my pal and fellow honoree today, Phil Collins. They are true kings of the music universe.

I would like to thank you all once again for this great honor. And I wish every member of the graduating class the thing without which I wouldn't be here, good luck.