Jerry Wexler: pioneer of postwar pop, American record producer and music executive helped to start Atlantic records and coined term 'rhythm and blues'.
One of the pioneers of the postwar pop music industry few people more effectively exploited the art of connoisseurship than Jerry Wexler, the American record producer and music industry executive, who has died of congestive heart failure aged 91.
It was his good luck that along with two similarly endowed members of that small band, the Turkish brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, he developed the Atlantic label into a significant creative force in the fields of rhythm and blues, soul, jazz and rock.
By supervising the recordings of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Joe Turner, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and many others during a studio career lasting almost 50 years, Wexler left a discreet but indelible mark on the popular culture of the second half of the 20th century.
It was in 1947, as a young reporter with Billboard magazine, that he coined the term "rhythm and blues" to replace "race records" as the title of the weekly charts listing the best-selling 78rpm discs among America's black population. Having given it a name that became universally accepted, he helped define the genre after switching to record production.
He had loved black music from childhood, developed a strong empathy with its exponents and knew how to encourage the finest expression of their art usually by the simple yet often overlooked expedient of setting their instincts free in a sympathetic environment.
As influential as the individual recordings he supervised was his migration, in the mid-60s, from his New York base to a working environment below the Mason-Dixon line. First at the Stax and American studios in Memphis, then at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, and finally at Criteria in Miami, he popularised an ambience that put the emphasis on relaxation and a good groove, allowing a mixture of black and white musicians and singers to blend gospel, blues and country music with a minimum of extraneous decoration or polish. Wexler believed in an organic approach, and in his best recordings he made it sound like the only way to function.
Location and environment became Wexler's secret: he took Pickett to Memphis, Franklin and Dylan to Muscle Shoals, Dire Straits to Nassau, and Mac Rebennack (better known as Dr John) back to his roots in New Orleans. By encouraging his artists to relax in the surroundings in which they made their records (when inspiration faded or energy flagged, he would take them fishing), he established a modus operandi that was eagerly copied by young white rock musicians. He was also meticulous in his choice of collaborators. After Ahmet Ertegun came the arranger Arif Mardin, the engineer Tom Dowd and the keyboard player Barry Beckett.
Unlike most of their rivals in the somewhat primitive music business of the early 1950s, Wexler and the Erteguns were at ease with all levels of culture. Wexler's appetite for great literature, instilled by his mother who hoped he would become a writer, gave him an extensive knowledge of authors from Plato, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Dante, Molière, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Balzac to Havelock Ellis, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner and John O'Hara. Their influence was blended with Harlem vernacular in the sometimes recondite mots justes that studded his conversation and the occasional album sleeve note. Describing an early Ray Charles recording, for example, he wrote: "Losing Hand is a blues masterpiece, and the conversation between Ray's piano and Mickey Baker's guitar is now and always afterhours balm in excelsis."
Born to a German Jewish father who struggled to make a living from a window-cleaning business and a doting Russian Jewish mother whose socialist inclinations led her to sell the Daily Worker on the streets of Harlem, he was brought up in the Washington Heights district of the Bronx. There he spent more of his early life in a notorious pool hall than at school. At night he would steal off with his friends to hear the big bands of Fletcher Henderson or Jimmie Lunceford at the Savoy ballroom. "I loved the Harlem of the 30s," he wrote in his autobiography, "loved its look and feel, its dance halls and nightclubs and especially its sounds." He was already combing junk shops for discarded 78s by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins or Fats Waller. Down in Washington DC, where their father was the Turkish ambassador, the Erteguns were doing the same.
Eventually Elsa Wexler secured her son a place to study journalism at Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Kansas State University) in Manhattan, Kansas, but he lasted only two of the scheduled three years before returning home, where attempts at various careers — delivery boy, liquor store clerk, waiter — foundered until he began working for his father, "the only employer who woudn't turn me down". Washing the windows of office blocks and brownstone houses was an ordeal alleviated by jazz and blues, the films of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, at the Museum of Modern Art, and a meeting with Shirley Kampf, who would become the first of his three wives (the others were Renee Pappas and Jean Arnold) and the mother of his three children.
Their wedding delayed his call-up by a year, and he worked as a customs officer. In 1942 he was drafted into the army, where he took a psychology course and gave personality tests to trainee pilots, bombardiers and navigators in the Army Air Corps. After demobilisation, he went back to Kansas in 1946 to complete his degree, and the following year secured a job at Billboard, one of the two major trade papers serving the music industry. For the next four years he deepened his knowledge and developing a range of contacts in a community that quickly recognised his energy and perception.
A brief interlude in music publishing was followed in 1953 by Ahmet Ertegun's invitation to become a partner in the fledgling Atlantic concern, an investment of $2,000 securing him a salary of $300 a week and a 13% stake, rising to 30% as other shareholders departed. Ertegun spent the stake money on a green Cadillac which became Wexler's company car.
Immediately he was thrown into an environment where doing whatever was necessary to keep an influential disc jockey such as Alan Freed playing Atlantic's records alternated with supervising sessions that produced such classics as the Drifters' Money Honey (with a lead vocal by the superlative Clyde McPhatter), Big Joe Turner's original version of Shake, Rattle and Roll and LaVern Baker's Tweedlee Dee. Within months Wexler and Ertegun were also involved with a 23-year-old singer and pianist from Florida named Ray Charles, with whom they would lay the foundations of soul music.
"I realised that the best thing I could do with Ray was leave him alone," Wexler wrote 40 years later, although Charles's own memory of their early collaborations was somewhat different, and involved the singer responding to the producer's stream of musical suggestions with a caustic ultimatum. "If I'm gonna do a session," Charles told Wexler, "I'm gonna do it my way, or I ain't gonna do it at all." Wexler was shrewd enough to step back and allow Charles's extraordinary talent to express itself in a stream of hits that included It Should Have Been Me, This Little Girl of Mine, Lonely Avenue, and the two records in which Charles created the formula for the fusion of gospel and R&B that became soul music: I Got a Woman and What'd I Say.
By the time Charles left Atlantic, in 1959, the company was well established. "I dig cross-cultural collaborations and craved success," Wexler wrote, "which is maybe why Ahmet and I got on so well." He went on to produce Solomon Burke, another fine singer adept at bringing gospel fervour to the cadences of a blues or a country song, resulting in a string of hits that included Goodnight Baby, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love and a magnificent version of Jim Reeves's country ballad He'll Have to Go.
It was his recordings with Pickett, including In the Midnight Hour and 634-5789, that immersed Wexler in the specialmusical culture of Memphis, where he negotiated Atlantic's distribution deal with the Stax label, thereby ensuring his company's participation in the profits from hits by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Booker T and the MGs.
Aretha Franklin, however, was his greatest success, even though the Muscle Shoals session that produced her first Atlantic single, I Never Loved a Man, featured a near-catastrophic row between the session musicians and Franklin's volatile husband and manager, Ted White. As soon as the record was released, however, it became apparent that Wexler, Dowd and Mardin had succeeded where other labels had failed in capturing the essence of the singer's artistry. Her hits with Wexler would include Respect, Chain of Fools, I Say a Little Prayer and many others.
Two decades of producing classic R&B and soul records had made Atlantic a legend to young British rock musicians, and towards the end of the 1960s Ahmet Ertegun was able to add the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to the label's roster, their recordings boosting the company's profits at a time when it was being taken over by Warner-Seven Arts. Eventually Wexler and his old partner went their separate ways, Ertegun retaining his stature as the label's public face while Wexler relocated to Florida and eventually left the company altogether.
His taste, experience and gifts as a raconteur made him a magnet for a younger generation, meaning there was no shortage of work as an independent producer, including Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis (with its hit single, Son of a Preacher Man), Cher's 3614 Jackson Highway, Willie Nelson's Phases and Stages, Etta James's Deep in the Night and The Right Time, Dire Straits' Communiqué, Carlos Santana's Havana Moon, and the two albums with which Bob Dylan celebrated his conversion to Christianity, Slow Train Coming and Saved. By the time he stepped down from the front line in the 1990s, just about the only significant name missing from Wexler's CV was that of Elvis Presley, whom he had narrowly failed to capture for Atlantic in 1956 and whose subsequent recordings, it is fair to say, he would have improved immeasurably.
His survived by his wife Jean, and his son Paul and daughter, Lisa . His daughter Anita, predeceased him.
· Gerald "Jerry" Wexler, record producer and music industry executive, born January 10 1917; died August 15 2008
Richard Williams guardian.co.uk,
Friday August 15 2008
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