08/19/08 - R.I.P. - Jerry Wexler

Tutelage Led By Vinny "Bond" Marini Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gerald "Jerry" Wexler
January 10, 1917 – August 15, 2008

On January 10, 1917 in The Bronx, NY, Harry and Elsa Wexler welcomed their son Gerald into the world. The window washer and his headstrong wife both hoped their son would aspire to a life above theirs. But could they ever have imagined how much above he would ascend?

Their son was not a school-loving child however and his youth was spent skipping school in pool halls and record stores while visiting Jazz Clubs in Harlem in the evenings. The music that drew him into those stores was Jazz…and he became part of a loosely knit group of record collectors streetwise intellectuals who praised trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen and quoted Spinoza.

This circle of friends could never have imagined (though they might have dreamed about it), that they would become the leaders of the record industry in the coming years. In that ‘band of musical-brothers’ were John Hammond and George Avakian (Columbia Records), Milt Gabler and Bob Thiele (Decca Records), Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff (Blue Note Records) and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (Atlantic Records).

From his autobiography “Rhythm & Blues”; "We were absolutely a cult. It was 'we happy few' as the English say. We used to hang out at the Commodore Record Shop, this little in-group, and get together in the evening. We loved McSorley's Ale and maybe we'd smoke a cigarette without any name on it. People would bring their favorite records and we'd be listening to Louis and his Hot Five, Hot Seven, whatever."

How would you have liked to hang on the street-corner with that crew!

Gerald eventually graduated George Washington High School at the age of 15 and went to City College of New York for two semesters. After that he dropped out of school and joined the US Navy during World War II. After his stint in the Navy, his mother convinced her son was a great writer pushed him to Kansas State University.

Gerald was a marginal student who found him self traveling the 100 miles to Kansas City, MO as often as possible so that he could listen to a new music he had fallen for, the blues.

After graduation, Wexler found himself back in New York and eventually became a cub reporter for Billboard Magazine. Back then the black popular-music charts were titled “Race Records”. One Friday the editor at Billboard asked the staff to come up with a new term for this section and on Tuesday when the staff returned, Gerald Wexler suggested “Rhythm & Blues” and it was readily accepted, thus changing the landscape for black artists from then on.

In 1953, after his partner at the time left for the Army, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic records, brought Jerry Wexler into the company as a partner. Wexler recalls that “In a way, he (Ertegun) handed me a life”.

Together these two men changed the landscape of music, bringing Rhythm and Blues to the white world.

They also hired the astonishing writing duo of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller who were responsible for some of their biggest hits. Wexler forged innovative contracts with the two which allowed them to work as independent A&R men for the company. He made the same arrangements with Phil Spector and Bert Berns. This type of arrangement was unheard of at the time, but now, it is common practice in the industry.

In the early years at Atlantic, Wexler was the driving force behind the music that built the foundation of rock and roll. This was the music that introduced young white America to the pounding rhythms of the black culture, such as Big Joe Turner’s riotous “Shake Rattle & Roll”. The music tended to contain biting racial satire as with the Coasters “Yakety Yak”, or pushed the limits of the songs that had more to do with the action in the back seat of cars than the action on the dance floor. Clyde McPlatter’s "Honey Love” was banned by many radio stations for indecency and the Clovers’ “Down In The Alley” poked fun at the decency of the day with lines such as “I plant you now and dig you later/Because you’re my sweet potato”.

Wexler was also the force behind getting radio stations to play the songs being marketed by Atlantic. This was no easy task as almost all stations of the day were white owned and playing the likes of Perry Como and Doris Day.

Wexler was the face of Atlantic records when the ‘payola’ scandal of 1959 took place, traveling downtown all alone to be questioned by the NY District Attorney. Ertegun would spend that summer enjoying the cool sounds of the Newport Jazz Festival, while his partner worked the phones in their NY office trying to get more and more airplay for their growing roster of artists.

One of these artists was Ray Charles. Mr. Wexler was certainly the driving force in combining spirituals and ‘jump blues’ in the creation of “I Got A Woman”. Wexler went on to produce or co-produce every Ray Charles Album and single until Ray left Atlantic in 1961. He did produce the first album released on ABC Records and then Ray began taking producer credit.

In the early 60’s Wexler also innovated another record label first. Subsidiary labels were born under the Atlantic umbrella. The first of these was Rolling Stones Records, followed by Swan Song Records for Led Zeppelin (who Wexler signed to Atlantic) and the more successful of the group, Capricorn Records; home for the Allman Brothers Band.

When Wexler convinced Dusty Springfield to go to Memphis to record her breakthrough album, he discovered Stax Records and developed a distribution deal which allowed Atlantic to market their product. (Small factoid…Dusty ended up doing her vocals in NYC after all!)

This brought some huge Southern Stars to Atlantic records including Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & The MGs and Otis Redding. It also introduced Wexler to a more improvised and organic way of recording records both at the Stax Studio and at the nearby Muscle Shoals, AL Studio. This led him to bring some of Atlantic’s stars to the South to record including Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave.

It was 1966 when Jerry Wexler made the ‘deal’ that gave him his biggest triumph. Columbia records had just ended their relationship with a singer whose records had been a disappointment. This singer was a gospel prodigy, but was produced with a sea of strings and a catalog of music that did not fit.

Wexler convinced her to join the Atlantic label and brought her down to Muscle Shoals to record her first album for them. It was here where he says he “urged Aretha to be Aretha.”

And that she did and was. Sitting at the piano with her band, her voice soared to new heights. Wexler produced “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” and the biggest hit of her career “Respect”.

His love of black music and his years helping bring it to the masses did not stave off some troubling times though. In 1968 at a music convention in Miami, the word was spread that he was ripping off royalties from Ms. Franklin. Saxophonist King Curtis and a pistol packing Titus Turner escorted Wexler from the banquet room after word went out that someone was going to shoot Wexler.

A year earlier, Wexler made what he has called his major mistake. “I mistakenly figured we were at our zenith” he stated later on when discussing his persuading Ertegun and Nesuhi to sell Atlantic to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts for $17.5 million, a pittance for what the company would be worth in the coming years. "What a mistake. Worst thing we ever did. It was because of my own insecurity when I saw all these other independent record companies going out of existence. We were sort of done in by the broker who was supposed to be representing us. He undersold us." The men were no longer owners, but employees and the relationship between Wexler and Ertegun was forever strained.

Wexler was now free of worrying about the bottom line and began focusing in on other music he enjoyed. He began working with Ronnie Hawkins, Donnie Fritts and Tony Joe White, a new blend of music combining Southern rock, country and R&B, what Wexler called “Swamp”.

He had some commercially failed records with Donnie Hathaway and considers two commercial flops; Dr. John’s GUMBO and DOUG SHAM AND BAND as two records he is most proud to have been a part.

In 1974 he tried to establish Atlantic records in Nashville, a move that did not work well. He did produce two albums with Willie Nelson SHOTGUN WILLIE and PHASES AND STAGES.

Jerry Wexler left Atlantic records in 1975 began freelancing his talent producing albums for Bob Dylan (SLOW TRAIN COMING), Dire Straits (COMMUNIQUE), Etta James, Allen Toussaint, the Staple Singers, George Michael, Jose Feliciano, Linda Ronstadt (WHAT’S NEW) and Carlos Santana(HAVANA MOON).

In the late 90’s Jerry Wexler retired to Florida and shut himself off from the music industry, even canceling his subscription to Billboard Magazine.

Mr. Gerald (Jerry) Wexler died peacefully in his home this past Friday from congestive heart failure, leaving behind his wife Jean Arthur and his two surviving children Paul and Lisa (a third child, daughter Anita died of AIDs in 1989).

Mr Wexler was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. "He played a major role in bringing black music to the masses, and in the evolution of rhythm and blues to soul music," Jim Henke, vice president and chief curator for the Hall of Fame, said in an interview. "Beyond that, he really developed the role of the record producer. Jerry did a lot more than just turn on a tape recorder. He left his stamp on a lot of great music. He had a commercial ear as well as a critical ear."

A documentary about Mr. Wexler was produced and directed by Tom Thurman in 2000. It is entitled "Immaculate Funk", Wexler's phrase for the Atlantic sound, characterized by a heavy backbeat and a gospel influence. "It's funky, it's deep, it's very emotional, but it's clean," Wexler once said.

"He was a bundle of contradictions," said Tom Thurman, "He was incredibly abrasive and incredibly generous, very abrupt and very, very patient, seemingly a pure, sharklike businessman and also a cerebral and creative genius."

When trying to describe to Wilson Pickett the sound he was looking for in the back-beat, he demonstrated by doing the newest dance craze "The Jerk"...he knew how to get his message across.

When asked what he would like on his tombstone, Jerry Wexler said "Two words....More Bass"
Thank you for your vision and your ears Mr. Wexler. You brought us some stunningly beautiful music over the years and your legacy will live on for generations.