Industry legend helped shape R&B music
Record producer Jerry Wexler died Friday in Sarasota, Fla., of congenital heart disease. He was 91.
The former journalist was credited with coining the term “rhythm & blues,” and he became a key member of the Atlantic Records team, producing some of the most important artists of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Wexler was in the studio with Ray Charles, Joe Turner and Ruth Brown in the ‘50s; he shaped the career and records of Aretha Franklin and other soul greats in the ‘60s; and he helped Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt forge new identities in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I was presumably their overseer, they were my instructors,” Wexler wrote in his 1993 autobiography with David Ritz, “Rhythm and the Blues.” “These were the artists who made my career and changed my life, infusing the business blues with a joy transcending all earthly matters.”
He joined Atlantic Records shortly after it was founded by Ahmet and Neushi Ertegun and produced era-defining records by Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge. Wexler’s productions include Franklin’s “Respect,” Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Dylan’s gospel-inspired albums “Saved” and “Slow Train Coming.” He oversaw the session that generated Atlantic’s first landmark recording, Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman.”
Franklin had been signed and then dropped from Columbia Records, which had attempted to cast her in the mold of jazz balladeer. Wexler, who would produce 16 albums for Franklin, allowed her to fuse her gospel roots with modern pop, eventually achieving their greatest success together by using musicians from the South in studios in Alabama, Memphis and New York.
He orchestrated her crossover from R&B and pop into the rock ‘n’ roll world through bookings at venues such as the Fillmore East, which put her in front of audiences tuning into free-form FM stations rather than AM hit radio, where Franklin’s songs would be played.
“He was my producer and I followed his advice,” Franklin told Daily Variety earlier this year prior to being honored by the Recording Academy.
He also produced Dusty Springfield’s classic “Dusty in Memphis,” in which the British pop star was placed in a soul music environment and excelled under Wexler’s guidance. With a special touch for bringing out the best in experienced artists, Wexler produced well-received efforts by Doug Sahm, Ronnie Hawkins and Etta James in the 1970s.
A documentary, “Immaculate Funk,” was made on Wexler in 2000. It revealed the contradictions that ran through Wexler’s life: A Jewish atheist, he made his mark by relying on musicians who tapped into their religious backgrounds; he was abrasive yet generous; he was driven by the bottom line yet patient when allowing an artist to create.
The native New Yorker was born to a Polish immigrant father and a German-Jewish mother, the latter of whom shipped him to Kansas State U. so he would not be stuck making a living doing menial tasks. While there, he would make 100-mile trips to Kansas City to hear big bands, which eventually became more important to Wexler than his studies. Soon he moved back to New York and worked with his father as a window washer while hanging out at clubs absorbing the black music of the day. At 19, he went into the Army.
After returning from WWII, Wexler secured a job at Billboard magazine while attending college and studying journalism. He got the magazine to drop the term “race records” and replace it with “rhythm & blues.”
He befriended Ahmet Ertegun and stepped in as co-director of Atlantic in 1953, replacing Herb Abramson, who had gone into the Army and purchasing 13% of the label for $2,063. (His share would later escalate to 30%.) Ertegun had the role of talent scout and negotiator; Wexler handled the bills, the scheduling of releases and managing recording sessions. His business acumen and Billboard connections paid off for Atlantic, as did the label’s transition from 78s to 45s and, ultimately, full-length albums.
Wexler first traveled to the South to plug Atlantic releases and, in Memphis, he became acquainted with operations at Stax Records. He was impressed with the concept of a house band and a loose and relaxed environment; initially, he brought in acts to record there, then started to jointly sign acts to Stax and Atlantic, among them Sam & Dave and Pickett. Atlantic was perceived as an exploiter of the talent, however, and Stax co-owner Jim Stewart made his studio off limits to the label in 1966.
Wexler took his act on the road — to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he used Rich Hall’s Fame Studios as a base. Like Stax, Muscle Shoals had a house band, which he would bring to New York for sessions with Franklin and King Curtis. As with the relationship at Stax, a falling out in 1967 curtailed ties.
After the sale of Atlantic, Wexler set up Criteria Studios in Miami, where he recorded, among others, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. He resigned from Atlantic in 1975 and two years later became an exec at Warner Records, where he helped bring Dire Straits and the B-52s to the label. He won three Grammys, including the R&B recording trophy for Franklin’s recording of “Respect.”
Wexler was inducted as a non-performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
He is survived by his wife, Jean Arnold, son Paul and daughter Lisa. Another daughter, Anita, died of AIDS in 1989. His first two marriages ended in divorce.