Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jerry Wexler

Legendary producer and record company executive Jerry Wexler passed away Friday at age 91. His name may not be familiar to some of you, especially the younger readers, but it's almost impossible to turn your radio on today without hearing some of Wexler's influence.

Jerry Wexler was born January 10, 1917, in New York City. His parents were Jewish immigrants living in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. As a youth, Wexler spent a good deal of time hanging out on the streets and in the poolrooms, and picked up an appreciation for jazz. Jerry's mother, however, aspired for her son to be a writer, and following his high school graduation enrolled him at Kansas State University. Whatever apprehension he had about being sent out to the heartland disappeared when he discovered Kansas City's jazz clubs were only a hundred miles away. Spending more time in Kansas City than on campus, Wexler's grades suffered, and he eventually dropped out of school and returned to New York.

Wexler enlisted in the Navy in World War II. With the military providing him discipline, he completed several correspondence courses while in the service, and following his discharge returned to Kansas State to earn his degree. Back in New York, he worked at several jobs in the music industry, eventually being hired as a writer with Billboard. In those days, Billboard referred to records made by black musicians as "race music"; not caring for that term, Wexler coined the description "rhythm and blues".

Itching for a more hands-on role in the music industry, Wexler struck up a friendship with Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Impressed by his musical knowledge, in 1953, Ertegun brought Wexler into the Atlantic fold as a producer and full partner. Of Ertegun Wexler would say, "In a way, he handed me a life".

With a job he truly enjoyed, Wexler would spend the next two decades helping lay the foundations of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. He helped invent modern record production - of the old days, he said, "No one really knew how to make a record when I started. You simply went into the studio, turned on the mike and said play." Among Atlantic's innovations was miking the rhythm section separately to provide their recordings a distinct, funky groove.

Wexler's business connections were invaluable in providing Atlantic artists with national exposure. He spent many hours hustling radio stations to play Atlantic's singles; many stations back then still had virtually all-white playlists, and Wexler's persistence helped break down color barriers. He created innovative contracts with songwriters, producers, musicians, and independent record labels, enriching Atlantic's coffers while letting the artists have a greater share of the wealth. One of Wexler's most successful partnerships was created with Stax Records. Wexler could then send many of his best artists down South to record in the more relaxed atmosphere of the Stax studios; in return, Wexler provided the Memphis label access to Atlantic's national distribution system, giving Stax artists like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes maximum exposure.

Arguably, his greatest success was his signing of Aretha Franklin in 1966. Franklin had just concluded several frustrating years with Columbia Records, who tried to remake her into a conventional pop singer, with little commercial or artistic success. Wexler encouraged her to drop the pop stylings and sing the way she had in church, as well as getting her to play the piano again. Franklin said, "They made me sit down on the piano, and the hits came". Beginning with her first Atlantic single, "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)", Franklin began a remarkable string of gospel-tinged soul hits, including "Respect" and "Chain Of Fools", and became known as the "Queen Of Soul", another title Wexler coined.

Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Brothers in 1968, which gave Wexler more free time, but his influence began to wane. He still was able to put together some major deals, such as setting up Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones with their own record labels supported by Atlantic's distribution, and buying Duane Allman out of his contract as a Muscle Shoals sessionman so the Allman Brothers could sign with Capricorn Records, another independent label distributed by Atlantic. Wexler, though, was increasingly unhappy as a high-salaried employee of a corporate monolith, and quit Atlantic in 1975 to spend most of the remainder of his career freelancing. As an independent producer, Wexler worked with a variety of artists ranging from Bob Dylan and George Michael to Etta James and Carlos Santana. His activity slowed down in the later 80's and 90's, partly due to his distaste for the hard rock and rap sounds that evolved in recent years. Wexler was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987, one of the first non-performers so honored.

Over the course of his lengthy career, Jerry Wexler left his mark on popular music as few people ever have. He really did teach the music industry how to make records, and proved that you could be successful treating the people who made the music as genuine artists, instead as the means to making a quick buck. Wexler was one of the last of a dying breed.

At Corrente, Bringiton has assembled some of the highlights of Wexler's career. It's well worth the trip.