Monday, August 18, 2008

R.I.P.: Jerry Wexler

Jerry Wexler, a Behind-the-Scenes Force in Black Music, Is Dead at 91
by Bruce Weber
New York Times, August 16, 2008

Jerry Wexler, who as a reporter for Billboard magazine in the late 1940s christened black popular music with the name rhythm and blues, and who as a record producer helped lead the genre to mainstream popularity, propelling the careers of Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and other performers, died on Friday at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 91.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Paul.

Mr. Wexler was already in his 30s when he entered the music business, but his impact was immediate and enduring. In 1987, the Rock and Hall of Fame recognized his contributions to American music by inducting him in only its second year of conferring such honors.

Mr. Wexler actually didn't care for rock 'n' roll, at least as it evolved in the 1960s and '70s. Though he signed a British band called Led Zeppelin and eventually produced records by the likes of Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits and George Michael, his main influence came in the 1950s and '60s as a vice president of Atlantic Records, working largely with black artists who were forging a new musical style, which came to be called soul music, from elements of gospel, swing and blues.

"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."

Mr. Wexler was something of a paradox. A businessman with tireless energy, a ruthless streak and a volatile temper, he was also a hopeless music fan. A New York Jew and a vehement atheist, he found his musical home in the Deep South, in studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala., among Baptists and Methodists, blacks and good old boys.

"He was a bundle of contradictions," said Tom Thurman, who produced and directed a documentary about Mr. Wexler in 2000. "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."

The title of Mr. Thurman's documentary, "Immaculate Funk," was Mr. 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," Mr. Wexler once said.

Though not a musician himself, Mr. Wexler had a natural rapport with musicians, who seemed to recognize his instinct for how best to employ their gifts. In 1950, while he was still at Billboard, he encountered the young singer Patti Page and hummed for her a 1947 song he liked, "The Tennessee Waltz." Her subsequent recording of it sold three million copies in eight months.

A few years later he was a partner at Atlantic, presiding over the 1954 recording session of Ray Charles's breakout hit, "I've Got a Woman." He said later that the best thing he had done for Charles was to let him do as he pleased.

"He had an extraordinary insight into talent," Charles, who died in 2004, said in "Immaculate Funk."

Mr. Wexler wasn't always a mere listener. In the mid-1960s, at a recording session with Wilson Pickett, Mr. Wexler wanted more of a backbeat in the song "In the Midnight Hour" but couldn't explain in words what he wanted, so he illustrated it by doing a new dance, the jerk.

In the late 1960s and '70s, he made 14 Atlantic albums with Ms. Franklin, whose musical instincts had been less than fully exploited at her previous label, Columbia. Mr. Wexler gave her more control over her songs and her sound, a blend of churchlike spirituality and raw sexuality, which can be heard in hits like "Respect," "Dr. Feelgood" and "Chain of Fools."

"How could he understand what was inside of black people like that?" Pickett asked in the documentary. "But Jerry Wexler did."

Gerald Wexler was born in New York City on Jan. 10, 1917, and grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan at a time before the building of the George Washington Bridge, when swimming in the Hudson River was a summer pastime.

His parents were mismatched. His father, Harry, was a Polish immigrant who spent his entire working life as a window washer. His headstrong mother, Elsa, had higher aspirations for herself and especially for Jerry, the older of her two sons: she wanted him to be writer.

Young Jerry didn't care for school much, however; he frequented pool halls and record stores instead, and he went to Harlem jazz clubs at night. In 1936, as something of a last-ditch effort to straighten out her wayward son, Elsa Wexler enrolled him at Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (known today as Kansas State University) in Manhattan, Kan. There he first encountered a rural musical sensibility, and 100 or so miles away, in the lively musical scene of Kansas City, Mo., he could immerse himself in the blues.

Mr. Wexler left college after two years, joined the Army, served stateside during World War II, then returned to Kansas State and finished his degree. By 1949 he was back in New York, married and working as a cub reporter for Billboard. At the time the black popular-music charts in the magazine were gathered under the rubric Race Records.

"We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a Tuesday," Mr. Wexler recalled in an interview last fall with the Web site "One Friday the editor got us together and said, 'Listen, let's change this from Race Records.' A lot of people were beginning to find it inappropriate. 'Come back with some ideas on Tuesday.'

"There were four guys on the staff," he continued. "One guy said this and one guy said that, and I said, 'Rhythm and blues,' and they said: 'Oh, that sounds pretty good. Let's do that.' In the next issue, that section came out as Rhythm and Blues instead of Race."

His work at Billboard attracted the attention of Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, then a small independent label focusing on black music. When his partner, Herb Abramson, went into the Army, Mr. Ertegun asked Mr. Wexler to join the company in 1953.

Over the next decade Mr. Wexler's drive, his sales and promotion skills, and, according to the business practices of the day, his indulging in payola -- the bribery of disc jockeys to play a company's records -- helped make Atlantic a leader in the recording industry. In the 1950s the company produced records by the Drifters, the Clovers, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and, in partnership with the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the Coasters.

In the 1960s, however, Mr. Wexler and Mr. Ertegun began to take different paths. Mr. Ertegun gravitated toward rock 'n' roll, while Mr. Wexler -- though he signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic -- was drawn to the niche sounds he found in places like Memphis, where a small label, Stax Records, had gathered a mix of black and white musicians and produced a sound based on spontaneity and improvisation.

Mr. Wexler brought Otis Redding and Dusty Springfield, among others, to record at Stax's studio, which was in an old movie palace. Later, after hearing a recording Percy Sledge had made at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, he began producing records there as well, bringing singers like Pickett and Ms. Franklin to work with local musicians.

In his autobiography, "Rhythm and the Blues" (Knopf, 1993), written with David Ritz, Mr. Wexler wrote candidly and self-critically about a personal life that he acknowledged had been intemperate, replete with adulterous liaisons and profligate drug use.

Mr. Wexler's first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his son, who lives in High Bridge, N.J., he is survived by his wife, Jean Arnold, and a daughter, Lisa Wexler of Kingston, N.Y. Another daughter, Anita, died of AIDS in 1989.

In the early 1970s Mr. Wexler helped resurrect the career of Willie Nelson with two albums for Atlantic, but he left the label in 1975. (It had been bought by Warner Brothers in 1967.) After the split he worked on his own, and in 1978 he produced Bob Dylan's album "Saved," a celebration of the singer's embrace of Christianity, for Columbia. When Mr. Dylan accepted his first Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance, for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody," he first thanked God and then Jerry Wexler.

In the 1980s Mr. Wexler helped Linda Ronstadt with her career-changing album of Sinatraesque standards, "What's New," a project begun when she spent an afternoon with Mr. Wexler listening to records and for the first time heard the 1930s singer Mildred Bailey.

"When I said I wanted to sing like that, Jerry said the best way was to get a pianist and learn how those songs are done," Ms. Ronstadt told The New York Times in 1983. She added, "One thing Jerry Wexler taught me was that if you've got a sexy or torchy song, you mustn't attitudinize on top of it, because it sounds redundant."

Given the chance, Mr. Wexler would have produced to the end and beyond.

"I asked him once," said Mr. Thurman, the filmmaker, "'What do you want written on your tombstone, Jerry?' He said, 'Two words: More bass.'"

Jerry Wexler, 91: Influential Music Producer Coined 'Rhythm and Blues'
by Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2008

Jerry Wexler, the influential Atlantic Records producer who coined the term "rhythm and blues" before helping shape that sound into one of the most powerful musical forces of the 1950s and '60s, died Friday morning at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 91.

Wexler had suffered in recent years from congenital heart disease, said David Ritz, who was the co-author of Wexler's 1993 autobiography "Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music."

As Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's partner during that label's vital years from the 1950s to the '70s, Wexler co-piloted one of the most successful and influential independent record companies in history.

"Wexler's efforts at Atlantic helped bring black music to the masses, and in so doing built a significant and lasting bridge between the races," according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Wexler as a non-performer in 1987.

In the early 1960s, Wexler signed a gospel singer whose career had been languishing at another record label and unleashed her vocal talent, helping turn Aretha Franklin into the "Queen of Soul."

"He made a huge contribution to my career," Franklin told The Times on Friday, "one I'm most thankful for, one I'll always remember. Jerry was truly one of the great record men of all time."

He produced numerous hits for Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters, the Coasters and Big Joe Turner among dozens of others. He signed Led Zeppelin to the label and worked with other rock performers including Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Dire Straits, the B-52s, as well as producing recordings that salvaged Willie Nelson's career in the mid-1970s after he turned his back on Nashville.

Although Wexler's signing of Led Zeppelin led a new era for Atlantic in which it grew further with white rock acts including the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills and Nash and others, Wexler's heart remained in the music created by African Americans.

"He was one of the last of these record guys who grew up in the rough-and-tumble music business -- independents who had to bang it out, press them and get them out on the street because other people were stealing songs left and right," Ritz said Friday. "It was really a free-for-all."

For black musicians, Ritz added, "If you weren't Louis Armstrong or the Mills Brothers, the major labels didn't want to deal with you. They didn't want to deal with R&B because they didn't understand it. Jerry had the street toughness to survive in that environment, but he also had such wonderful taste, and a deep, deep appreciation for the artistry of Ray Charles and Solomon Burke and on, and on, and on."

In addition to producing hundreds of recordings for Atlantic, Wexler was known for his endless passion for promoting those records.

He "worked 24 hours a day to promote a record," soul singer Burke said Friday. "If he wanted a record to happen, it would happen.... If he made a record at 1 o'clock in the morning, at 2:30 in the morning he was on the phone waking up a DJ to tell him about it, and he'd have that record waiting at the station when the guy got there at 6:30."

Wexler provided the New York streetwise yang to the yin of Ahmet Ertegun's internationally cultivated sophistication and Wexler's expansive vocabulary could easily veer into profanity.

Unlike Ertegun, widely revered for his gentility, "Jerry didn't have a soft side," said Mike Stoller, who with longtime songwriting partner Jerry Leiber helped create or produce dozens of the biggest hits of the 1950s and early '60s for performers such as Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters and numerous others.

"We had run-ins with him from time to time over royalties, over publishing or putting our names on records we made," Stoller said Friday. "In spite of the friction, there was always a real warm relationship."

Gerald Wexler was born Jan. 10, 1917, in the Bronx, N.Y. His father, Harry, was a window cleaner who immigrated from Poland, and his mother, Elsa, was a German American who wanted to make Wexler into a writer.

He grew up in a tough Washington Heights neighborhood, where fights between rival ethnic groups were common and Wexler was usually happy to join the brawl.

"I was impervious to pain," he wrote in "Rhythm and the Blues." "You could bust my nose and I'd still fight like mad. It wouldn't take much, a wrong look or cross word, to provoke me into action -- the same terrible temper that, later in my life, damaged my family. But it also served as an engine and a defense."

His fiery tendencies were tempered to an extent while he served in the Army after being drafted in 1941. He remained stateside and was discharged in Midland, Texas, as a corporal. After the war, he earned a journalism degree from what became Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Scrounging for work as a reporter after returning to New York, he landed a job in 1947 with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), then a fledgling publishing-rights rival to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

He next went to work for Billboard, the music industry trade magazine. Billboard's chart for black music was labeled "Race Records," but Wexler was offended by the term and suggested a change to "rhythm and blues."

"I liked the sound of 'rhythm and blues,'" he wrote in his autobiography. "It sung and it swung like music itself -- and I was happy when it stuck; it defined a new genre of music. The handle worked its way into our language and has managed to survive four decades."

Ertegun and partner Herb Abramson started Atlantic in 1947, specializing in the kind of jazz and rhythmic blues that also fired Wexler's imagination. It was one of hundreds of scrappy independent labels looking to exploit niches that majors such as Columbia and RCA were overlooking.

Wexler's Billboard articles caught Ertegun's attention, and he offered Wexler a job. Wexler declined unless he could be a partner, and in 1953, Ertegun made him a minor partner.

As he would later do with Franklin, Wexler also helped coax Ray Charles to new heights of success after he was signed to Atlantic. Wexler and Ertegun co-produced Charles' first No. 1 R&B hit "I've Got a Woman" in 1955. As record executives, they pioneered independent production, hiring Los Angeles-based Leiber and Stoller to bring them new recordings that they could distribute.

"They came up with the phrase 'produced by' to put on records," Stoller said. "Before that, nobody talked about records being 'produced.' We just made records."

Early on, Stoller recalled, Wexler called him in for a session with blues singer Big Joe Turner. "He asked me to come and play piano, which I did. But I thought it was nutty, because I played on this song 'Teenage Letter' and Ray Charles was in the studio and he played on the other side. Why would they have me play if they have Ray Charles in the studio? But he liked the way I played piano."

Wexler tried to sign a vibrant young singer making waves in the South in 1956, offering $30,000 to bring him to Atlantic, but RCA Records upped the bid and ultimately landed Elvis Presley.

In the 1960s, Wexler also pioneered the idea of immersing singers in appropriate and musically rich environments by having them travel to record in Memphis, Tenn., and Muscle Shoals, Ala.

In his book, Wexler praised Ertegun as "the savviest and suavest executive in the history of American recorded music.... Like a good rhythm section, we swung as a unit."

But there were times when they fell out of sync. He became estranged from Ertegun after persuading him in 1968 to sell Atlantic to Warner Bros. for $17.5 million, considered a steal by many in the music business. It was one of the first independent labels to be bought by a corporation.

Wexler soured many other friendships with his tactics outside the studio.

"He was behind the New Orleans music scene, ," Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack said Friday. "In that kind of setting, he was a good guy. On the business side of it, he was not a good guy. That was true of the whole company."

When it was time to roll the tape, however, the bare-knuckles business shark typically gave way to the awe-struck music fan, and Wexler prized his rapport with musicians. He was known more for getting out of the way of musicians' natural talents than for imposing his own musical vision on them, as Phil Spector did.

"He was a craftsman in the studio," Ritz said. "With Aretha, he knew how to deconstruct her in order to reconstruct her, and he reconstructed her based on her own fundamental elements, which were the church and gospel music. If you listen to Willie Nelson's 'Phases and Stages,' or Dusty Springfield's 'Dusty in Memphis,' what really comes across is the rugged individuality of the artist."

Franklin knew Wexler's reputation as a combative egotist whose temper often raged, but when they were in the recording studio together, she said, "We never, ever had a moment like that. We had a compatibility about the music. We were always on pretty much the same page.

"I was not unhappy at Columbia," Franklin noted. "I was very happy at Columbia. I'd never recorded before, it was the first time I was signed to a record label, my music was being played on lots of stations, I was winning a lot of polls in places like Down Beat and Billboard. But I was a lot happier at Atlantic."

She reconnected with Wexler in recent months for the completion of a long-abandoned film documentary about her 1972 Atlantic recording sessions that produced her highly praised "Amazing Grace" gospel album. The footage was shot by a young Sydney Pollack, and is planned for release next year, according to the film's co-producer, Alan Elliott.

"The secret of the music business, Jerry Wexler once told me, wasn't to go into the studio with a hit in mind, but with great music on your mind," Robert Hilburn, The Times' former pop music critic, said Friday. "He said, 'I've had my share of hits, thank God, but most hits are here today and gone tomorrow. Great music lasts forever. I wanted to make records that sounded as good 20 years from now as they did the day we went into the studio.' In retrospect, Jerry was being modest. His records still sound great after 50 years."

Wexler is survived by his third wife, playwright-novelist Jean Arnold; a daughter, Lisa; and a son, Paul. Another daughter, Anita, died in 1989 of AIDS complications. No funeral or memorial services have been announced.

No comments: