JERRY WEXLER, 1917-2008
by Red Kelly, from his excelent blog, ‘The B Side’
There was only one.
As the last living link to the glory days at Atlantic Records passes before our eyes, please take a moment with me to reflect on a life well lived. An absolute giant of the ‘Soul Era’, I don’t think you can imagine the music without him. His influence is still felt today, and he remained his wry and lucid self right to the end, providing the top shelf liner notes to Aretha Franklin – Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul just last year.
Here is an appreciation of Jerry I wrote when he turned 90 in January of 2007:
Wexler grew up in Washington Heights where he developed a fondness for poolrooms, reefer, and Jazz. He and his record collecting pals would scour the city for rare 78s by day, and hang around the clubs by night, listening to the hottest music they could find. They got in on the ground floor of the 52nd Street Bebop explosion, and were usually smoking the same stuff the cats in the band were. It must have been a time! Jerry would often run into John Hammond out there, the man who had brought Bessie Smith and Bille Holiday to Columbia Records. Hammond was all Fifth Avenue money and class, while Wexler, the son of an immigrant window washer, was anything but. He longed for ‘the life’… someday, baby, someday.
After a stint in the Army (which he spent stationed in an art deco hotel in Miami Beach), ‘Wex’ got himself a job writing copy for the newly formed BMI, which led, eventually, to his being hired by Billboard magazine, the music industry bible. He became a Brill Building regular, ‘working’ the offices of all the writers and publishers, while keeping his ear to the ground to pick up what was happening on the streets. In 1949, Paul Ackerman, editor-in-chief of Billboard’s music division, asked his employees to come up with a better term for their ‘race records’ chart, which was geared towards African-American music. It was Wexler who came up with the term ‘Rhythm & Blues’… it stuck.
As we’ve discussed before , when Jerry was offered a job at Atlantic Records in 1953, he told Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson that he wouldn’t work for them unless they sold him an interest in the company. Much to his surprise, they agreed. He dove right in, handling much of the mundane details of running the store (“licking stamps,” as he put it), while picking up the nuts and bolts of ‘producing’ from Ahmet and Tommy Dowd as they recorded Atlantic ‘product’ right there in his office. He was a fast learner, and was soon an equal member of the team. Whether composing Honey Love with Clyde McPhatter or chiming in with the background vocals on Big Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle & Roll, he quickly became an integral part of Atlantic’s ‘sound’.
He began traveling down south with Ertegun, running sessions at Cosimo’s studio in New Orleans with legends like Professor Longhair and Guitar Slim. Jerry truly loved the city in those days, and prides himself on being one of the few white guys to ever stay at the Dew Drop Inn. This kind of ‘field recording’ would continue, with Wexler and Ertegun flying south to record Brother Ray whenever he was ready. He was there at the Atlanta session that produced I Got A Woman… imagine?
By the time Herb Abramson got out of the Army in 1955, it was obvious that Wexler had taken his place. It was no coincidence that Atlantic’s rise to prominence on the R&B charts had occurred while Jerry was ‘working the phones’. Abramson saw the handwriting on the wall, and decided he wanted out. Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi, meanwhile, had worked out a deal with west coast writing and production team Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to bring them to Atlantic. Closing down their own Spark label, they brought their unique story-telling style to ATCO, a new subsidiary label that Atlantic had created. They turned operation of ATCO over to Abramson (along with a new kid they had just signed named Bobby Darin), hoping they could make that arrangement work. After Darin’s first few singles tanked, Abramson demanded that they buy him out. Scraping together all the money they could find, Ahmet, Nesuhi, and Jerry did just that, becoming equal partners in the company in 1955.
By 1960, the heyday of Atlantic’s R&B roster was just about over. Ray Charles had left for greener pastures at ABC and Bobby Darin (after his run of smash hits like Mack The Knife and Beyond The Sea) was on his way out the door. When Solomon Burke showed up one day out of the clear blue sky, Wexler signed him right then and there. His production of the Country ballad Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms) was absolutely fantastic, going top ten R&B and top 40 pop. The ‘Soul Era’ at the label had begun.
One of the unsung heroes of the Atlantic saga was a guy named Joe Galkin. He worked as their southern promotion man, driving around in a constant flurry of activity from one radio station to another, bestowing gifts and pearls of wisdom amidst the clouds of cigarette smoke and banlon shirts. He called Wexler regularly with updates on what was hot and what was not down south. It was Galkin who hipped Jerry to Jim Stewart’s fledgling Sattelite Records label (soon to become STAX), and got them their infamous Atlantic distribution deal. It was Joe Galkin who had started a label with Otis Redding (Jotis), and was instrumental in recording These Arms Of Mine at the tail end of a Johnny Jenkins session at STAX. It was Galkin who handed Rick Hall the phone one day, so he could tell Jerry about When A Man Loves A Woman. Suffice it to say that Wexler valued his opinions highly, and loved him for the character that he was.
Jerry was astonished by the southern style of recording that used ‘head arrangements’ and wasn’t bound by charges for studio time. When he brought Wilson Pickett down to STAX in 1965, they were just as amazed with his hands on production style, and it was reportedly his demonstrating the ‘Jerk’ that put the beat of In The Midnight Hour squarely ‘on the one’, and helped create the studio’s trademark sound. After Wexler brought Don Covay down there to wax See-Saw later that year, Jim Stewart apparently felt that Atlantic was trying to take over, and barred them from recording there again. Although he’d probably never admit it, I think Wexler was heartbroken at that point. According to Tom Dowd, “They were sweet, beautiful people, the folks in Memphis, and they’d be the first to say they learned as much from Wexler as he learned from them. Jerry would be demanding; he made them less laid back…”
Joe Galkin got Jerry hooked up with Rick Hall at FAME at that point, and he brought Pickett down to Muscle Shoals in the summer of 1966. To the young kids in Hall’s rhythm section, Wexler (now almost 50) was like this mythic musical figure, and they were essentially scared to death. Wexler had brought Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman with him from Memphis, and once the sessions got going things were just fine. Once again, his production was ‘hands on’, coming out from behind the board to coach the players and make sure he got what he wanted. It was Wexler’s idea for Pickett to sing those “1, 2, 3s” at the beginning of Land Of 1000 Dances, very cool.
We’ve already talked about what happened when Jerry brought Aretha down to Fame in early 1967… Finding himself shut out of yet another southern studio, he brought the musicians to New York and finished production on the first of fourteen albums he would make with her. That incredible record, I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You), was so important on so many levels. Wexler had shown his old hero John Hammond what Aretha was capable of (something Hammond had been unable to find at Columbia), while cementing his relationship with the Muscle Shoals crowd (telling them to give him a call if they ever wanted to go out on their own), and forging a new sound with the help of his in-house production team of Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. “What Tommy was to engineering, Arif was to arranging, the super pro. What’s more,” Jerry said, “the two could easily switch roles. No producer has ever enjoyed better backup. they freed me up to direct, concentrate on the groove…”
I think it says a lot that when Otis Redding died in December of 1967, it was Jerry Wexler that was asked to eulogize him at his funeral in Macon. Unable to control his emotion, Wexler spoke of Otis’ “love and tremendous faith in human possibilities… a man whose composition Respect has become an anthem of hope for people everywhere.” A heavy moment.
Seeking to continue the sucess he’d been having recording down south, Wexler had loaned some money to Chips Moman to upgrade the equipment at his American Sound Studio in Memphis. In the summer of 1968, he hatched a plan to bring Atlantic’s latest acquisition, British pop superstar Dusty Springfield, down there to record. Springfield had come up as a ‘folkie’ in the early sixties, before being captivated by American soul music. Her career took off with hits like Wishin’ And Hopin’ and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me keeping her high in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Touring in those days, she became fast friends with Martha Reeves (performing as a Vandella from time to time), and introduced the British public to Motown as a host on the popular TV series Ready, Steady, Go. When her contract with Philips was up, she decided to sign with her idol Aretha Franklin’s label in America.
Wexler did his homework, and prepared a list of about 100 songs for Dusty to consider for the album. She didn’t like any of them. He wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he hung in there, and after “months of agonizing evaluations” they were able to settle on eleven tunes. One of those songs, Son Of A Preacher Man, had been slated for Aretha initially, but she turned it down. “All Jerry did was talk about Aretha, and I was frankly intimidated,” Dusty later said,”If there’s one thing that inhibits good singing it’s fear. I covered the fear by being in pain. I drove Jerry crazy.”
“Tom Dowd wrote the horn parts for Son Of A Preacher Man on the plane on the way down to Memphis, and they’re f#@*ing brilliant!,” says Wexler. Oh yes, they are. With the ‘Memphis Boys’ and The Sweet Inspirations rarin’ to go, Jerry, Tom and Arif were all set to produce this killer album. Only Dusty wasn’t. She was so overcome by her fears that she refused to sing a note while they were down there at American. “I became paralysed by the ghosts of the studio!,” she said, “I knew I could sing the songs well enough, but it brought pangs of insecurity. . . that I didn’t deserve to be there.” She ended up screaming at Dowd, calling him a ‘prima-donna’. “The only prima-donna here, Madamoiselle Springfield, is you,” Wexler retorted.
They returned to New York and began the excruciating task of capturing Springfield’s vocals over many takes and re-takes (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trashing Dusty here, far from it… I think the final result stands as one of the truly great albums in Atlantic’s long history, and is a testimony to the talent and hard work of everyone involved). Son Of A Preacher Man was released as a single first, and quickly reached the top ten in December of 1968. When the album was released in January, for whatever reason, it didn’t sell. Undaunted, Wexler released Don’t Forget About Me and Breakfast in Bed as a two-sider over the course of March and April, but they barely made it into the Hot 100…
While Wexler was making his move into southern soul, Ahmet Ertegun had moved his base of operations out to L.A., picking up some of the pieces left behind by Sam Cooke’s ill-fated ‘soul stations’ in the process. He scooped up Harold Battiste and the rest of the expatriate New Orleans crowd and was using them as arrangers and studio musicians on ATCO. He also signed a young couple that had been hanging around Battiste and Phil Spector, Sonny & Cher. Their first single for the label, I Got You Babe (produced and arranged by Battiste), went straight to #1 in the summer of 1965. Ertegun became a fixture of the scene out there, and started his move into what would come to be known as ‘rock’, signing groups like Buffalo Springfield and Iron Butterfly.
Wexler had grown close with Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins over the years, and considered them almost like a second family. When they finally came to him in 1969 saying they were ready to leave Rick Hall and Fame behind, Jerry was ecstatic. He gladly loaned them the money to set up shop in an old casket factory located at 3614 Jackson Highway in Muscle Shoals, and promised them beaucoup business from Atlantic. The first album recorded there, oddly enough, was by Cher. Considered somewhat of a cult classic, it was re-issued as part of Rhino’s ‘handmade CD’ series a few years back.
In an oft-repeated story, Wexler heard Mac Rebennack playing his Professor Longhair style of piano one night during a break at the studio, and turned on the tape machine. He had no idea of Mac’s incredible R&B roots, and he was just blown away. He sent copies of the resulting tape out to his friends. The music brought him back to those days down at Cosimo’s almost twenty years before, and he convinced Mac to lose the whole ‘night tripper’ persona and record the great Dr. John’s Gumbo album in 1972. Although it didn’t sell (of course), Wexler still considers it one of the best things he’s ever produced.
Another of his favorites is the incredible Doug Sahm and Band, which was recorded in New York in October of 1972. Wexler has described Sahm as “the best musician I ever knew, because of his versatility, and the range of his information and taste.” He surrounded him with great musicians (and Bob Dylan) and produced an all-time classic. It didn’t sell either. This was around the same time that Jerry conceived the idea of establishing himself as the king of ‘Atlantic South’, setting himself up at Criteria Studios in Miami.
It had been Jerry’s idea to sell Atlantic to Warner Brothers back in 1967. Fearing the fate most of the other R&B indies had suffered, he reasoned that they should sell while they were at the top of their game. Warner ended up paying only about half of what the company was worth, and although they had guaranteed that all three partners would continue to conduct business as usual, Wexler just couldn’t abide the ‘corporate types’, and he let them know it. As people like David Geffen began to insinuate themselves further and further into the company, Wexler grew more and more apoplectic, becoming persona non gratis at Board meetings and company functions. By removing himself to Miami, he had done them all a favor. The records he produced weren’t selling, they continued to remind him, as they successfully marginalized his work. Perhaps the last straw came when Jerry decided to open a country division in Nashville, and produce two great albums on Willie Nelson that flopped. Finally, both sides had had enough, and in an emotional meeting in Ahmet Ertegun’s office in 1975, Wexler basically painted himself into a corner. There was no way he could continue on as merely an employee, he said. It was time to go.
Jerry soldiered on as a freelance producer, and would win a Grammy for bringing another of John Hammond’s discoveries, Bob Dylan, down to Muscle Shoals to record Slow Train Coming in 1979. “If there was any constant in my life, it was Muscle Shoals,” Jerry said, “…maybe because the people in Muscle Shoals were both friends and admirers. Maybe because Muscle Shoals made me feel the way I’d felt when I first arrived there back in the sixties – like a participant in the music, a member of the rhythm section… I fell into a groove of comfort.”
The music Wexler’s been a part of has stood the test of time, as has he. In a recent interview he said “Everybody seems to be coming to my door; BBC, NPR… well, there aren’t too many people at the age of 90 that are coherent or even alive!”
He never compromised his vision, ever.
We should all thank him for that.