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Jerry Wexler – The Man Behind Rhythm and Blues


Jerry Wexler

Jerry Wexler

Jerry Wexler

The Man Behind Rhythm and Blues

by Ronald Sklar

The bookends of Jerry Wexler’s life are predictable and ordinary – it’s the middle that is practically unbelievable.

He was born in 1917, to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx, and is currently battling poor health in Sarasota, Florida.

That’s probably where he and your Uncle Moe part ways. Wexler spent most of his life putting records together. And we’re not talking about accounting records.

Wexler, along with Ahmet Ertegun, forged the powerhouse recording label, Atlantic, signing and developing acts such as Led Zeppelin. He also discovered talent that brought the Muscle Shoals Sound (Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Junior Walker and the All-Stars) to the forefront of the sixties pop explosion.

In addition, he co-wrote Aretha Franklin’s classic “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love,” which was recorded by Solomon Burke, The Rolling Stones and The Blues Brothers.

Earlier, in his career as a journalist for Billboard, he coined the term “rhythm and blues,” which revolutionized the direction of the music industry and set the stage for the onslaught of rock and roll.

Time to give Wexler a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already beat us to it, recognizing him in 1987, and he wrote his memoir in 1993, called Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music (Knopf).

He is the person who comes to mind when you think of the brains behind the beat.

However, his long but assured rise to the top of the music industry was hardly planned, without an agenda.

Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin

Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin

“It was day to day,” he explains from his home in Florida. “If you could distinguish between them, it was tactics, not strategy. Go to work, put the key in the door. We had no long, strategic, grandiose ideas. There were a lot of people in the record business who did have that approach back then: ‘we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna become that.’ We just wanted to make the nut every week.”

Nevertheless, he and Ertegun transformed Atlantic from an obscure jukebox filler to a major industry player. Its roster included such legends as LaVern Baker, Joe Turner, Ray Charles, The Coasters and The Drifters. Wexler himself did not read or play music, but the business was built on his instinct and workaholism.

“Ahmet and I were together producing everything,” he remembers. “In the early days, he took the lead and I kept my ears open and my mouth shut. Until I felt that I had enough confidence to step up and participate. It happened within a year. The success was gradual. It was a daily, slow aggression. When you suddenly realized that you didn’t have to go to the library anymore, but you could buy books, and that maybe you could hire a cook at home to take the burden off your wife, or even have a driver with a limo. Those were the hallmarks of success, you might say. As well as a growing income.”

As well as some interesting dinner guests. But Wexler doesn’t kiss and tell.

“We were close,” he says of his roster of superstars. “Many of the people used to come to dinner. I don’t want to sound boastful, but Aretha and Bob Dylan and Ray Charles had all been at my table, invited to my house to dinner. There was that degree of familiarity, but there was not an obsessive intimacy 24/7. Working with them as human beings, you get to see their foibles, their strengths, their weaknesses. And you get to know about their home life, their marital situations, et cetera.”

How did a man this unlikely become the center of a soulful universe? Through his life-long love of jazz and the blues. He may have been struggling along in the Bronx, but his heart belonged to Harlem.

“It just came out of the air, though osmosis,” he says. “To band together with other people with a similar sensibility. To hang out together, go to the clubs at 52nd Street or the Village. [I loved] mainstream jazz players who would be mostly unfamiliar to your readers today. If I said Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman. One name they would respond to is Louis Armstrong. Tremendous influence. Duke Ellington. All of the great jazz solos, combos and orchestras. The good ones.”

He also defied the odds – incredibly so – by leaving his poor neighborhood for the white-bread, WASPy campus of Kansas State University. This was at the height of the Depression, when few middle-class – let alone poor – young people could attend college.

Jerry Wexler, Neshui Ertegun, Bobby Darin and Ahmet Ertegun.

Jerry Wexler, Neshui Ertegun, Bobby Darin and Ahmet Ertegun.

“I did run into some anti-Semitism,” he says, “but it was a great experience, because it helped prepare me for my profession later on. We’re dealing with the heartland. I was brought up on the East Coast. That’s the bread, but the sandwich is in the middle. I learned something about the filling of the sandwiches. In Kansas, where I went to college, it was almost a Southern culture. A great deal of my life and career and work had to do with the South, with Southern performers, Southern singers, Southern guitarists and so on.”

When he returned to New York, he had no plans but to write. And a writing man does not often bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.

“For one year, I was unemployed,” he says. “My wife supported us. She had various executive jobs in the furniture industry. She was very talented and always brought home some good money, while I was trying to get a job in journalism. I would have loved to have been a copy boy at The New York Times, but I couldn’t get the job even though I had a degree. I got my first job at BMI. We lived with my wife’s parents in a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. There was also an aunt who conducted a dress-making business out of that apartment. You may infer from that that we were a little cramped.

“I passed up a couple of jobs that I thought were going to be dead-end, like editing a house journal for a charitable organization. It didn’t seem very promising. I had the chutzpah to turn down a few of those jobs in journalism. Instead of feeling that maybe I should give this up and become a taxi driver, I pursued my unemployment phase in despair. I was in despair.”

Then came along Billboard, the bible of the music industry, offering him a beat and a beat. The timing was perfect, as American music was about to change course forever.

“It was fabulous,” he says of the experience. “I loved it. It combined writing and music. Reviewing records was part of the job. Covering a beat. Nowadays, it’s all telephone and internet, but back in those days, you used to go on foot and visit all your contacts. Make the rounds. The Brill Building; the jukebox distributors on Eleventh Avenue. It was a great advantage to do that. I worked at Billboard a little less than four years. Three years and change. I got to know everybody in the business. It was sort of like a prep school for me.”

During that time, the editors were looking to change the name of a weekly record chart that was increasingly sounding awkward and wrong: race music.

Otis Redding, Jim Stewart, Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd.

Otis Redding, Jim Stewart, Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd.

He recalls, “We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a Tuesday. 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, 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.'”

Little did he know that the term would ignite a revolution. Rhythm and Blues music, performed primarily by African Americans, was slowly being discovered by America’s white youth. It was steadily driving mellow artists like Perry Como and Dean Martin from the mainstream pop charts.

“I wish to hell I had a royalty,” Wexler jokes about coining the term. “A penny a record. Wouldn’t that be nice? We had no idea. We were feeling that the term race records had become derogatory, ever since the rising aspirations of the subdued people in the inner city. We thought it was incumbent upon us to change that designation.

“My political leanings have always been left, quite left. So naturally, my sympathies were very, very liberal and progressive and certainly addressed the concerns of discrimination and oppression of black people.

“However, politics were out the window when we made records. We were in the entertainment business. I found that groups or singers who had a hit with a politically sub-toned song or recording became trapped in that vein and found themselves going down slower, as they say in the blues. If you make that your main object, I think you’re doomed.”

Doomed was something he didn’t have to worry about much, as his stable of artists began to climb the charts and make history. Still, he never quite felt self-assured, even at the height of his success in the mid-to-late sixties.

Willie Nelson and Jerry Wexler.

Willie Nelson and Jerry Wexler.

He says, “Did I feel I was losing my touch? Yeah. Every time I went into the studio. Every time, I went into dread and foreboding that I was going to hatch another failure. Absolutely. Of course, there was an optimistic feeling of working with great singers: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters, LaVern Baker, The Coasters, Bob Dylan. You were pretty good going in with them and not as apprehensive as if you were going in with a brand new, untested talented, where you are not going by track record but only by instinct and your ears.”

These days, Wexler’s mind is as sharp as a tack, but his body is not playing along.

“As far as my health, it’s not good,” he says. “I have a laundry list of impairments. Every day when I wake up, it’s a question of how bad I’m going to feel.”

Despite his not getting around much anymore, he still he has plenty to say about the rapidly changing music business of today, and the demise of the recording industry. For one, he does not look too kindly upon illegal downloading of music.

He says, “It’s like coming into your house and stealing your silverware. It’s like stealing intellectual property. I don’t know how it could be justified. How could it be free? If you go into a hardware store and buy a set of pots and pans, you’re supposed to pay. Why should music be free? It originated from some brainless hippie attitude. The San Francisco thing: free music in the park and all of that crap. But that’s over.”

These days, to keep his ailing body warm, he has the Florida sun and his memories.

Reminiscing about his career, he says, “You’re getting paid to do something you love, and to do it with a considerable degree of success. Who can imagine? To make a living doing this wonderful, wonderful activity, and working with talented people and engendering a few notes on a staff with life and animation and make it come to life and be a living, breathing thing is just wonderful.”

For an entire generation as well, and then some.

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 24, 2007.

Photo Credits:
#1 Courtesy of Jerry Wexler.
#2 Courtesy of Jerry Wexler.
#3 Courtesy of Jerry Wexler.
#4 Courtesy of Jerry Wexler.
#5 Courtesy of Jerry Wexler.

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