Friday, August 15, 2008

Jerry Wexler Is Dead at 91

Here's the New York Times obit -- a little unfocused, and saddled with an odd headline that transformed him from producer and record company exec to "impresario", a term which is pretty much meaningless, but important for the background about his early life. As a journalist, he invented the term "rhythm & blues" to replace the then current "race music" -- a term notable for being both a euphemism and offensive. Working as a producer and executive with Atlantic Records, he was one of the leaders of the invasion of independent record labels that freed popular music from the death grip of major label hacks with no taste or interested in black music. He helped create the music known as R & B, soul and rock & roll. Read the obit, then read his memoirs (available here):

from the New York Times: Jerry Wexler, R&B Impresario, Is Dead at 91 - Obituary

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.


1 comment:

Bob K said...

Wexler was also a bit of a douchebag for screwing over Stax Records founder Jim White. They shook hands on a deal whereby Atlantic would distribute Stax Records but in the fine print of the contract Wexler took the copyrights as part of the deal. White never wanted to believe that Wexler intentionally screwed him over but in the end that's exactly what he did. Therefore Stax had to rebuild from scratch right after they had their big run of hits and they never really recovered from that.


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