Born Gerald Wexler, 10 January 1917, Washington Heights, New York City
Starting out as a music journalist, Jerry Wexler was one of the most highly regarded A&R men in popular music history. A visionary producer and a shrewd businessman, Wexler helped to build Atlantic into becoming the most important independent label in the USA.
Jerry Wexler was the son of a Jewish Polish immigrant, a Talmudic scholar turned window cleaner. Young Gerald was exposed to music by his mother who loved to play the piano. She played Schumann and Liszt ; Wexler, meanwhile, listened to black music on the radio. In 1942, one year after marrying Shirley Kampf, he was drafted into the US Army but spent the entire war stationed in Texas and Florida. “My job was to process test scores of Air Corps personnel.” After the war he earned a degree in journalism at Kansas State University. His ambition was to become a writer. After several rejections he found employment as a music reporter for Billboard magazine, where he coined the term “rhythm and blues” in 1949. Billboard had started its “Harlem Hitparade” in 1942, changing in 1945 to “Race Records”. From 1949, these charts were called “Best Selling Rhythm and Blues Records”.
In 1953 Wexler became a partner in Atlantic Records, then a modestly successful label. The company had been launched in 1947 by Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun. At the age of thirty-six, Abramson was (re)drafted into the Army to do his service as a dentist and Ertegun needed a replacement. Wexler’s first session as a co-producer was on June 19, 1953, when LaVern Baker recorded “Soul On Fire”/“How Can You Leave A Man Like This”. Over the next two years, Atlantic’s commercial success just grew and grew, with artists like Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, Ray Charles and The Clovers. So when Abramson returned after two years, Wexler remained in the producer’s chair. Abramson was given his own label to run, Atco Records but relations were strained at the Atlantic office (Herb’s ex-wife Miriam worked in the same building as office manager). In 1958 Abramson’s share in the company was bought out by Ertegun and Wexler and Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi Ertegun became the third partner.
By then Atlantic had become the most important R&B label of the 1950s, though its financial position was unstable until the giant pop success of “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters and “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin, both in mid-1958. Always a workaholic, Wexler also played a major role in the promotion of Atlantic’s product. But by the early 1960s he felt that he needed a new challenge. He found it when he went to Stax Records in Memphis to arrange for Atlantic’s distribution of the Stax and Volt labels. Soon the Atlantic group of labels would be at the forefront of the new soul music, with artists like Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge and others. Wexler sent his stars to Stax in Memphis and to Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals to record there. While Ahmet Ertegun was perfectly willing to accomodate himself to white rock (Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones), Wexler preferred to continue producing the kind of black roots music he had always loved.
In 1967, Atlantic was sold to Warner Seven Arts for $ 17,500,000. In that year Wexler started producing Aretha Franklin (previously with Columbia, who didn’t know what to do with her), who would become an international superstar. Jerry would remain her producer until he left Atlantic in 1975. He also produced the classic 1969 “Dusty In Memphis” album by Dusty Springfield. Later he would work with Dr. John, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan (“Slow Train Coming”, 1979), Dire Straits, Willie Nelson, Santana and others. His last production was “The Right Time” by Etta James (Elektra, 1992). Since then he split his time between his homes in East Hampton, NY, and Sarasota, Florida, where he died in August 2008, aged ninety-one. Jerry Wexler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Wexler believed that the most important job of a producer was serving the artist. "Who the f**k do we think we are that we could go into a studio and dominate? There was hubris. We couldn’t read a music chart, we couldn’t play an instrument and we couldn’t run a board.” But Wexler and Ertegun were fanatic blues and jazz fans, record collectors, who really understood music and brought this knowledge to their productions. One thing that Wexler does not mention in his autobiography is that he had the chance to sign the Beatles in 1963. EMI offered Atlantic the first shot at an American release of the “Please Please Me” LP. Without consulting Ertegun, Wexler turned it down, claiming that their music was “derivative”. Wexler’s decision to pass on them must rank as one of the greatest errors in the history of the record business.
Acknowledgements : the autobiography, Charlie Gillett, Robert Greenfield, Carlo Wolff.
Still available is the excellent 1999 CD "Let the Boogie Woogie Rock 'n' Roll" (Ace CDCHD 718, 25 tracks from 1949-58.)
Dik, December 2015
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