[JPL] Jerry Wexler NYTs Obit

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Fri Aug 15 13:54:39 EDT 2008


August 16, 2008
Jerry Wexler, R&B Impresario, Is Dead at 91

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 didn¹t care for rock ¹n¹ roll, at least as it evolved in
the 1960s and ¹70s. 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 ¹60s 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.

³He played a major role in bringing black music to the masses, and in the
evolution of rhythm and blues to soul music,² Jim Henke, vice president and
chief curator for the Hall of Fame, said in an interview. ³Beyond 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.²

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.

³He was a bundle of contradictions,² said Tom Thurman, who produced and
directed a documentary about Mr. Wexler in 2000. ³He was incredibly abrasive
and incredibly generous, very abrupt and very, very patient, seemingly a
pure, sharklike businessman and also a cerebral and creative genius.²

The title of Mr. Thurman¹s documentary, ³Immaculate Funk,² was Mr. Wexler¹s
phrase for the Atlantic sound, characterized by a heavy backbeat and a
gospel influence. ³It¹s funky, it¹s deep, it¹s very emotional, but it¹s
clean,² 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, ³The Tennessee
Waltz.² Her subsequent recording of it sold three million copies in eight

A few years later he was a partner at Atlantic, presiding over the 1954
recording session of Ray Charles¹s breakout hit, ³I¹ve Got a Woman.² He said
later that the best thing he had done for Charles was to let him do as he

³He had an extraordinary insight into talent,² Charles, who died in 2004,
said in ³Immaculate Funk.²

Mr. Wexler wasn¹t 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 ³In the Midnight Hour² but couldn¹t explain in words what he wanted, so
he illustrated it by doing a new dance, the jerk.

In the late 1960s and ¹70s, 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 ³Respect,² ³Dr. Feelgood² and ³Chain of Fools.²

³How could he understand what was inside of black people like that?² Pickett
asked in the documentary. ³But Jerry Wexler did.²

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

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 didn¹t 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.

³We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a Tuesday,²
Mr. Wexler recalled in an interview last fall with the Web site
PopEntertainment.com. ³One Friday the editor got us together and said,
ŒListen, let¹s change this from Race Records.¹ A lot of people were
beginning to find it inappropriate. ŒCome back with some ideas on Tuesday.¹

³There were four guys on the staff,² he continued. ³One guy said this and
one guy said that, and I said, ŒRhythm and blues,¹ and they said: ŒOh, that
sounds pretty good. Let¹s do that.¹ In the next issue, that section came out
as Rhythm and Blues instead of Race.²

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. Wexler¹s 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 company¹s 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

In the 1960s, however, Mr. Wexler and Mr. Ertegun began to take different
paths. Mr. Ertegun gravitated toward rock ¹n¹ 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 Stax¹s 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, ³Rhythm and the Blues² (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. Wexler¹s 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 Dylan¹s album ³Saved,² a celebration of the
singer¹s embrace of Christianity, for Columbia. When Mr. Dylan accepted his
first Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance, for the song ³Gotta
Serve Somebody,² he first thanked God and then Jerry Wexler.

In the 1980s Mr. Wexler helped Linda Ronstadt with her career-changing album
of Sinatraesque standards, ³What¹s New,² 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.

³When 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,² Ms. Ronstadt told The New
York Times in 1983. She added, ³One thing Jerry Wexler taught me was that if
you¹ve got a sexy or torchy song, you mustn¹t attitudinize on top of it,
because it sounds redundant.²

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

³I asked him once,² said Mr. Thurman, the filmmaker, ³ ŒWhat do you want
written on your tombstone, Jerry?¹ He said, ŒTwo words: More bass.¹ ²

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