BOOK REVIEW / Jerry, Jerry, quite contrary: 'Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music' - Jerry Wexler and David Ritz: Cape, 14.99

IN HIS introduction to this book, David Ritz tells us how, when he questioned Jerry Wexler's use of a word like 'ratiocination' even for educated readers, Wexler would reply 'Send the f***ers to the dictionary.' This is told admiringly, but it introduces to us a contradictory man, at once contemptuous and insecure, and a man of whom his mother might have said 'You would think a boy who knew all those big long words could find a more apt one for his readers.'

He is honest about the insecurity, reminding us of it often; and of his ego, too - which is prodigious. He describes even his failures in terms like 'cosmic', boasting 'I wore out six piano teachers by the time I was 15.' Breezing through public school 'on a bluff', he preferred hanging out at the poolroom with Runyonesque-sounding characters like No Hat Cohen and Benny The Gent.

And yet it is remarkable that a man who failed at nearly everything until he was 30 became thereafter one of the music industry's most monumental successes. Perhaps it was just that only then did he find the thing he was good at - or perhaps his marriage in that year had a lot to do with it.

Not that his first wife, Shirley, doesn't make her appearance - dramatically. Much of the book is made up of a series of interviews with friends, co-workers, and family, and on her first entrance Shirley casually drops the information that the beautiful, loving and doting mother Wexler has drawn for us was a habitual adulteress with a larcenous streak, who spent much of her hard-working husband's income on her impressive wardrobe and kept the fridge padlocked.

This wasn't the only time Jerry couldn't - or wouldn't - see problems with a close family member. Marriages seem to end almost without his noticing; even his gifted daughter Anita's drug addiction doesn't come into focus until she tests HIV-positive, and there's an odd detachment about his descriptions of her brave, fruitless struggle with Aids and of her funeral.

But this is, after all, a book about the music business. And what business] He produced records by Big Joe Turner and Champion Jack Dupree, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, Doctor John, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan and scores more. Wexler is at his best when his temperature rises, whether it's the warmth of his admiration for the 'patrician' John Hammond - 'the first producer to earn a status as high as that of the musicians he recorded' - and the 'cultivated' Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, his partners in Atlantic Records, or the heat of his indignation about the way disc-jockey Alan Freed was treated in the 'payola' scandal, or the cauldron of his 'resentment and anger' at the early death of Otis Redding whenever he hears '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay'. These relationships are often more fully drawn than those with his family.

He can be cold too - especially when he's crossed. Bert Berns brought Van Morrison and Jimmy Page into the Atlantic fold, and then split, taking Morrison and Neil Diamond with him. Wexler writes: 'Bert died of a heart condition in 1967. He was 38. I didn't attend the funeral.'

'Characters' abound, whether artists like the minister Solomon Burke, who ran a bogus drugstore where he would accept prescriptions and then bicycle over to a real drugstore to have them filled, or promotion-men like chaotic Joe Galkin, who nonetheless helped Atlantic to a big hit with Acker Bilk's 'Stranger On The Shore'. (They threw a party for Acker, who burst into tears when he saw the band of his jazz heroes they had assembled.)

Some things don't quite ring true. For example: you're one of the most important record- producers in history, with credits from Ray Charles to Dusty Springfield. You hear Stevie Ray Vaughan in a club, and recognise in him a major talent waiting to be discovered. Do you:

(a) immediately sign him to a 3-album contract, with options?

(b) try to sell your amazing 'find' to a major record-label?

(c) tell an impresario in Switzerland to book him for a concert, so that eventually one of your competitors can sign him up?

The answer is (c), if you're Jerry Wexler. A bolder example is his claim that he was responsible for coming up with the term 'Rhythm & Blues' to replace the outmoded and offensive 'Race Records'. Wexler dates this to 1949, when he was working for Billboard, and it is true that the new name was adopted in that magazine on 25 June that year, but by then the expression had been in general use for some years.

Why does a man feel the need to aggrandise

a career which is unassailably in the pantheon

of the very greatest already? Because he's contradictory, that's why.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all