BOOK REVIEW / Jerry, Jerry, quite contrary: 'Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music' - Jerry Wexler and David Ritz: Cape, 14.99
Sunday 08 May 1994
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.
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