Jerry Wexler: Co-owner of Atlantic Records who produced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield
Monday 18 August 2008
The record producer Jerry Wexler was a champion of black music. He not only devised the term "Rhythm and Blues", but he also made some of the best records in the genre during his 22-year tenure at Atlantic Records, including "Shake, Rattle and Roll" by Big Joe Turner, "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "In The Midnight Hour" by Wilson Pickett.
Wexler, prone to temper tantrums himself, often had to deal with headstrong artists, but one of his most difficult assignments was making an album with Dusty Springfield in Memphis in 1968. Springfield was used to performing highly orchestrated pop and she found it hard adjusting to a small rhythm section of very capable soul musicians.
Full of neuroses, Springfield refused to sing a note, called the engineer Tom Dowd "a prima donna" and hurled an ashtray at Wexler. Wexler caught the ashtray and said, "The only prima donna here, Miss Springfield, is you." He recorded the backing tracks and added Springfield's vocals in New York, hence making a nonsense of the album title, Dusty In Memphis. "It turned out that Dusty In Memphis not only became a viable product," Wexler told me in 2005, "but it had an afterlife. It never seems to go away."
Gerald Wexler was born into a Jewish family in New York in January 1917. His father, Harry, was a Polish immigrant, who cleaned windows for a living. His mother, Elsa, was disappointed that Jerry, a naturally bright boy, preferred jazz clubs to studying. He was sent down from a course in journalism at a Kansas university, and worked as a New York customs officer and once took his manual to a jazz club and read out the section on marijuana to music. Wexler said that half the audience was making notes.
He joined the US Army after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and undertook administrative duties in Texas and Florida. On his discharge, he completed his degree in journalism. He then worked for the industry trade paper, Billboard, persuading them that their "Race" records chart should be named, less provocatively, "Rhythm and Blues".
In 1950, he recommended the country song "Tennessee Waltz" to the pop singer Patti Page. Her version topped the charts and sold three million copies. Taking a promotional job at Columbia Records, Wexler enjoyed finding songs for their artists including "Cry" for Johnnie Ray and "Cold, Cold Heart" for Tony Bennett, both in 1951.
The jazz and blues label Atlantic had been founded by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1947. It had some notable early successes, including the hits "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" by Sticks McGhee (1949), and "Ting-A-Ling" by The Clovers (1952), but Ertegun knew they needed a hard-working and innovative manager. In 1952 they asked Wexler to join them, but withdrew the offer when he asked to be a co-owner. The next year Abramson was drafted, and Ertegun offered Wexler the day-to-day running of the business with a 13 per cent stake, later increased to 30 per cent.
Wexler watched Ertegun produce and they worked together on Big Joe Turner's records, including "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954), "Flip, Flop and Fly" (1955) and "Boogie Woogie Country Girl" (1955). He recorded chart hits with LaVern Baker such as "Tweedle Dee" (1954) and "Jim Dandy" (1955), and with Ruth Brown including "It's Love Baby" (1955) and "Lucky Lips" (1956). He said, "I never had an affair with anyone I produced. I considered that bad business as the heat between producer and singer is hot enough without confusing matters."
Ray Charles had been signed to Atlantic in 1952 as a blues singer but Wexler encouraged him to develop more rhythmic material and Charles was soon writing and recording one remarkable song after another – "I Got A Woman" (1954), "Hallelujah I Love Her So" (1955), "Leave My Woman Alone" (1956) and, most iconic of all, "What'd I Say" (1959). Wexler said:
Ray would call and say that he had a few songs but he wouldn't usually comment on them beforehand. He called me up before he brought "What'd I Say" in and said, "I think you might like this one pretty well." That constituted a rave from him and it was very easy to record. It was hardly a song: it was an extended rhythm lick with a few jingle-like verses: "See that girl with the red dress on, She can do the Birdland all night long", not exactly Shakespearian innovation. He had strung a few lines together but the essence of that record was the boiling rhythm track and the exchanges between himself and the Raelets.
In 1959, Wexler hyped up the performer by calling an album The Genius of Ray Charles. "That was the last album he did for us," said Wexler. "I had wanted to use the word 'genius' in connection with a Ray Charles album for a year or two but my partners said, 'Let's not get so boastful.' Finally, we all agreed that the album deserved the appellation."
Wexler had encouraged Charles to attempt country material (such as Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On"), which he then did with great success for his new label. Wexler also gave country songs to Solomon Burke, who broke through with "Just Out of Reach" in 1961. Burke, a soulful singer who combined preaching skills with rhythm-and-blues excitement, recorded "Cry To Me" (1961), "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (1964), which was co-written by Wexler, and "Got To Get You Off My Mind" (1965). He persuaded him to sing Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" (1965).
The intractable Wilson Pickett felt that his moment of glory had been stolen when Solomon Burke covered his song "If You Need Me" (1963). Wexler pacified him and recorded him in Memphis in 1965. Wexler knew that the record needed a more powerful horn line and he emphasised what he wanted by dancing round the studio. The result was one of the most explosive records ever, "In The Midnight Hour". Wexler also produced Pickett's hits "Mustang Sally" (1966), "Land of 1,000 Dances" (1966) and "Sugar, Sugar" (1969) in which Wexler had recognised that a bubblegum song could make a soul record.
Wexler's skill was in motivating performers and he left the technicalities to his engineer, Tom Dowd. "Most producers move the faders or twist the knobs and I didn't have to touch anything. . . I became familiar in a layman's way with what was available. I never had to understand them in depth, and all I would say to Tom is, "Let's do so and so."
Wexler worked on and off with the Drifters over the years and he co-wrote some of their successes – "Honey Love" (1954), "Answer The Phone" (1965) and the highly sensitive "I Don't Want To Go On Without You" (1964), which was written after the group's lead singer, Rudy Lewis, had been found dead. Wexler co-produced records for Atlantic's most important white artist, Bobby Darin, including his groundbreaking album, That's All (1959).
Aretha Franklin, who had a background in gospel music, had been signed to Columbia Records, and recorded standards and jazz songs for John Hammond. Wexler knew that she was being used wrongly and signed her in 1966. Unfortunately, Franklin came with her husband and manager, Ted White, and the couple were prone to arguing, both with each other and anyone else in their paths. After one tension-packed day at the Fame Studios in Alabama, White took his wife back to New York.
Fortunately, a classic recording had been completed, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)", which became her first US Top 10 hit. White and Franklin split up soon after this, and Franklin recorded many albums and hit singles for Wexler – a feminist version of Otis Redding's "Respect" (1967), a ballad partly written by Wexler, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" (1967), "I Say A Little Prayer" (1968) and "Don't Play That Song" (1970).
The selection of songs by Aretha Franklin was a very Byzantine business. It depended on how she felt about herself and the world at a particular time. She would not do a song of self-deprecation or mourning a departed lover. Even though her father was a very well known Baptist minister, she didn't want to do "Son of a Preacher Man". She felt it was not consistent with the way she felt about herself and her father. After Dusty Springfield did such a fabulous job with it, Aretha consented to do the song but the horse was out of the barn. Her version became an album cut, but a very nice one.
Rhythm and blues music had diversified into highly commercial soul music and Atlantic was a major label, almost rivalling the black pop of Tamla-Motown. It was helped by some good business deals, notably the international distribution of Stax Records in Memphis.
In 1967, Wexler became rich when Atlantic was sold to Warner-Seven Arts for $17.5m, but he remained as an executive until 1975. He was responsible for signing Led Zeppelin to Atlantic in 1969 as the label established an important catalogue of top rock acts, including the Rolling Stones.
In the 1970s, Wexler worked with many artists, including Lulu (Melody Fair, 1970), Tony Joe White (The Train I'm On, 1972), Maggie Bell (Queen of The Night, 1974) and Dire Straits (the million-selling Communiqué, 1979) and on the soundtracks for The Wiz (1978) and Pretty Baby (1978). His albums with Willie Nelson did not sell at the time, probably because Atlantic had no country music presence, but Shotgun Willie (1973) and Phases and Stages (1974) effectively started the genre known as "outlaw country". Wexler introduced Eric Clapton to Duane Allman who formed Derek and the Dominoes and scored with "Layla" (1972).
After leaving Atlantic he worked as an independent producer and consultant. In 1979, Bob Dylan called Wexler, a fervent atheist, and asked him to produce his next album. "His material turned out to be wall-to-wall Jesus," said Wexler, "but I didn't care: it could have been the telephone directory. It was Dylan and so we brought him to Muscle Shoals and used Mark Knopfler as the lead guitarist." The album was Slow Train Coming and the opening track, "Gotta Serve Somebody", led to Dylan's first Grammy Award.
Not all of Wexler's productions were successful. A sophisticated album of standards with Linda Ronstadt was shelved. He recorded the original version of George Michael's "Careless Whisper", but an alternative arrangement was used for the single. Although his final album, Etta James' The Right Time (1992), was released, he felt her wish to use a synthesiser was misguided.
In 1987 Wexler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, in 1993, he wrote his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, with David Ritz.
Gerald Wexler, record producer: born New York 10 January 1917; married 1941 Shirley Kampf (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1973), 1973 Renee Pappas (marriage dissolved 1983), 1985 Jean Arnold; died Sarasota, Florida 15 August 2008.
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