He didn’t sing, play or write songs, but Jerry Wexler (born in 1917) changed music significantly more than most people who could do all three. His roles – reporter, A&R man, producer – conceal an input into the course of popular culture that was nothing short of visionary.
For small starters, Jerry Wexler was the man who coined the term ‘Rhythm & Blues’ in 1948, at a stroke replacing ‘race music’ as a catch-all tag for the music of black America. He was a 30-year-old reporter on Billboard at the time, and the magazine promptly lost its ‘Harlem Hit Parade’ in favour of the R&B charts.
Over the next three decades, Wexler – a Jewish New Yorker – would help tear down the divide between black and white America. Offered a job at Atlantic Records by the label’s founder, Ahmet Ertegun, in 1953 he fattened Atlantic’s roster, bullying radio DJ’s into playing the label’s music, and as producer oversaw Ray Charles‘ meteoric impact.
Astonishingly, Wexler had more in store, nurturing the careers of crossover stars like The Drifters and Solomon Burke and acquiring release rights to lesser labels like Stax of Memphis. Impressed with Stax’s output – Rufus Thomas, Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding – in 1965 Wexler decided to record Wilson Pickett at the Stax studios – a session that changed pop history.
Pickett’s In The Midnight Hour became a monster hit and realigned Stax’s trademark sound after Wexler insisted the house band change its beat, emerging from the control booth to dance ‘The Jerk’ by way of a metronome.
Wexler was changed, too, discovering in the South a more organic way of making records than the Big Apple’s conveyor belt.
With the industry’s eyes on him, Wexler helped Franklin – a failed Columbia act – become Queen Of Soul, allying her spirituality with smouldering sexuality.
Though Wexler signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic and expanded the label’s empire via imprints like the Allman Brothers‘ Capricorn, his heart was not in the burgeoning rock scene (perhaps surprisingly he much preferred “country chicks like Loretta Lynn“).
The decision to sell Atlantic to Warners in 1970 was, he rued later, “the worst mistake of my life”, and he left the company in 1975. He became a gun for hire, leaving his imprint on Dylan‘s Slow Train Coming and George Michael‘s Careless Whisper before returning to Florida.
His autobiography, Rhythm & The Blues (ghost-written by David Ritz) arrived in 1993, complete with candid admissions about his excesses.
Wexler never lost the abrasiveness of his New York upbringing – he had a legendary short fuse – but he was loved for his generosity and sensitivity. And his hits.
A convinced atheist, it was ironic that he spent much of his life around gospel singers. Asked what he wanted on his tombstone, he flashed back “Two words – More Bass”.
Wexler died of congestive heart failure in Sarasota, Florida, on 15 August 2008, aged 91.