Jerry Wexler, 91; Influential Producer Helped Shape R& B

In this Oct. 17, 1979, file photo, Jerry Wexler, is shown. Wexler, a legendary record producer, who worked with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and other greats, has died. He was 91. (AP Photo/DP)
In this Oct. 17, 1979, file photo, Jerry Wexler, is shown. Wexler, a legendary record producer, who worked with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and other greats, has died. He was 91. (AP Photo/DP) (Dp - AP)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jerry Wexler, 91, the legendary producer and partner in Atlantic Records who coined the term "rhythm and blues," helped Aretha Franklin find her groove and freed Ray Charles from his early easy-listening style, died Aug. 15 at his home in Siesta Key, Fla. He had heart disease.

Starting in the 1950s, Mr. Wexler introduced black and Southern musicians to mainstream music listeners, when few whites paid attention to what was called "race music." The powerful blend of gospel, blues and jazz, which he had renamed "rhythm and blues" in 1949 while working at Billboard magazine, became the foundation of rock-and-roll, soul and modern popular music.

He joined the modestly successful Atlantic Records in New York in 1953 and, through a frenetic work ethic, recruited and shaped such artists as Wilson Pickett, Ruth Brown, the Drifters and Solomon Burke. For the next 15 years, the partnership of Mr. Wexler and label founder Ahmet Ertegun did more to promote rhythm and blues from the rural lanes and urban back streets than any other record label in the nation.

Atlantic Records jump-started the rock-and-roll revolution when Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" electrified white teenagers in 1954, while Charles's fusion of gospel, jazz and blues energized American popular music. R&B begat soul music in the 1960s, and many of its greatest performers sang on Atlantic.

Mr. Wexler's scrupulous attention to detail, from meticulous arrangements to extensive rehearsals, brought professionalism and sophistication to a genre that rarely had seen either from neglectful recording labels.

Working tirelessly, he hired musicians, produced sessions, promoted records, paid off disc jockeys, balanced the books and occasionally composed songs, believing in the commercial possibilities of rhythm and blues, as well as its potential to be art. He sought out undiscovered talent in house bands from New York to Memphis, Miami to Muscle Shoals, Ala.

"My records were made originally by black musicians for black grown-ups," he told The Washington Post in 1987. Motown founder "Berry Gordy made music by black musicians for white teenagers. I envied him. At Atlantic, we had to slug away, pray for a crossover. We didn't get too many."

Until Aretha Franklin, that is.

Franklin, a Detroit gospel singer who was singing show tunes, soupy ballads and cabaret songs for Columbia Records, signed a contract in 1967 with Atlantic for a $30,000 bonus, thanks to Mr. Wexler's belief that she was singing in the wrong style. She arrived at the studio in Muscle Shoals with a Ronnie Shannon song, "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)."

"I took her to church, sat her down at the piano and let her be herself," Mr. Wexler said.

The performance blew away the studio musicians, but before the record was completed the musicians and producers began drinking and fighting, and Franklin and her then-husband walked away.

Mr. Wexler was left with a single song, without background voices, and without a completed B-side. To finish the record, he needed the studio musicians in New York.

Peter Guralnick, in his 1986 book on R&B, "Sweet Soul Music," wrote that Mr. Wexler called Rick Hill, owner of the Muscle Shoals studio, and asked to borrow his musicians for a few days for a King Curtis recording session in New York. Mr. Wexler did not mention that he had scheduled a Franklin session after the work with Curtis.

The record was finished, and it became a smash hit. Franklin had crossed over to attract a wider audience, gaining R-E-S-P-E-C-T for her and Atlantic. They ultimately made 14 albums together. Because of his duplicity, it was the last time Mr. Wexler worked with the Muscle Shoals studio.

Mr. Wexler committed his biggest blunder in 1967, persuading Ertegun to sell Atlantic for a paltry $17.5 million, a decision both men regretted.

The sale gave Mr. Wexler, the poor son of a New York window-washer, a stable financial cushion, but it cost him far greater riches. The pair continued to run the company, but Warner Bros.-Seven Arts now owned its priceless catalogue.

Mr. Wexler and Ertegun drifted apart, as Ertegun focused on profitable, commercial pop tunes while Mr. Wexler recorded "pure," but often poor-selling, soul music. Mr. Wexler spun off several smaller labels within Atlantic, but by the mid-1970s he had left the corporate world and retreated to his Miami studio.

From there, he produced the first Grammy-winning albums for Bob Dylan ("Slow Train Coming") and Dusty Springfield ("Dusty in Memphis"). He subsequently signed Led Zeppelin, Santana, Gregg Allman, Dire Straits, Willie Nelson and George Michael.

Gerald Wexler was born Jan. 10, 1917, in the Bronx, N.Y. He dropped out of high school and college, preferring to hang out in Harlem listening to jazz and later, in Kansas City, Mo., blues.

After serving in the Army in the United States during World War II, he completed his degree in journalism at Kansas State University. He returned to New York after graduation and worked at Billboard.

At the same time, he began his career in music production, passing along a demo of the song "Tennessee Waltz" to singer Patti Page's agent. It became her signature song.

He became friends with Atlantic founders Ertegun and Herb Abramson, and they invited Mr. Wexler to join them in business. The combative writer demanded a full partnership, which they laughed off. When Abramson went into the Army in the early 1950s, Ertegun acceded to Mr. Wexler's demand.

Mr. Wexler's shrewd business sense and Billboard connections helped get airplay and distribution for the label's releases, and the label's black artists began to soar up the charts.

"No one really knew how to make a record when I started," Mr. Wexler said at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. "You simply went into the studio, turned on the mic and said 'Play.' "

He put a separate microphone on the rhythm section, implored bands to add more bass and pitched in on one of Charles's recording when the tambourine player was offbeat.

Atlantic's success was threatened by the early 1960s, after Charles left for a more lucrative deal at a bigger label and as rock-and-roll began to co-opt the R&B artists and audience. Mr. Wexler had tried to sign Elvis Presley in 1956 for $30,000, even though he did not have the cash, but he was outbid by $10,000 by RCA.

In an article on Mr. Wexler's career on, writer Alex Halberstadt said Mr. Wexler was becoming increasingly bored with the business until he signed a distribution deal in 1960 with Satellite, a tiny label soon to be renamed Stax.

Booker T. and the MGs, the house rhythm section, soon had a million-seller with "Green Onions," and the little-known Otis Redding broke out with five Top 20 R&B hits in 1965. Mr. Wexler also signed the R&B duo Sam and Dave to the label and personally went to the Stax studio in Memphis to work with another new singer, Wilson Pickett.

The Southern method of relaxed improvisation enthralled Mr. Wexler, who quickly put it to work with Pickett's original composition "In the Midnight Hour."

According to Halberstadt, Mr. Wexler objected to the rhythm track, so he suggested a beat from a recent dance hit. Unable to explain what he wanted musically, the irrepressible Mr. Wexler started doing the jerk in front the dumbfounded band. The result became Pickett's breakthrough smash.

Mr. Wexler also introduced his proven style of tight rhythm section, keyboards, horns and full background vocals to the regional recording center of Muscle Shoals, starting with Percy Sledge. He turned the studio into a major outpost that attracted the Rolling Stones, Etta James, and Simon and Garfunkel.

After the falling-out with the Muscle Shoals studio director, he moved to Miami, where he worked with Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, as well as Southern musicians Duane Allman, Dr. John and Delaney & Bonnie. While still attached to Atlantic, he signed Dire Straits, the B-52's and Gang of Four to the label.

In Mr. Wexler's 1993 autobiography, "Rhythm and the Blues," written with David Ritz and dedicated to Ertegun, he exposed some of his painful personal travails, from infidelity to drug use.

His first wife, Shirley Kampf, divorced him in 1973 when she found out he was seeing another woman, Renee Pappas, whom Mr. Wexler promptly married. The marriage ended in divorce, too.

A daughter from his first marriage, Anita Wexler, died of AIDS in 1989.

In 1985, he moved to Sarasota, Fla., and married playwright and novelist Jean Arnold, who survives him, as do two other children from his first marriage.

Staff writers Terence McArdle and Matt Schudel contributed to this report.

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