Music Man Jerry Wexler: Label Him Golden

It was at Atlantic under Wexler that the genius of Ray Charles emerged.
It was at Atlantic under Wexler that the genius of Ray Charles emerged. (St. Petersburg Times)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

There's a saying in the music business: If you smile, you can hang awhile. If you pout, you're out.

Jerry Wexler never struck me as a pouter. He could grow irascible, disconcerted, even cranky, especially in recent years, when the gut that had served him so well in the music business began to betray him. A longtime partner at Atlantic Records, the man behind artists so legendary they now go by one name -- Aretha, Otis, Willie, Dylan -- Wexler was finally cursed by his own indomitability. When news came yesterday that he had succumbed, at 91, to what he invariably referred to as his "ailments," "infirmities" and "impediments," it was as if he had finally been released from the indignity of outliving the very era he helped to shape.

I came to know Jerry Wexler 14 years ago while writing a magazine profile of Danny Goldberg, then the newly installed president of Atlantic. It was an excuse to speak with a record producer I had idolized since working in a record store as a teenager, when such Wexler-produced albums as "Slow Train Coming" and Dire Straits' "Communique" were on the racks. And that was years after Wexler and his Atlantic colleagues changed music forever with "The Genius of Ray Charles," "Dusty in Memphis," and countless classics by Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and Etta James.

During our telephone interview, I mentioned my fascination with Texas music prodigy Doug Sahm; a few days later, I received a package from Wexler crammed with articles, a video (of what, I can't recall, but it must have been Sahm-related) and a cassette tape of a House of Blues tribute, during which Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun delivered a flawlessly timed reminiscence of the two hailing a cab in Chicago and scandalizing the driver by pretending to be doctors in town for a convention and having him take them to the South Side to get drunk and listen to some blues. The punch line: They had to perform surgery the next morning.

I finally met Wexler in April, while visiting a family friend in Siesta Key, Fla., a few houses away. Wex (everybody called him Wex) was by then consigned to one floor of his large house on the water, moving with difficulty. His wife, Jean, had been living in a nursing home since suffering a stroke in January.

He ushered me into his darkened office ("my chamber of horrors"), where he kept in touch with family and friends by phone and fax ("I'm not online," he drawled in the elongated vowels of his native Bronx). Surrounded by gold records, posters, Otis Redding boxed sets and books by Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, Wexler settled into his desk chair, beside the remains of his "protracted breakfast": coffee and water.

Outside, palm trees swayed gently, while inside Wexler spoke of old times, new projects and lost friends like a man in a lush, quiet, green prison. Of a newly released record by a young artist covering one of his most legendary albums: "She has a beautiful voice, but there are no tracks." What kind of music was he listening to these days? "Mostly classic jazz. I can't stand rap -- there's no melody. And you can't understand a word they're saying." Does he hear from any of the artists he used to record? "Willie still checks in regularly," he said, referring to Willie Nelson. "He came to visit when he played the Van Wezel [Performing Arts Hall] in Sarasota. And Kris Kristofferson stopped by."

Then, in one of his famous digressions, which inevitably began with, "Here's something that might interest you," or "Here's another story you'll appreciate, it's short," Wexler launched into a tale I did appreciate, about a western swing album that he and Ray Benson were working on with Nelson.

And then, another Wex-worthy digression: "Did you know that Ray is from Philly?" he asked. "Yeah, he's a Jewboy from Philadelphia! So here we are, two heebs from the North who came south to teach Southerners how to play their music!"

The evidence of Wexler's tutelage was scattered throughout the house: pictures of Wex with John Prine, Kristofferson, Ray Charles, Nelson hugging Wexler like a son embracing a cherished spiritual father. The living room, overlooking a canal, was dominated by an enormous, lavishly colored portrait of Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John. "I offered it to him, but he said he was too fat in it."

It was time to go. I offered to make Wexler lunch. "No, I'll make it myself," he said, "probably just a bowl of soup and toast." He pressed a stack of CDs into my hands -- rare and unreleased Franklin recordings, King Curtis at the Fillmore West, a documentary about Austin club owner Clifford Antone. Ever the gentleman, he showed me out of the house by way of a mechanized chair lift, waving as he receded back up the stairs.

Let it be recorded: To the very end, Jerry Wexler was a great hang.

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