Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
October 24, 2007.
bookends of Jerry Wexler's life are predictable and ordinary – it's the
middle that is practically unbelievable.
born in 1917, to a poor Jewish family in the Bronx, and is currently
battling poor health in Sarasota, Florida.
That's probably where
he and your Uncle Moe part ways. Wexler spent most of his life putting
records together. And we're not talking about accounting records.
along with Ahmet Ertegun, forged the powerhouse recording label, Atlantic,
signing and developing acts such as Led Zeppelin. He also discovered talent
that brought the Muscle Shoals Sound (Otis Redding,
Wilson Pickett, Junior Walker and the All-Stars) to the forefront of
the sixties pop explosion.
In addition, he co-wrote Aretha Franklin's classic "(You Make Me Feel Like
A) Natural Woman" and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," which was recorded
by Solomon Burke, The Rolling Stones and The Blues Brothers.
in his career as a journalist for Billboard, he coined the term
"rhythm and blues," which revolutionized the direction of the music industry
and set the stage for the onslaught of rock and roll.
give Wexler a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
and Roll Hall of Fame already beat us to it, recognizing him in 1987, and he
wrote his memoir in 1993, called Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American
the person who comes to mind when you think of the brains behind the beat.
his long but assured rise to the top of the music industry was hardly
planned, without an agenda.
day to day," he explains from his home in Florida. "If you could distinguish
between them, it was tactics, not strategy. Go to work, put the key in the
door. We had no long, strategic, grandiose ideas. There were a lot of people
in the record business who did have that approach back then: 'we're gonna do
this, we're gonna become that.' We just wanted to make the nut every week."
he and Ertegun transformed Atlantic from an obscure jukebox filler to a
major industry player. Its roster included such legends as LaVern Baker, Joe
Turner, Ray Charles, The Coasters and The Drifters. Wexler himself did not
read or play music, but the business was built on his instinct and
and I were together producing everything," he remembers. "In the early days,
he took the lead and I kept my ears open and my mouth shut. Until I felt
that I had enough confidence to step up and participate. It happened within
a year. The success was gradual. It was a daily, slow aggression. When you
suddenly realized that you didn't have to go to the library anymore, but you
could buy books, and that maybe you could hire a cook at home to take the
burden off your wife, or even have a driver with a limo. Those were the
hallmarks of success, you might say. As well as a growing income."
as some interesting dinner guests. But Wexler doesn't kiss and tell.
close," he says of his roster of superstars. "Many of the people used to
come to dinner. I don't want to sound boastful, but Aretha and Bob Dylan and
Ray Charles had all been at my table, invited to my house to dinner. There
was that degree of familiarity, but there was not an obsessive intimacy
24/7. Working with them as human beings, you get to see their foibles, their
strengths, their weaknesses. And you get to know about their home life,
their marital situations, et cetera."
a man this unlikely become the center of a soulful universe? Through his
life-long love of jazz and the blues. He may have been struggling along in
the Bronx, but his heart belonged to Harlem.
came out of the air, though osmosis," he says. "To band together with other
people with a similar sensibility. To hang out together, go to the clubs at 52nd
Street or the Village. [I loved] mainstream jazz players who would be mostly
unfamiliar to your readers today. If I said Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman.
One name they would respond to is Louis Armstrong. Tremendous influence.
Duke Ellington. All of the great jazz solos, combos and orchestras. The good
defied the odds – incredibly so – by leaving his poor neighborhood for the
white-bread, WASPy campus of Kansas State University. This was at the height
of the Depression, when few middle-class – let alone poor – young people
could attend college.
did run into some anti-Semitism," he says, "but it was a great experience,
because it helped prepare me for my profession later on. We're dealing with
the heartland. I was brought up on the East Coast. That's the bread, but the
sandwich is in the middle. I learned something about the filling of the
sandwiches. In Kansas, where I went to college, it was almost a Southern
culture. A great deal of my life and career and work had to do with the
South, with Southern performers, Southern singers, Southern guitarists and
returned to New York, he had no plans but to write. And a writing man does
not often bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.
year, I was unemployed," he says. "My wife supported us. She had various
executive jobs in the furniture industry. She was very talented and always
brought home some good money, while I was trying to get a job in journalism.
I would have loved to have been a copy boy at The New York Times, but I
couldn't get the job even though I had a degree. I got my first job at BMI.
We lived with my wife's parents in a two-bedroom apartment in Washington
Heights. There was also an aunt who conducted a dress-making business out of
that apartment. You may infer from that that we were a little cramped.
passed up a couple of jobs that I thought were going to be dead-end, like
editing a house journal for a charitable organization. It didn't seem very
promising. I had the chutzpah to turn down a few of those jobs in
journalism. Instead of feeling that maybe I should give this up and become a
taxi driver, I pursued my unemployment phase in despair. I was in despair."
came along Billboard, the bible of the music industry,
him a beat and a beat. The timing was perfect, as American music was about
to change course forever.
fabulous," he says of the experience. "I loved it. It combined writing and
music. Reviewing records was part of the job. Covering a beat. Nowadays,
it's all telephone and internet, but back in those days, you used to go on
foot and visit all your contacts. Make the rounds. The Brill Building; the
jukebox distributors on Eleventh Avenue. It was a great advantage to do
that. I worked at Billboard a little less than four years. Three
years and change. I got to know everybody in the business. It was sort of
like a prep school for me."
that time, the editors were looking to change the name of a weekly record
chart that was increasingly sounding awkward and wrong: race music.
recalls, "We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a
Tuesday. One Friday, the editor got us together and said, 'listen, let's
change this from race records.' A lot of people were beginning to find it
inappropriate. 'Come back with some ideas on Tuesday.' There were four guys
on the staff, one guy said this and one guy said that, and I said, 'rhythm
and blues' and they said, 'oh, that sounds pretty good. Let's do that.' In
the next issue, that section came out as 'Rhythm and Blues' instead of
he know that the term would ignite a revolution. Rhythm and Blues music,
performed primarily by African Americans, was slowly being discovered by
America's white youth. It was steadily driving mellow artists like Perry
Como and Dean Martin from the mainstream pop charts.
to hell I had a royalty," Wexler jokes about coining the term. "A penny a
record. Wouldn't that be nice? We had no idea. We were feeling that the term
race records had become derogatory, ever since the rising aspirations of the
subdued people in the inner city. We thought it was incumbent upon us to
change that designation.
political leanings have always been left, quite left. So naturally, my
sympathies were very, very liberal and progressive and certainly addressed
the concerns of discrimination and oppression of black people.
"However, politics were out the window when we made records. We were in the
entertainment business. I found that groups or singers who had a hit with a
politically sub-toned song or recording became trapped in that vein and
found themselves going down slower, as they say in the blues. If you make
that your main object, I think you're doomed."
was something he didn't have to worry about much, as his stable of artists
began to climb the charts and make history. Still, he never quite felt
self-assured, even at the height of his success in the mid-to-late sixties.
says, "Did I feel I was losing my touch? Yeah. Every time I went into the
studio. Every time, I went into dread and foreboding that I was going to
hatch another failure. Absolutely. Of course, there was an optimistic
feeling of working with great singers: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson
Pickett, The Drifters, LaVern Baker, The Coasters, Bob Dylan. You were
pretty good going in with them and not as apprehensive as if you were going
in with a brand new, untested talented, where you are not going by track
record but only by instinct and your ears."
days, Wexler's mind is as sharp as a tack, but his body is not playing
as my health, it's not good," he says. "I have a laundry list of
impairments. Every day when I wake up, it's a question of how bad I'm going
his not getting around much anymore, he still he has plenty to say about the
rapidly changing music business of today, and the demise of the recording
industry. For one, he does not look too kindly upon illegal downloading of
"It's like coming into your house and stealing your silverware. It's like
stealing intellectual property. I don't know how it could be justified. How
could it be free? If you go into a hardware store and buy a set of pots and
pans, you're supposed to pay. Why should music be free? It originated from
some brainless hippie attitude. The San Francisco thing: free music in the
park and all of that crap. But that's over."
days, to keep his ailing body warm, he has the Florida sun and his
Reminiscing about his career, he says, "You're getting paid to do something
you love, and to do it with a considerable degree of success. Who can
imagine? To make a living doing this wonderful, wonderful activity, and
working with talented people and engendering a few notes on a staff with
life and animation and make it come to life and be a living, breathing thing
is just wonderful."
entire generation as well, and then some.
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
October 24, 2007.