January 10, 1917, is the birth date of Jerry Wexler, the American record executive and producer who brought the music of black Americans – artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding – to the white, American mainstream. It was Wexler who, as a young music journalist, coined the name “rhythm and blues” to describe the music he championed, and who then went on to join Ahmet Ertegun in giving that music a home at Atlantic Records.
Gerald Wexler was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in northern reaches of Manhattan, in Washington Heights, a decade before construction had begun on the George Washington Bridge connecting the neighborhood to New Jersey. His father, Harry Wexler, was a Polish-born Jew who never advanced beyond his work as a window washer; his mother, Elsa Spitz, was a German Jew who was convinced she had married beneath her station, and who pushed her son to achieve more than her husband ever did.
In his 1993 autobiography, “Rhythm and the Blues,” Wexler described his bar mitzvah training, which began in a Reform synagogue, with “Rabbi Lux, a handsome American hunk,” but ended, after pressure from his father’s family, at an Orthodox shul, where “I was brutalized by a long-bearded, garlic-reeking sadistic melamed who used his ruler to deconstruct my antipathy for Hebrew.” Though the experience contributed to Wexler’s lifelong conviction as an atheist, he admits that “I actually took pleasure writing about Moses and Joseph and the Old Testament prophets.”
From Aretha Franklin to Led Zeppelin
After high school, several false starts at college, and army service in the U.S. during World War II, Wexler studied journalism in Manhattan – Manhattan, Kansas – at Kansas State University. Returning to New York after graduation, he began working as a reporter at Billboard, the weekly paper of the recorded-music industry, in 1949. It was there, after an editor asked his staff to come up with a better name for black music than “Race Records,” that Wexler suggested “Rhythm and Blues.” It took immediately.
When his work came to the attention of Ahmet Ertegun, Wexler received an offer in 1953 to join the Turkish-born music producer at the small new black-music company he had founded in 1947. He remained at Atlantic until 1975, when he went freelance as a producer.
Atlantic already was working with musicians like Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and the Drifters, and had just signed soul pioneer Ray Charles. Wexler took the company deeper into the South, making Atlantic the distributor for Stax Records, in Memphis (the label of Sam & Dave and Otis Redding) and bringing musicians to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record.
Aretha Franklin was probably the greatest star Wexler brought to Muscle Shoals. Signing her in 1966, after she was dropped by Columbia Records, Wexler urged Franklin “to drop the Judy Garland cabaret act,” as Rolling Stone’s Ashley Kahn wrote in an obituary for the producer, and to sing the way she had been taught to in her father’s church.
Although never especially interested in rock music, Wexler also brought such acts as the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin to Atlantic. He was one of the first music executives to go into the studio during recording sessions, and, though he was not a trained musician, he became a skilled producer himself. (When he brought Dusty Springfield from the U.K. to record in Memphis, her contract stipulated that he would produce the sessions.)
Atlantic was bought by Warner Brothers in 1967, and while Ertegun remained with the company, Wexler, who had pushed for the deal, later told journalist Ashley Kahn that it was the “worst thing we ever did,” mainly because he had under-anticipated the value of the company. He left Atlantic in 1975, but continued producing music until his retirement, in the late 1990s. Acts he worked with in those years included Linda Ronstadt, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits and Bob Dylan, whose 1979 “Slow Train Coming” he produced.
Wexler later recalled to an interviewer how he hadn’t realized until he and Dylan began their work that the Jewish musician “was on this born-again Christian trip” until Dylan “started to evangelize me.” He finally told him, “'Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I'm hopeless. Let's just make an album.”
Jerry Wexler lived in happy retirement in Sarasota, Florida, until his death, of heart congestion, on August 15, 2008.