Friday, August 15, 2008

RIP: Jerry Wexler - Producer, Mogul, Legend

(swiped from Pitchfork Media)

Legendary record man Jerry Wexler, who helped shape the sound of R&B, guided the careers of titans such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Led Zeppelin, and helped launch Atlantic Records into a powerhouse, has died at his home in Florida, according to Rolling Stone. He was 91.

Wexler began his career in the late 1940s as a journalist, writing for Billboard magazine. He invented the phrase "Rhythm and Blues" for the publication for use on what was then known as their "Race Music" chart. In 1953, Wexler joined Ahmet Ertegun as co-head of Atlantic Records, a post he would hold until 1975. The two were instrumental in bringing the R&B music they loved to a wider audience, further incorporating it into the burgeoning sounds of rock'n'roll.

As both a record mogul and producer, Wexler was a tireless promoter of his wares, and in constant pursuit of exciting new sounds in modern music. Of his many successes with Atlantic, a mid-1960s distribution deal with legendary soul imprint Stax was one of his greatest. The arrangement brought Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, and countless others into the fold, introducing the world to the gloriously loose Muscle Shoals sound that characterized the Stax catalog.

In 1966, Wexler signed a young singer by the name of Aretha Franklin, encouraging her to sing in a more natural, less measured style. Her subsequent work with Atlantic-- in particular, the recordings she completed in Muscle Shoals-- remain some of the finest albums of any era.

The late 60s brought a string of British rockers seeking to bump elbows with the soul musicians they'd been ripping off, and Led Zeppelin, Cream, and the like linked up with Atlantic, thanks to Wexler. In 1968, Wexler brought British chanteuse Dusty Springfield to Tennessee to record the legendary Dusty in Memphis, which Wexler himself produced. Also in 1968, Wexler and Ertegun agreed to sell Atlantic to Warner Seven Arts (later Warner Brothers), a deal that lost Atlantic a sizeable amount of money. He told Rolling Stone, "What a mistake. Worst thing we ever did."

Ertegun left Atlantic in 1975, eventually picking up some A&R work for Warner Brothers that netted the label new-wave pioneers like the B-52s and Gang of Four. He struck out on his own later in the decade, producing records for Bob Dylan, the Staple Singers, Linda Ronstadt, George Michael, and many others. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, becoming one of the very first non-performers to achieve the honor. It's not difficult to see why.

Wexler retired to Florida in the late 90s, where he largely cut himself off from the business elements of the music industry. He is survived by two children, and his wife, writer Jean Arnold.

Video: Aretha Franklin: Respect [live in 1967]

1 comment:

bk said...

Wexler was also a bit of a douchebag for screwing over Stax Records founder Jim White. They shook hands on a deal whereby Atlantic would distribute Stax Records but in the fine print of the contract Wexler took the copyrights as part of the deal. White never wanted to believe that Wexler intentionally screwed him over but in the end that's exactly what he did. Therefore Stax had to rebuild from scratch right after they had their big run of hits and they never really recovered from that.