Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rhythm . . . and an extra helping of blues

Before Jerry Wexler, we just knew it as "race music."

IN 1949, the young staff writer at Billboard, the music-industry trade paper, took "race music" and gave it a new name -- "rhythm and blues." R&B. But writing about the music -- and naming the music -- wasn't enough.

Where Wexler, a Jewish atheist kid from New York, really made his mark on the music world wasn't in writing about music that was quintessentially American . . . or in giving it an identity, even. He made his mark, starting in 1953, in making rhythm and blues -- and later, rock and soul.

Jerry Wexler, a fixture at the top of Atlantic Records along with founder Ahmet Ertegun, simply was one of the greatest producers of the R&B (and rock and roll) era. Perhaps the greatest producer.

And now he's gone. Dead at 91,
reports The New York Times:

Mr. Wexler was already in his 30s when he entered the music business, but his impact was immediate and enduring. In 1987, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized his contributions to American music by inducting him in only its second year of conferring such honors.

Mr. Wexler actually didn’t care for rock ’n’ roll, at least as it evolved in the 1960s and ’70s. Though he signed a British band called Led Zeppelin and eventually produced records by the likes of Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits and George Michael, his main influence came in the 1950s and ’60s as a vice president of Atlantic Records, working largely with black artists who were forging a new musical style, which came to be called soul music, from elements of gospel, swing and blues.

“He played a major role in bringing black music to the masses, and in the evolution of rhythm and blues to soul music,” Jim Henke, vice president and chief curator for the Hall of Fame, said in an interview. “Beyond that, he really developed the role of the record producer. Jerry did a lot more than just turn on a tape recorder. He left his stamp on a lot of great music. He had a commercial ear as well as a critical ear.”

Mr. Wexler was something of a paradox. A businessman with tireless energy, a ruthless streak and a volatile temper, he was also a hopeless music fan. A New York Jew and a vehement atheist, he found his musical home in the Deep South, in studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala., among Baptists and Methodists, blacks and good old boys.

“He was a bundle of contradictions,” said Tom Thurman, who produced and directed a documentary about Mr. Wexler in 2000. “He was incredibly abrasive and incredibly generous, very abrupt and very, very patient, seemingly a pure, sharklike businessman and also a cerebral and creative genius.”

The title of Mr. Thurman’s documentary, “Immaculate Funk,” was Mr. Wexler’s phrase for the Atlantic sound, characterized by a heavy backbeat and a gospel influence. “It’s funky, it’s deep, it’s very emotional, but it’s clean,” Mr. Wexler once said.

Though not a musician himself, Mr. Wexler had a natural rapport with musicians, who seemed to recognize his instinct for how best to employ their gifts. In 1950, while he was still at Billboard, he encountered the young singer Patti Page and hummed for her a 1947 song he liked, “The Tennessee Waltz.” Her subsequent recording of it sold three million copies in eight months.

A few years later he was a partner at Atlantic, presiding over the 1954 recording session of Ray Charles’s breakout hit, “I Got a Woman.” He said later that the best thing he had done for Charles was to let him do as he pleased.

“He had an extraordinary insight into talent,” Charles, who died in 2004, said in “Immaculate Funk.”

Mr. Wexler wasn’t always a mere listener. In the mid-1960s, at a recording session with Wilson Pickett, Mr. Wexler wanted more of a backbeat in the song “In the Midnight Hour” but couldn’t explain in words what he wanted, so he illustrated it by doing a new dance, the jerk.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, he made 14 Atlantic albums with Ms. Franklin, whose musical instincts had been less than fully exploited at her previous label, Columbia. Mr. Wexler gave her more control over her songs and her sound, a blend of churchlike spirituality and raw sexuality, which can be heard in hits like “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Chain of Fools.”

“How could he understand what was inside of black people like that?” Pickett asked in the documentary. “But Jerry Wexler did.”


Given the chance, Mr. Wexler would have produced to the end and beyond.

“I asked him once,” said Mr. Thurman, the filmmaker, “‘What do you want written on your tombstone, Jerry?’ He said, ‘Two words: More bass.’”

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