Jerry Wexler Passes Away
Aretha Franklin producer, Atlantic Records co-chief and music business pioneer dies at age 91
Jerry Wexler, the legendary record man, music producer and ageless hipster, died at 3:45 a.m. today at the age of 91. Wexler was one of the great music business pioneers of the 20th century: as co-head of Atlantic Records from 1953 to ’75, he and his partner Ahmet Ertegun grew the small independent R&B label into the major record company that it is today.
Wexler was much more than a top executive — he was a national tastemaker and a prophet of roots and rhythm. The impact of his deeds matched his larger-than-life personality. Because of him, we use the term “rhythm and blues” and we hail Ray Charles as “Genius” and Aretha Franklin as “Queen.” We came to know of a record label called Stax and a small town called Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We witnessed the rise of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, and we care about a thing called soul.
In the ’50s, Wexler’s studio work helped introduce white ears to the royalty of R&B: Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Chuck Willis. In the ’60s as the age of R&B gave way to the rock and soul era, Wexler and Ertegun steered Atlantic into a lead position among labels, releasing music by Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, Cream and Led Zeppelin, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, and Willie Nelson. In the ’70s, Wexler departed Atlantic and went freelance, producing soundtracks for films by Louis Malle and Richard Pryor, and recording albums with Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, and Etta James and others.
Wexler was a throwback to a time when record men could be found in the studio and the office, producing the music and running the company. Blessed with big ears — they really were large — his productions generated a staggering number of gold and platinum records. The collective impact of the music he personally produced or somehow ushered into being won him nearly every lifetime honor in the music world. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first non-performers to receive the honor. Tuxedoed and hale, he summed up his work at Atlantic: “We were making rhythm and blues music — black music by black musicians for black adult buyers perpetrated by white Jewish and Turkish entrepreneurs.”
Laughing, Wexler added, “Incidentally, two weeks ago I hit three score and 10 — the Biblical allotment. So this is my first posthumous award.”
He was born Gerald Wexler in 1917 to a working class family, and grew up during the Depression in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. His youth was marked by poolrooms and truancy, until the mid-1930s when he was distracted by a music called jazz. Wexler became part of a loosely knit group of record collectors and streetwise intellectuals, praising trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen and quoting Spinoza. Many members of this circle eventually became captains of the music industry: John Hammond and George Avakian at Columbia Records, Milt Gabler and Bob Thiele at Decca, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff at Blue Note, and Wexler’s future partners at Atlantic, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun.
“If somebody asked me who I was,” Wexler said, “an aspiring journalist, a stick ball player from Washington Heights, the son of a window cleaner? No, I was a record collector. And we all felt that way.
R.I.P. We’ve lost another legend..