YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

OBITUARIES : Jerry Wexler, 1917 - 2008

Record producer was godfather of R&B

August 16, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Jerry Wexler, the influential Atlantic Records producer who coined the term "rhythm and blues" before helping shape that sound into one of the most powerful musical forces of the 1950s and '60s, died Friday morning at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 91.

Wexler had suffered in recent years from congenital heart disease, said David Ritz, who was the co-author of Wexler's 1993 autobiography "Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music."

As Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's partner during that label's vital years from the 1950s to the '70s, Wexler copiloted one of the most successful and influential independent record companies in history.

"Wexler's efforts at Atlantic helped bring black music to the masses, and in so doing built a significant and lasting bridge between the races," according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Wexler as a nonperformer in 1987.

In the early 1960s, Wexler signed a gospel singer whose career had been languishing at another record label and unleashed her vocal talent, helping turn Aretha Franklin into the "Queen of Soul."

"He made a huge contribution to my career," Franklin told The Times on Friday, "one I'm most thankful for, one I'll always remember. Jerry was truly one of the great record men of all time."

He produced numerous hits for Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters, the Coasters and Big Joe Turner among dozens of others. He signed Led Zeppelin to the label and worked with other rock performers including Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Dire Straits and the B-52s, in addition to producing recordings that salvaged Willie Nelson's career in the mid-1970s after he turned his back on Nashville.

Although Wexler's signing of Led Zeppelin spearheaded a new era for Atlantic in which it grew further with white rock acts including the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills & Nash and others, Wexler's heart remained in the music created by African Americans.

"He was one of the last of these record guys who grew up in the rough-and-tumble music business -- independents who had to bang it out, press them and get them out on the street because other people were stealing songs left and right," Ritz said Friday. "It was really a free-for-all."

For black musicians, Ritz added, "If you weren't Louis Armstrong or the Mills Brothers, the major labels didn't want to deal with you. They didn't want to deal with R&B because they didn't understand it. Jerry had the street toughness to survive in that environment, but he also had such wonderful taste, and a deep, deep appreciation for the artistry of Ray Charles and Solomon Burke and on, and on, and on."

In addition to producing hundreds of recordings for Atlantic, Wexler was known for his endless passion for promoting those records.

He "worked 24 hours a day to promote a record," soul singer Burke said Friday. "If he wanted a record to happen, it would happen. . . . If he made a record at 1 o'clock in the morning, at 2:30 in the morning he was on the phone waking up a DJ to tell him about it, and he'd have that record waiting at the station when the guy got there at 6:30."

Wexler, whose expansive vocabulary could easily veer into profanity, provided the New York streetwise yang to the yin of Ahmet Ertegun's internationally cultivated sophistication.

Unlike Ertegun, widely revered for his gentility, "Jerry didn't have a soft side," said Mike Stoller, who with longtime songwriting partner Jerry Leiber helped create or produce dozens of the biggest hits of the 1950s and early '60s for performers such as Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters and numerous others.

"We had run-ins with him from time to time over royalties, over publishing or putting our names on records we made," Stoller said Friday. "In spite of the friction, there was always a real warm relationship."

Gerald Wexler was born Jan. 10, 1917, in the Bronx, N.Y. His father, Harry, was a Polish immigrant who cleaned windows for a living, and his mother, Elsa, was a German American who wanted to make Wexler into a writer.

He grew up in a tough Washington Heights neighborhood, where fights between rival ethnic groups were common and Wexler was usually happy to join the brawl.

"I was impervious to pain," he wrote in "Rhythm and the Blues." "You could bust my nose and I'd still fight like mad. It wouldn't take much, a wrong look or cross word, to provoke me into action -- the same terrible temper that, later in my life, damaged my family. But it also served as an engine and a defense."

His fiery tendencies were tempered to an extent while he served in the Army after being drafted in 1941. He remained stateside and was discharged in Midland, Texas, as a corporal. After the war, he earned a journalism degree from what became Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Scrounging for work as a reporter after returning to New York, he landed a job in 1947 with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), then a fledgling publishing-rights rival to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

Los Angeles Times Articles