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The Big Kahuna: Jerry Wexler, 1917-2008

The death of Jerry Wexler has robbed the world of one of black music's great white facilitators: a brilliant believer who coined the term "rhythm and bleus" and nurtured soul giants from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin. I had the honor of interviewing him twice, once in New York in 1985 and again in Florida, where he'd retired, in 1993. This is an excerpt from the piece that resulted from the latter encounter. -- Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Most ageing music moguls slough off any real love for music they started out with and sink into a torpor of cocktails and daytime television. Not Jerry Wexler. Wrapped in an enormous hooded bathrobe, with the sea lapping against the jetty at the end of the garden, Wex seeks solace from his favorite saxophonists — Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, Ben Webster — long into the Florida night. Fifty years after first hearing them on 52nd Street he's still hero-worshipping them, still can't listen to Henry "Red" Allen on "Meet Me In The Moonlight" without wanting to cry.

But it wasn't jazz that put Jerry Wexler's name in the history books. It was the music for which he famously coined the term "rhythm and blues," and the "soul" sound that followed in its wake. In 1949, as a young reporter on the music industry's magazine Billboard, it was Wexler who suggested to its editor, Paul Ackerman that they should change the label on their black music charts from Race Records to Rhythm and Blues — thus providing a neat label for the new black sound that had evolved out of urban blues and big-band swing. It was his love of that music that took Wexler into a partnership at Atlantic Records, and what he achieved at Atlantic makes him a key figure in the history of postwar black American music.

In the Fifties, Wexler oversaw Atlantic sessions by Ray Charles and the Drifters which still rank as R & B masterworks. In the early Sixties he put the new gospel-inspired soul style on the map by signing a portly preacher-boy called Solomon Burke; then made a crucial distribution deal with a tiny Memphis label that became Stax Records, home to Otis Redding and Booker T & the MGs. Finally, in 1967, he turned a gospel-bred female singer from Detroit into a soul superstar. Aretha Franklin was the jewel in his crown: and her string of great hits, from "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)," through "Respect," to the exquisite "I Say a Little Prayer," remain arguably the greatest recordings of the soul era.

The phone rings often in the house on Siesta Key, in the geriatric paradise of Sarasota. Any feelings of awe at meeting Wexler are instantly dispelled by the sight of his shrunken barefoot figure scampering away to get the phone: comparisons with an elderly, but admirably spry chimpanzee would not be out of place. In fact you'd be forgiven for imagining that he hadn't retired at all: constantly making calls, pulling out old tapes, talking all the time. ("Hey, I'm a state-of-the-art interviewee," he chuckles).

"He was just what we needed," Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun says of Wexler. "A man of extreme intelligence with great feeling for all kinds of music — not just jazz and rhythm and blues, but country and western too. He had an extraordinary ear for melody and a knack for picking great songs."

From 1953 to 1959, the Ertegun-Wexler partnership worked like a dream. After Wexler's arrival, Atlantic had 30 top 10 R & B hits in two years. "We just never seemed to miss. We had this incredible roster of repeating singers, and almost no one-hit wonders" — Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Chuck Willis, Big Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters. For Wexler, the knack lay in "accumulating good songs and saving them for good singers". "We had certain standards of bel canto," he says. "We believed in singers and not just interpreters."

Anyone who worked in Atlantic's 56th Street office at that time recalls Wexler as a tyrant who drove people as mercilessly as he drove himself. "I'd never had dominion over anybody before," he says. "See, it was based on this: I require you to be at least as diligent as I am, if not as intelligent. In other words, if I'm willing to do this, you must do it. There was no respect for time off or home life."

With the early Sixties success of Solomon Burke and the Atlantic-distributed Stax label, Wexler and Ertegun seemed to head off in separate directions. While Wexler concentrated on soul, Ertegun focused his attention on the pop market, eventually moving on to the hipper rock acts of London and Los Angeles — Cream, Crosby Stills & Nash. "I never rejected rock'n'roll," Wexler says, "but I never liked the music that people called rock." Basing himself Florida, he instead recorded a new breed of white musicians who fleshed out his fantasies about "life below the Smith & Wesson line": Duane Allman, Dr John, Delaney & Bonnie, Tony Joe White. To the rest of the Atlantic staff, it was little more than an expensive hobby. "When he moved to Florida, there was a natural void," says Ertegun in his most fastidious voice. "You can't move that far from the centre of activity and carry on the same way."

"I didn't fit, and it was disturbing," says Wexler of his eventual return to New York in 1973. "In retrospect it was clear that I'd abdicated, but it was only when I got back to New York that it really hit me. I was so used to being the Big Kahuna, the honcho, that I thought I could be any place and tell people what to do. I didn't realize that Atlantic was moving into the era of mass merchandising and I didn't know squat about any of it." Ironically, it was Wexler and not Ertegun who'd signed the ultimate behemoth of Seventies stadium rock, Led Zeppelin. In due course, Ertegun would go on to add Genesis, Foreigner, and AC/DC to the Atlantic list. Soul fans wept.

In May 1988, Atlantic celebrated 40 years in the music industry with a big bash at New York's Madison Square Garden. Everyone was there. But there was one conspicuous absence. Shrugging off enquiries as to the whereabouts of his former partner, Ahmet Ertegun maintained that Wexler was ill. But he wasn't ill: he was at home, disgusted by the entire charade. "I knew it was gonna be Ahmet's show, with everyone else lined up behind him like adjuncts," he says. "I didn't wanna be a prop in a TV monstrosity. It wasn't a celebration of what we'd done at Atlantic, it was a huge plug for what the company was trying to accomplish then and there."

For his part, Ertegun claims that Wexler is a melancholy figure: "He is sad because he sees the music to which he gave his life is no longer important." Survival is what counts, and for Ertegun it's paid off handsomely. Wexler says the only thing he's sad about is getting old. But he isn't moaning: he plays golf, walks the beach at dawn, eats fresh shrimp and pompano in the evening. Still, there's no chauffeur, and by the time he's 80, a chauffeur might be nice.

So which of the two friends got it right? Ahmet on Park Avenue or Jerry on Siesta Key, alone in the night with his Red Allen reissues? The pat summation at the end of Wexler's autobiography Rhythm and the Blues — "to have somehow participated in the universalization of black music... was the privilege of a lifetime" — doesn't even begin to answer the question.

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