Jerry Wexler 1917-2008

Jerry Wexler, producer, record company executive and tireless supporter of rhythm and blues and soul music has died aged 91.

Atlantic Records was set up by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1947 with the aid of a loan from the Ertegun family dentist. It enjoyed steady, if unspectacular growth in its early years. The continuity and stability of the company was rocked in 1953, though, when Abramson was drafted. He was a qualified dentist and his skills were required by the US Army in Korea. He stayed on full salary, and kept the title of company president, but additional help was needed. That help arrived in the form of Jerry Wexler.

Wexler was born on January 10th 1917 (some sources say 1918 ) in New York, and in 1936 he went to Kansas State University. He spent more time attending R&B shows in Kansas City than he did attending to his studies, and dropped out. He went back to New York to work in his father’s window cleaning business until 1941 when he was drafted. His spell in the army helped him to focus, and he started a correspondence course in journalism at Kansas State which he completed on discharge.

Back in New York, Wexler got a job writing for Billboard magazine. It was here that he was responsible for coining the term Rhythm & Blues as a replacement for “Race music” which was the unhappy nomenclature used by the magazine at the time. Ertegun’s and Wexler’s paths crossed frequently, and so when the need arose to replace Abramson, the New Yorker seemed an obvious choice. He joined the company as vice-president, and bought a 13% share of the stock. It proved a shrewd appointment by the partners. Wexler was not just a talented producer, he was also a workaholic and supremely organised. These attributes helped greatly in the growth of the company.

Abramson returned after two years, but the dynamic in the company had changed, and after a brief period as boss of spin-off label Atco, he left for good. Atlantic was now in the hands of Ertegun, Wexler, and Ertegun’s brother Nesuhi (who was responsible in creating the company’s world class jazz division).

Wexler’s ear and his willingness to work hard had a lot to do with Atlantic’s meteoric rise in the mid to late fifties. After a relative slump in the early sixties, the company was revitalised with its new ties with Stax (a one sided deal which led to a permanent falling out between Stax boss Jim Stewart and Wexler) and the signing of new soul acts like Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Barbara Lewis, Clarence Carter and (especially) Aretha Franklin. Wexler’s understanding production of Franklin’s music helped her to become one of the first true soul superstars in 1967, and her first album is still regarded as the key southern soul record.

Ironically, despite Atlantic’s success being due in a large part to Wexler’s efforts, of the leading trio he was the least optimistic about the label’s future. He was well aware how many of the company’s peers had gone to the wall, or were struggling to maintain their eminence. When an offer came in for the label in 1967 from Warner-Seven Arts, he was the most eager to sell. Ahmet Ertegun was dead set against it, as it totally undervalued the company. Nesuhi was persuaded by Wexler’s pessimism, and the deal was done – just as Franklin took off. The trio soon realised their error and tried to buy it back for twice what they’d sold it for, but failed.

They all continued to work for Atlantic and enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. But this episode, coupled with Ahmet’s increasing interest in rock bands like the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith etc drove him and Wexler apart. They never actually fell out, but the relationship was cooler. In the seventies, Wexler lived in Florida and worked with his beloved soul acts in studios in Miami – still part of the Atlantic family, but in some ways cut off. He continued to work for the label until the 1990s when he was nearing his eightieth year.

Jerry Wexler was one of the last of the breed of hands-on record executives who would combine running a company with studio work, A&R and even, on occasion, songwriting. Atlantic may just be a cog in a multinational cross-platform entertainment megalith these days, but it remains an example what a truly independent company can achieve if it has people who have equal reserves of talent and commitment. And Wexler was definitely one of those people.

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