Remembering Jerry Wexler

A friend recalls the legendary record man

Though he said he disliked the music, Wex signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic in November 1968 for $200,000, based solely on the recommendation of Dusty Springfield—he'd just produced her best album (Dusty in Memphis, with "Son of a Preacher Man"). The first pressing of Led Zeppelin II wasn't manufactured to the exact liking of Peter Grant, Zep's tyrannical manager; he wanted them discarded. "You know what I said to Peter Grant?" Wex recalled. "'Yes, sir, right away.' We shredded a quarter-million albums and began the run again."

Led Zeppelin, of course, went on to sell some 300 million albums to date, and effectively paid for many of the albums Wexler wanted to record.

I asked Wex how it got by him—a blues aficionado extraordinaire—that most of the songs on Led Zep II were blatantly plagiarized from Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, replaced by the names Jimmy Page and Robert Plant as songwriters. "I didn't know at the time," he swore. Willie Dixon finally won a million-dollar settlement many years later—though he was in his 70s and only had one leg by then.

Jerry Wexler, 1917 – 2008
Jerry Wexler, 1917 – 2008

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Josh Alan Friedman's latest book, Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock''n' Roll, is available through Backbeat Books.

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At his 1996 Blues Foundation tribute, Wexler asked, "Who owns the blues? Who owns polkas? Who owns three-quarters time? Who owns the backbeat? Nobody owns it. But there are some custodians and conservators of the blues: The people who have kept it going." Wexler went on to list the champions of blues, in front of and behind the scenes of this huge, complex, hundred-year-old genre of music. He began with John Hammond, who discovered the original Robert Johnson masters in a trashcan in back of Columbia Records. His speech inspired me to write a song against blues Nazis, "No One Owns the Blues."

But Wexler owned plenty. At dinner in East Hampton, married to his third wife (novelist Jean Arnold), he would ring a tinker bell on the dining room table and in would shuffle two Chinese servants wearing slippers, taking short steps, like something out of the Ming Dynasty.

Nevertheless, he was vexed by Ahmet's vastly superior wealth. Ahmet had recently purchased an enormous estate; and his original Picassos and Matisses were more expensive than Jerry's Picassos and Matisses. Wex grumbled that Ahmet had three shifts of chauffeurs living on the plantation—the limo parked out front, ready to rumble 24/7. Jerry had to call for his goddamned limo, which was only available nine-to-five.

But then he caught himself, hip to his own absurdity. So goes human nature.

Wex was as generous as they come. Right to the end, he kept spreading the gospel, sending box sets and books to everyone he knew. He loved John O'Hara and Ring Lardner. Hated Damon Runyon, loved A.J. Liebling. He once insisted I read Liebling's The Telephone Booth Indian, which I loved; I found that Liebling walked the same Times Square beat as me—only 50 years earlier. And whenever I had a new book or CD, Wex would buy 10 or 20 copies—then send them to people like Budd Schulberg.

How could I not love him? Nobody else did that. Nobody else did a lot of the things Wex did.

There's nobody else like him.

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