Remembering Jerry Wexler
Jerry Wexler, one of the greatest record men of the 20th Century, passed away on August 15.
But, before that, I flew to Sarasota, on June 12, for one last visit with him. And he got out of his deathbed for 30 minutes and came alive.
I mentioned George Harrison's Hindu preparation for dying: floating on a bed of lily pads by candlelight, gently passing into the next world.
"Fuck that," Wex said. "I don't want smoke signals, memorials or any bullshit. Just get it over with, the sooner the better."
Exultant in his atheism, he wasn't even depressed. In fact, he seemed to have a perfect attitude.
At 91, he remained sharp as a razor, with a teenager's enthusiasm for music, books, art, golf. But his body failed him. Cardiologists and hematolgists became his closest local pals and acolytes, all enriched by new CD boxes from Wex's Atlantic/Rhino archives. Not surprisingly, Sarasota Memorial Hospital's head of neurosurgery called one day, out of the blue, just to announce: "I'm coming over to see how you live." On a chartered flight to New York City, where Wex would be examined by the field's top specialist at Columbia University—like most elderly, Wex couldn't fly commercial anymore—one of his cardiologists accompanied him, free of charge, just to hang out.
The doctors were all enamored with Jerry Wexler's 1993 autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. Written with David Ritz, it provides an unparalleled lesson in music history—like how Wex coined the very term "record producer" when signing Leiber & Stoller to produce the Coasters and the Drifters in 1957.
Similarly, Jerry's desk overflowed with hand-written correspondence—the old-fashioned kind. He loved to show off fan letters from doctors and literary stars.
But Wexler remained as much a product of the streets as the library. He was the son of a Bronx window washer and began his career as a window washer himself. His mother wanted him to become a writer, but Wex, a late-bloomer, admitted that he was too fucked-up as a young man to make his move.
The Army set him straight. An expert on jazz clubs and an obsessive collector of 78s, he only entered the record business after serving in World War II. At the time, lower-ranking music tradesmen were called diskers, pubbers and cleffers, and they hustled throughout Tin Pan Alley. The Harlem Hit Parade was but the fringe.
But by the early '50s, he was co-owner of the upstart R&B label, Atlantic Records, with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. Through Atlantic, he taught white America—and the rest of the planet—to love black music; he coined the category "rhythm & blues" in 1949, when Billboard rechristened the title of its "race records" chart.
Those he produced and/or signed could fill a phone directory. Here are a few: Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Laverne Baker, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin (14 albums), Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, the Allman Bros., Willie Nelson (Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages), Bob Dylan (Saved and Slow Train Coming), Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, Dr. John.
Ahmet Ertegun nailed Crosby, Stills & Nash, and handled the Brits—he signed Cream, Yes, King Crimson, the Bee Gees and later, the Stones—as Wexler propelled Stax Records (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T.) from a small Memphis company to an R&B phenomenon. Down Texas way, he produced Lou Ann Barton, Doug Sahm ("The greatest musician I ever worked with"), paired the Fab Thunderbirds with Santana (Havana Moon) and got Stevie Ray booked into Montreux.
And Wexler was also an organic producer of Southern soul. He put Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on the map and built Criteria Studios in Miami, where Layla was recorded. Like a great surgeon who refuses to operate when it isn't required, he never fixed something that wasn't broke or fucked up a good thing. Producing Ray Charles, he cut a wide protective swath for Brother Ray to innovate and do it his own way. He set Aretha Franklin free, the only provision being that she summon back the church in her music. He once told me that if the janitor walked by with a great idea, he'd get out the way and let the janitor produce the track.
But you didn't need to be a big shot to gain Jerry's attention. He could bestow equal respect upon musicians on top of the world or at the bottom. Proof in point: He enthusiastically came to see me play. Wex sent my albums to the heads of several labels, arranging meetings. Alas, the automatons I met were as clueless to me as I was to them. MTV reigned. It was no longer the '50s, or even the '70s, and Jerry Wexler was no longer the most powerful and feared man in the business. As the industry became corporate and generic, it held contempt for music people. Even Ahmet Ertegun became just a figurehead at Atlantic, and he couldn't even get Bugs Henderson a deal at his own label.
Eventually, he and Ahmet had to be careful any time they merely mentioned they liked someone's music. Inevitably, they'd be told, "Put your money where your mouth is."
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.
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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