When the news came across yesterday, it made me stop for a little while. Jerry Wexler, who died early Friday morning, was a force of nature in the American music business. He was very influential early in his career, which started at Billboard. When he joined the staff of the magazine, one of their charts tracked "Race Music," but Wexler changed the name to "Rhythm and Blues," coining a new term while he was at it. But his personal mark started when he joined Ahmet and Nasuhi Ertegun in Atlantic Records. The label became a major force in R&B and then rock music, so it's hard to imagine the three partners starting out as a small little indie at the fringes of the music business. They didn't have a massive staff--at the beginning, anyway--so everybody did a bit if everything; Wexler functioned as an A&R man and as a producer. He had an amazing ear for talent, though, and he worked with a veritable who's who of R&B stars, many of whom he found and nurtured: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Dr. John, Etta James, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker. According to his page at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he once said, "No one really knew how to make a record when I started. You simply went into the studio, turned on the mike and said play." He figured it out pretty quick, though. As popular music changed, Wexler was willing to change with it, and Atlantic cast a wider net. Indirectly, he was responsible for the viability of Southern rock, bankrolling Phil Walden's Capricorn Records, home to the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Wet Willie, and others.
Rolling Stone, which has a nice, lengthy remembrance (as well as a twenty-song playlist of some of his best work as a producer), called Wexler a "legendary record man, music producer and ageless hipster," and I'd say they just about get it right. I was lucky enough a few years ago to find a copy of his book, Rhythm and the Blues, on a remainder table--it's only fifteen years old, but it regularly pulls in three figures on Ebay or from online used bookstores--and it brought me into his passion for the music he found and helped bring to the rest of us (check out this review from the New York Times). This was truly a man whose life and work is worth celebrating. Surely you've got something Jerry Wexler produced on your iPod. Go listen to it.