Jerry Wexler Dead at 91

Let's do the It's a Wonderful Life exercise, shall we? Imagine what popular music would sound like today without Jerry Wexler. Aretha Franklin would have never returned to her gospel roots, Ray Charles would have continued imitating Charles Brown and Nat Cole, Stax would have been a tiny regional record label, and denatured white covers of R&B songs would dominate the charts. In fact, the music we know today as rhythm and blues would still be called "race music"—Wexler having coined R&B while working at Billboard in 1949.

Perhaps, in the 56 years that have passed since Wexler joined Atlantic Records, the music he championed so wholeheartedly would have made some progress into the mainstream, but there's no denying that music today would be a horse of a different color.

Born Gerald Wexler in 1917, Wexler received a journalism degree from Kansas Sate College and served in the US Army during WWII. After mustering out of the service, Wexler took a job at Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), which was challenging the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). He had to give that job up when he contracted pneumonia, but did get hired by Billboard shortly after recovering.

In that position, he had access to many demo recordings—acetates cut by songwriters shopping their latest titles—and would sometimes pass them along to the agents of artists he thought might match. Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz" was on example of Wexler's handing someone a signature hit . (It was released as the B-side of "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.") He also alerted Columbia's A&R guy—Mitch Miller— to "Cry" (a chart-topping hit for Johnnie Ray) and Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" (a #1 for Tony Bennett).

Wexler left Billboard during the McCarthy era, having refused to pen a "blacklist dossier" on the Weavers. In 1951, he joined the publishing arm of MGM Studios as promotions director and his reputation in that position brought him to the attention of Atlantic Records, which attempted to hire him. He held out, wanting to be a partner, not an employee. The following year Ahmet Ertegun agreed to that provision, when partner Herb Abramson left to join the army. Wexler bought a 13% share of the label for $2,063.25.

Wexler spent his early years at Atlantic helping the label's artists create the very ethos of rock'n'roll: the songs they produced celebrated rocking, rolling, shaking, rattling, feeling good, feeling bad, looking good, and, always, romance (both high and low). At the same time, Wexler laid down the template for recording R&B singles—he is credited as the first producer to record the rhythm section separately. "Nobody knew how to record when I started," Wexler said in his autobiography (Rhythm and the Blues: An American Life, essential reading for any record lover). "You just walked into the studio, turned on the mike, and said play."

It's instructive to listen to the Atlantic singles today. They sound remarkably clear—even in mono, you can hear a big room—the bass is powerful and the drums snap to life. It's the sound Wexler dubbed "Immaculate Funk." Check out LaVerne Baker's "Saved," for instance—it has a backbeat that could make "grumpy white-haired dude" crack a time-step. Or listen to the pop operatic production of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me"—Wexler's production gave the song the majesty it deserved.

In a career full of canny moves, perhaps Wexler's handing of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles stand as iconic. In 1954, Wexler recorded "I Got a Woman," which became Charles' breakout hit—it sounded nothing like the pop-jazz recordings Charles had made previously. "The best thing I ever did," Wexler later said, "was let Ray be Ray." And Atlantic did let Ray be Ray, recording him in small groups, big bands, even backing his concept of recording country and western songs full of "Nashville sugar" (string arrangements).

By 1966, when Wexler signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic, Franklin had had success as a gospel singer, but dropped out to raise her first two children. When she returned to singing professionally, she signed to Columbia, which cast her as a soft-jazz singer—to public indifference. She was dropped from the label. Wexler sat her down at the piano, Franklin said "and told me to sing like I did in church." Her first single had "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) on the A-side and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." Talk about breaking into the charts!

Wexler had big ears, as they say in the biz. While his passions for R&B and jazz were driving forces, he knew a good thing when he heard it. He took British singer Dusty Springfield to Memphis and crafted a masterpiece in Dusty In Memphis. In Memphis, he heard about Stax Records and there, he said, he learned a new way to produce records—a looser, more spontaneous methodology. He also signed a distribution deal with Stax, which had him working with Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Booker T & the MGs. His Memphis trip also introduced him to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, a studio and a sound he exploited on some memorable recordings.

At Muscle Shoals, he heard Duane and Greg Allman, and signed the brothers and their Capricorn Records label to a distribution deal with Atlantic. "I invented Swamp Rock," Wexler said modestly.

Wexler is also credited with bringing Cream's first record to Atlantic, as well as that of ex-studio guitarist Jimmy Page's new band, Led Zeppelin.

There were some missteps, even in a career as stellar as Wexler's. In 1956, RCA outbid him by $10,000 for Elvis Presley—just imagine how Wexler's affinity for R&B would have influenced the young Presley, who shared that respect and passion. Wexler also always regretted the lack of success of two of his pet projects: Dr. John's masterful Gumbo, his salute to the great piano professors of New Orleans, especially Professor Longhair; and Doug Sahm and Band, a gem of an album—and one featuring Bob Dylan as a sideman.

Wexler produced Dylan's "Christian" album, Saved. While Dylanologists still debate whether or not Bobby Zimmerman converted before recording that disc, my theory has always been who wouldn't want to do a gospel record with Jerry Wexler?

Wexler also had the ears to hear the genius of Willie Nelson, Dire Straits, and Lou Anne Barton well before the rest of the world caught up with them.

He succumbed to congestive heart failure at 3:45am on August 15. Years ago, Wexler was asked to pen his own epitaph. His response was succinct: "More bass."