Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records Producer, Dies at 91
Jerry Wexler, a producer for Atlantic Records who helped define rhythm and blues—indeed, he is credited with creating that term—died of congenial heart disease in Sarasota, Fla., on August 15th. He was 91. During his lengthy career, Wexler was largely responsible for boosting the careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker and others, and for positioning Atlantic as a major player. Without his keen ears and maverick spirit, it’s debatable whether the label would ever have signed and made legends of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Percy Sledge, Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Allman Brothers Band and dozens of others considered cornerstones of the popular music of the ’50s to the ’70s.
Gerald Wexler was born in 1917 and grew up in Manhattan, where he became enamored of jazz during his youth. He began amassing a collection of records and, following Army service during World War II and college in Kansas, he began a journalism career in New York. While working at Billboard magazine in 1949, he came up with the term rhythm and blues to replace what the magazine had been calling “race music.”
An acquaintance with the brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun led to Wexler’s being asked to join their upstart Atlantic imprint, where he immediately began steering the label toward the black music he had come to love: artists such as the Clovers, the Coasters, Ruth Brown and Clyde McPhatter. In the ’60s, Wexler worked with Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the artists on the Atlantic-distributed Stax label, including Redding, Sam and Dave and Booker T. and the MG’s He produced Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Percy Sledge’s :When a Man Loves a Woman,” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” among other R&B staples. He also produced Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis album, worked with Dr. John Willie Nelson and Delaney and Bonnie, and was instrumental in furthering the company’s reach by inking deals with subsidiary labels such as Swan Song (Led Zeppelin) and Rolling Stones Records, luring the top British band away from Decca. He left Atlantic in 1975.
In his post-Atlantic years, Wexler remained active as a producer, working with Bob Dylan (the singer’s first Grammy-winning album, Slow Train Coming), the Staple Singers, Dire Straits, Carlos Santana Linda Ronstadt and others.