A record man for the ages, RIP

Jerry Wexler gave the name to the “rhythm and blues” genre of what had formerly been called “race records” while he was working as a writer for Billboard. When Atlantic Records co-founder Herb Abramson left Atlantic for the Army in 1953, Wexler seized the opportunity to join the company as an executive. There he worked with virtually all the great rhythm and blues and soul artists of the 1950’s and 1960’s including Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Sam and Dave.

In addition to his own great taste in finding the artists, Wexler helped add what he called “the aesthetic rub” that put these artists over the top. In Aretha Franklin’s case, for example, he had the wit to place her among the sympathetic musicians at the FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The single that resulted from her session there turned her into an overnight sensation after years of futility at Columbia Records. In Wilson Pickett’s case, the incredible house band at Stax Records in Memphis provided the context for a string of hits.

Wexler died yesterday at the age of 91. He provided what Peter Guralnick called “an idealized self-portrait” in his account of “the record man.” Wexler explained:

“There was a kind of record man that was the complete record man, a Renaissance man, if you will. First, he had the brains to imagine that he could do it, that he could find somebody who would spend a dollar, a good hard-earned American dollar, for his phonograph record. Then he had to find an artist, find a song, con the artist into coming into his studio, coax him into singing the song, pull the record out of him, press the record, then take the record and go to the disc jockeys and con them into putting it on the radio, then go to the distributors and beg them to take a box of twenty-five and try it out. That’s the kind of experience that few people get anymore….We didn’t have any specialized knowledge. We didn’t know how good it was. All we needed was to sell 6000 singles in a month to cover everything. Our release schedule was three singles every two weeks. One would be by Ray Charles, one by Big Joe Turner, one by the Drifters. We couldn’t miss. We were all driving Cadillacs. We didn’t know s*** about making records, but we were really having fun!”

Among the several excellent obituaries are those of The Telegraph, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the AP and the Los Angeles Times. At Caught Up in the Fable, Tom Spaulding notes the four pages devoted to Wexler’s discography in the AllMusicGuide entry on Wexler. RIP.

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