Jerry Wexler, once cited by industry chronicler Bill Gavin as “Record Executive of the Year” for three years running, might well qualify as record man of the modern era of contemporary music. He may also very well have enjoyed the longest running career as an active record producer, having been contributing to the international record market for well over 30 continuous years, with an almost supernatural sense of the sort or music the market wants at any given time.
Born in New York City, and self-described as a “reformed stickball player who escaped into literacy,” Wexler’s music education began early, in the mid-thirties in fact, when he and his friends began hanging out in Harlem, and at jazz clubs like the legendary Nick’s in Greenwich Village, “listening to the music and nursing beers until the early hours, sometimes, ‘til all hours.”
Following a discharge from the Army in 1946, Wexler further honed his musical knowledge while attending Kansas State University, affording him the opportunity to take breaks from tiis major of “industrial journalism’ to catch appearances by Big Joe Turner and Andy Kirk in Kansas City’s own legendary 12th Street.
Following graduation, he was hired as a writer for the performing rights organization. Broadcast Music, Inc., soon moving on to Billboard, the music and trade paper, as a reporter and record reviewer. In 1951, upon the recommendation of Howard Richmond, Wexler took a job with the music publisher, Robbins, Feist and Miller commonly known at the time as the Big Three.
Two years later, the fledging Atlantic Records firm beckoned and he joined the company in what became a long ana productive partnership with the company’s co-founder, Ahmet Ertegun. During the 22 years that followed, Wexler enjoyed an extraordinary career of record producing and talent guidance with an array of major name artists representing virtually all gradations of contemporary music.
One of the earliest projects to fall into Wexler’s Atlantic domain was to record the newly signed Clyde McPhatter, and his group. The Drifters. The sessions were conducted at Atlantic’s then offices on New York’s West 56th Street. As Wexler, years later, told a Rolling Stone Magazine interviewer, “During the daytime, Ahmet (Ertegun) and I shared one office. At night, we put one desk on top of the other and Tom Dowd, the engineer, would take out the microphones and the camp chairs and that was our studio.”
With this rather spare beginning, Wexler and Atlantic went on to produce recordings with a list of artists who from the vantage point of today would be regarded as a virtual who’s who of the recording industry. These were performers who, with Wexler’s always knowing helping hand, would make history in popular music.
Among the earlier personalities, many of the artists fell into the category then known as “race” music. Wexler while at Billboard had renamed the genre “Rhythm and Blues,” and in this grouping, in addition to McPhatter and The Drifters, fell such names as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, LaVern Baker, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown, The Clovers, Chuck Willis, Carla Thomas and the colorful Professor Longhair.
Besides these basically soul-oriented artists, Wexler has enjoyed many other highly productive associations. Through a mutual friend, Doug Sahm (known at the time as Sir Douglas), he met Bob Dylan and ultimately produced two Dylan albums, “Saved” and “Slow Train Coming,” for CBS in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a recording center that was rapidly growing in prestige, thanks in large measure to Wexler’s frequent use of the facilities. Wexler also helped Dylan to his first Grammy for the single, “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody.”
At a time when Willie Nelson was fresh out of a label affiliation, Wexler signed him to Atlantic, took him to Muscle Shoals and produced the LP, “Phases and Stages,” a record that many people feel is Nelson’s masterpiece, even today.
During the Muscle Shoals period of producing activity, Wexler developed an association with the American Studios in Memphis, operated by the well-known and respected Chips Moman. Through Wexler’s help, The Muscle Shoals Studios, Moman, and later Criteria Studios in Miami, were able to acquire and install state of the art multi-track soundboard and tape equipment for their studios.
On the Memphis recording front, Wexler also developed a close relationship with the Stax-Volt record label, later bringing the company into the Atlantic distribution axis. Through an earlier association with Otis Redding, Wexler became friends with Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, who was then also managing Duane Allman. Wexler used Allman on many recording sessions as a featured side man. Later Wexler and Walden established the Capricorn Records label, distributed by Atlantic. One of the earliest star attractions for Capricorn was the now legendary Allman Brothers Band.
Wexler served for a time with Warner Brothers Records as Senior Vice President, during which time he signed several important bands, among them Dire Straits, The Gang of Four, The Roche Sisters and the B-52s. Subsequently, Wexler extended his reach to film and theatre. With the D’Lugoff brothers he co-produced the of f-B roadway show “One Mo’ Time,” and was an associate producer for the on-Broadway Raul Julia musical “Nine. His soundtrack for Brooke Shield’s first film, Louis Malle’s movie “Pretty Baby,” won an Academy Award nomination.
Last year he produced, with his son Paul, the soundtrack for Richard Pryor’s autobiographical film, “Jo-Jo Dancer. At this time he is musical supervisor for the stage musical “Mr. Jelly Lord,” to star Gregory Hines.
Finally, this will be the third industry award this year for Wexler; on January 15 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and on January 21 at the induction dinner at the Waldorf, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Industry Pioneer Category.