First Published – 16 August 2020
Jerry Wexler is remembered for many things within the music industry, but perhaps the most significant of all is his invention in 1949 of the term Rhythm and Blues to describe the music being recorded by and for the black population of the United States, music which up until then was always referred to as Race music. As Wexler said, Rhythm and Blues was “a label more appropriate to more enlightened times”.
Jerry Wexler was born in New York to a Jewish couple on January 10th 1917. His father was German and his mother Polish. It took a while for him to complete his education, but after completing his military service, he finally graduated from university in Kansas with a degree in journalism in 1946. His love of music was well established and led him to a job at Billboard Magazine, where in 1949 he came up with the suggestion that the magazine should abandon the term Race music in favour of Rhythm and Blues. He spent the next fifty years promoting all kinds of music, but what he loved most of all was the black music that he discovered in Kansas, then in Memphis and Muscle Shoals.
The work at Billboard magazine allowed Wexler to build a lot of important contacts with artists and others within the industry. None were more important than his meetings with Ahmet Ertegun, who invited Wexler in 1953 to become a partner in Atlantic Records, the fledgling company that he had set up with Herb Abramson. Wexler invested $2,000 for a 13% stake, rising to 30% as other shareholders departed.
One of the first artists that Wexler began working with was a twenty-three old from Florida called Ray Charles, who taught Wexler an important lesson. When Wexler persisted in making suggestions for what Ray Charles should do, the singer responded: “If I’m gonna do a session, I’m gonna do it my way, or I ain’t gonna do it at all.” Wexler took notice and let Charles explore his talent, producing some memorable tracks in the process, including “I Got a Woman” in 1954 and “What’d I Say” in 1959. These two tracks provide a definition of early Atlantic Soul., leaning towards Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Ray Charles left Atlantic Records in 1959, but the gap was soon filled. Solomon Burke signed for the label in November 1960 and swiftly began to realise his potential with Wexler in the producer’s seat. Altogether, Burke released thirty-two singles on Atlantic, starting with the Country song “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)” followed by a series of tracks that merged elements of country, blues and gospel. Wexler master-minded this fusion to build on the Atlantis Soul sound developed by Ray Charles. “Cry to Me” took the music in a new direction, that proved profitable for Burke and for the company. Burke followed “Cry to Me” with a series of hits that cemented Atlantic’s place in the history of Soul music: “If You Need Me”, “You’re Good for Me”, the classic “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (his only number-one single), “Got to Get You Off My Mind” and “Tonight’s the Night”.
Wexler’s next set of decisions were some of the most important ever taken in the development of Soul music. He had been approached by a young Wilson Pickett and decided to sign him in 1964. When the first Pickett release on Atlantic failed to take off, Wexler made a bold move. He booked a series of sessions at Stax Records in Memphis and took Pickett down to Tennessee to play with the session men at Stax, because he realised that Pickett needed a bit of Southern feeling in his songs.
In May 1965, at the first session, Wexler described the rhythm that he was looking for by dancing the beat for musicians Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and bassist Donald “Duck”. Pickett then joined Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper as a song-writing team. One of the first songs they came up with was “In the Midnight Hour”, which became Pickett’s first big hit, peaking in the USA at number one on the R&B Chart and number twenty-one on the Pop chart, and reaching number twelve in the UK. The single sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc. The song went on to give Pickett his first Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording at the 8th Annual Grammy Awards.
Looking back, it is clear to see why the sessions were so productive. Pickett was given freedom to explore his ideas along with talented musicians and song-writers that he knew and trusted. The atmosphere was relaxed but purposeful. Pickett really enjoyed what he was being asked to do by Wexler. The collaboration with Stax bore immediate success and looked set to last. Wexler was impressed enough with what he saw at Stax to sign a distribution deal with the Memphis company that enabled Atlantic to export all Stax recordings on the Atlantic label. It was good for Stax, as it widened the appeal of their artists, and it was good for Atlantic, enabling the New York company to earn money from Stax’s success.
However, the Stax co-owner, Jim Stewart, decided in December 1965 to end all outside record company productions, including those of Atlantic Records, to maximise studio opportunities for his own artists. It must have come as a nasty shock to Pickett and Wexler. Being as shrewd a business man as he was, it didn’t take Wexler long to come up with a solution.
Wexler knew he had a winning formula, so he just needed to find a studio where he could replicate the ambience created at Stax. Not far away, in northern Alabama, was a small country studio by the Tennessee River in the Muscle Shoals area, owned and run by Rick Hall. It was Rick Hall who had been involved in sending the master recording of “When a Man Loves a Woman”, Percy Sledge’s first song, to Wexler in New York, wondering if Atlantic were interested. Wexler was indeed interested. He signed Percy Sledge and released the song in March 1966. It reached number one in the USA and went on to become an international hit. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was a hit twice in the UK, reaching number four in 1966 and, on reissue, peaked at number two in 1987. The song was the first gold record released by Atlantic Records. This is the kind of place that Wexler was looking for.
It was called FAME Studios and was the perfect replacement for Stax. Pickett recorded some of his biggest hits there, including “Land of 1,000 Dances” in 1966, which was his third R&B number one and his biggest pop hit, peaking at number six. The song sold over a million copies and received gold certification. It was followed by “Mustang Sally” later in 1966 (R&B number six and Pop number twenty-three) and “Funky Broadway” in 1967 (R&B number one and Pop number eight). The key to the success, as before at Stax, was the quality of the studio and the session men. These included keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist Tommy Cogbill.
Wexler now tried the FAME trick again, this time with a young twenty-four year old singer from Memphis, who had just been signed to Atlantic Records from Columbia. Aretha Franklin arrived at the FAME Studios in the Muscle Shoals area in January 1967, carrying a song that she wanted to record called “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”. When Aretha sat at the piano and started to sing, everyone knew they had struck gold. The studio band joined in and the song was finished that same day. The single was released the following month and reached number one on the R&B chart, while also peaking at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Franklin her first top-ten pop single. That, unfortunately for Rick Hall, was as good as it got. During the recording of Franklin’s second song, a fight had broken out between Aretha’s husband and manager Ted White and a member of the band. Rick Hall’s intervention seemed to make things worse, and Aretha left. Wexler aborted the sessions and the album was completed back in New York, but with an interesting twist, typical of Wexler. He invited some of the FAME studio band to come to New York to finish the recording. The plan duly worked and the album, which took its name from that first Muscle Shoals song, went gold. Wexler was very good at his job! In 1967 he was named Record Executive of the Year for turning Aretha Franklin’s career around.
Not wishing to go back to FAME, Jerry Wexler now found what he was looking for in Memphis again, not at Stax but at American Sound Studios that Chips Moman had set up in 1964, after working at Stax. Towards the end of 1967, Wilson Pickett began recording at American Sound Studios in Memphis with producers Tom Dowd (from Atlantic Records) and Tommy Cogbill (from Muscle Shoals), and began recording songs by Bobby Womack. The songs “I’m in Love”, “Jealous Love”, “I’ve Come a Long Way” and “I Found a True Love” were written for Pickett by Womack in 1967 and 1968. “I’m a Midnight Mover” was co-written by Pickett and Womack, who was the guitarist on all these recordings. Wexler also found time to oversee the recording of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album “Dusty In Memphis” at the same studio.
Wexler made another audacious decision in 1969. He was aware that the FAME rhythm section were thinking of leaving Rick Hall to set up a new studio that they would own and run. He offered to help by getting Atlantic Records to lend them funds to buy and set up the new studio and then guaranteed Atlantic would send artists to the new studio.
Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass), known collectively as The Swampers, duly went ahead with the plan, founding the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, one of the four Muscle Shoals towns. After a slightly bumpy start, the studios became very successful, attracting a wide spectrum of artists, including the Rolling Stones in December 1969. Wexler worked with UK singer Lulu at the new Muscle Shoals Studios, but then, unfortunately for The Swampers, Wexler switched his attention elsewhere within a few months.
In October 1967 Atlantic Records had been sold to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for US$17.5 million. At first the Atlantic/Atco operations were run separately from the group’s other labels (Reprise and Warner Bros.), but slowly Wexler disliked the fact that he was no longer in charge. He moved to Florida and cut down the amount of work he was doing. Nevertheless he still found time to set up his own version of a house band, the Dixie Flyers, at Criteria Studios in Miami Beach, and supervise production for Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Roberta Flack.
In later years Wexler worked with hand-picked artists, including Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Willie Nelson, Duane Allman, Dr. John and Delaney & Bonnie. He came out of retirement to work with Etta James. He had great taste and lived his life surrounded by good music!
In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although he was neither a performer nor a musician, neither a song-writer nor an arranger, as a hands-on producer he had a good ear for the best sounds and a strong sense of what the record-buying public would respond to. He influenced generations of artists and had a big hand in building the careers of some legendary performers.
Jerry Wexler died in Siesta Key, Florida, on January 10th 1917, at the age of 91. It was said of him that he was a white man with a black musical soul. It is fair to ask:
Without him, what would Soul music have been?
Photo 1: Jerry Wexler (Wikipedia)
Photo 2: William P. Gottlieb 2012 (wikimedia Commons)
Photo 3: Tom Beetz 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 4: Wilson Pickett (Wikipedia)
Photo 5: Gene Pugh 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 6: Atlantic Records Trade Ad (Wikimedia Commons)