Saturday, August 16, 2008

RIP: Jerry Wexler, Last of The Creative Core of Atlantic Records

Jerry Wexler, January 10, 1917 - August 15, 2008, record producer and executive, creative genius.

Record Producer, Jerry Wexler, died, Friday, April 15, 2008. Wexler's influence on popular music and jazz from the 1950's until most recently is incalculable. Jerry Wexler was one of the key creative geniuses at Atlantic Records early on helping launch the careers of Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, the Drifters, Joe Turner, and T Bone Walker. He helped bring Stax records and the Memphis Soul Sound to Atlantic Records and helped launch the famous Muscle Shoals Recording studio that not only recorded tremendous rhythm and blues albums and southern rock, but also housed sessions for the Rolling Stones work on Sticky Fingers. Every day staples of 1960's soul were either produced, signed, or influenced by Wexler included: Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MG's, Solomon Burke, the Coasters, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, among other huge soul artists.

One of Wexler's greatest moves was bringing Aretha Franklin, a powerful gospel singer who was singing lame pop and show tunes for Columbia records where Wexler along with engineer Tom Dowd and a cadre of powerhouse session musicians, propelled Aretha Franklin into super stardom. The album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You included a gassed up, smoking hot version of the Otis Redding hit, "Respect," which under Aretha's spell became a huge feminist anthem. The breakthrough of Aretha Franklin's huge success and greater exposure of the Memphis and Muscle Shoals sound lead to a massive string of crossover hits where previously white audiences typically seldom went beyond the rather polite sound of Motown up to that point. While the British Invasion and Psychedelia dominated the airwaves, the sweet soul sounds of Motown and dynamite explosion of the Atlantic records soul artists not only consistently reached the charts but influenced the blues and R&B oriented British rock bands like the Rolling Stones, which ever act was Eric Clapton's current address and Led Zeppelin. Wexler brought English hit singer Dusty Springfield to Memphis to create Dusty in Memphis a huge hit record bringing out a mellower side of the Memphis players lead by Ms. Springfield's sultry lead vocals.

In 1969, Wexler and Atlantic President, Ahmet Ertegan expanded Atlantic's influence signing latter day Yardbird Jimmy Page and his new band, Led Zeppelin to Atlantic Records. Their first album and each subsequent album struck gold many times over as Led Zeppelin was the dominant super group of the 70's. Also to Wexler's credit, he helped secure contracting the Rolling Stones who had signed away their publishing rights and had a miserable record deal with Allen Klein and the English Decca label. In rapid succession, the Stones released two of their finest albums through Atlantic, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street.

Ahmet Ertegan sold Atlantic records to Warner Brothers in 1969; however, the Atlantic creative core of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin remained intact through most of the 1970's. Wexler picked up a talented country songwriter whose efforts recording his own material went largely unnoticed up to this point, Willie Nelson. Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages gave Nelson a new sound and a new image that was perfect for the Outlaw movement rescuing country music from the sappy strings and sentimental lyrics that dominated country music unless the artists' names were Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. By the end of the decade, members of that core began to branch off in different directions. Jerry Wexler was influential on the early career of Dire Straits producing their second album, Communique. In 1979, Wexler brought Mark Knopfler along with him, gathered together some Muscle Shoals sidekicks, to record Bob Dylan's first Grammy album, Slow Train Coming.

Wexler eased up considerably in the 80's preferring to work more behind the scenes, but his contributions to the broadest section of popular music: jazz, rhythm & blues, blues, rock, and country.

There can be no full accounting for just how enormous the contributions of the creative core of Atlantic records was or their incredible influence on the industry and the direction of contemporary music.

Jerry Wexler was the last man standing. In recent years, Ahmet Ertegan, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin have all passed away. Their approach, respect for their artists, and ability to produce extremely popular enduring music without resorting to the gimmicks and commercialism so prevalent with other record labels, has become largely a lost art in the last two decades.

Where the music industry is now dominated by essentially three mega-international corporations with a fourth playing a lesser roll, about 80% of the music industry rests in the control of the Universal Music Group, Sony Music, The Warner Group, and EMI. No longer are there brilliant local or regional labels like Chess, Motown, or Stax nor are their labels directed by entrepreneurs whose love of music not corporate success guided their judgment. During the 1950's and 1960's, Atlantic Records was big enough to have a nationwide reach but small enough where Wexler, Dowd, and Mardin could be intimately involved in the creative process.

The Atlantic label is still applied to some releases for the Warner group, a token reminder of a once mighty creative empire. For artists recently signed as Atlantic artists, to see any connection between them and the wealthy catalog of marvelous music that Jerry Wexler helped create is almost impossible to detect.

God bless you, Jerry Wexler. Your legend lives on every time a listener sits on the dock of the bay, needs a little respect, yearns for a whole lotta love, or could just use a big serving of brown sugar. That slow train is coming that will take listeners like this humble writer away to enjoy your spirit for all eternity. Thank you.

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