Jerry Wexler, who died Friday at the age of 91, brought an extraordinary range of interests to the work of making records, and perhaps for that reason he became one of popular music’s greatest pioneers. Like his friend and fellow blues obsessive John Hammond, Wexler was the right man in the right place at the right time, and it’s safe to say that if Jerry Wexler had never been born, American popular music would have taken a much different course.
As a young journalist under the spell of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain and John O’Hara, Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace the “race music” term used to ghettoize black music. As a producer and partner in Atlantic Records, Wexler helped turn R&B into a commercial as well as an artistic force. He took young Aretha Franklin, whose career was going down the drain after some jazz-flavored recordings for Columbia Records, and brought out the sound that made her the Queen of Soul: with her first two Wexler-produced singles, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect,” Franklin became a superstar. Wexler went on to produce Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and Dusty Springfield, and cultivated a relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records that brought its powerhouse soul music roster to a worldwide audience. Like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who invited him to join Atlantic in 1953, Wexler was a hipster with business sense and invincible confidence in his own tastes, and (like the Erteguns) he was usually right.
When Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian in the late Seventies, he abandoned his previous seat-of-the-pants recording philosophy and asked Wexler to produce his first gospel album, Slow Train Coming. Wexler, not knowing the turn in Dylan’s life, was surprised to find himself recording a disc of hellfire Christian ditties:
Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals — as Bob did — but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived. That’s when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral . . . I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel . . . [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, “Bob, you’re dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I’m hopeless. Let’s just make an album.
The work paid off. Slow Train Coming remains one of Dylan’s best sounding records, and the strongest of the gospel works that made everybody’s jaws drop in the early Eighties.
Wexler’s 1993 memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, is a long out of print collectors’ item, but worth tracking down for great stories about musicians and the music business.