Trying To Get To You

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Jerry Wexler At 90

From yesterday's Wall Street Journal, an article about one of my heroes, Jerry Wexler.

A Cultural Conversation
At 90, He Still Has CDs to Burn
By ASHLEY KAHN
January 10, 2007; Page D9

Sarasota, Fla.

In New York City in the '30s, at a time when jazz was simply
called "hot" and wind-up record players revolved 78 times a minute,
they were the record collectors.

A small, cosmopolitan circle of young hipsters -- WASPs, Jews,
Germans, Turks -- would gather. They prized and hunted down rare
recordings of this music; frequented jam sessions at places like
Jimmy Ryan's and the Famous Door; and argued the relative merits of
men like King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Henry "Red" Allen and Louis
Armstrong.


They were self-appointed archivists, proudly aware that few ears
heard the earthy magic that enraptured theirs. "Oh, we were
absolutely a cult. It was 'we happy few,' as the English say," says
Jerry Wexler. "We were groupies without the sexual component. We
used to get together and listen to records. And maybe we'd smoke a
cigarette without any name on it."

Celebrating his 90th birthday today, Mr. Wexler is revered for his
role as producer and former president of Atlantic Records, the label
he co-led for 22 years with Ahmet Ertegun (who died this past Dec.
16). Together, the Jewish pool-hall hustler from the north end of
Manhattan and the erudite son of a Turkish diplomat educated in
Washington built an empire from a small notion of a company. In
doing so, they helped lead the progress of popular music from rhythm-
and-blues (a term Mr. Wexler himself coined while a reporter) to the
rise of rock, producing music by Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner,
Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the
Rolling Stones.

A Great Fraternity

The two grew from mere collectors to become leaders and legends in
the recording industry, but as Mr. Wexler notes, they weren't the
only ones whose early devotion to jazz paved the way to significant
careers. "That was a great fraternity of music lovers who, very
strangely, became music entrepreneurs and producers and directors
and label owners."

In that coterie there was John Hammond, who brought Benny Goodman,
Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan to Columbia Records, and George
Avakian, who did the same with Miles Davis. Alfred Lion, who started
the Blue Note label, and Bob Thiele, who ran Impulse. Milt Gabler,
whose Commodore Music Shop in midtown Manhattan proved the launching
pad for this group, and who headed Decca, producing Bing Crosby,
Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Nesuhi
Ertegun -- Ahmet's brother -- who became one of the Atlantic troika,
producing John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus.

Try to imagine a parallel in another industry: a group of model
airplane hobbyists later helming Delta, Northwest and
Continental? "This didn't happen, and doesn't happen, anywhere else,
as far as I know: music fans actually becoming principals in the
milieu that they loved and adored," Mr. Wexler says. "Of course, the
contrast to what the business became is enormous. There's nothing
like that anymore."

Tiffany Record Company

Much is not like it was in the business of music. Ask any executive
dealing with the fluctuations and changes of the past five years.
There's irony in Mr. Wexler's complaint, for his triumphs at
Atlantic helped spur general growth in an industry where his owner-
operator role became outdated, and major labels separated along
business and artistic lines. "There are no more producers who run
their own record companies -- not significant companies. There
aren't even staff producers anymore. Because Ahmet and I were in the
studio back in the '50s and '60s, Atlantic had a special aura. We
were regarded as the little Tiffany record company."

Accepting an offer of equity in the company, Mr. Wexler moved to
Atlantic in 1953, having served as a reporter for the trade journal
Billboard and promotion man for a music publisher. The fledgling
label was six years old, an independent fighting for market share
among the major companies of the day.

Mr. Wexler recalls: "I came into Atlantic as the daily op[erations]
man, calling the distributors for payments and raising hell. And
until 1959, I produced with Ahmet. We did everything together. Our
desks were in the same room at 234 W. 56th Street, over Patsy's
restaurant. We started out making R&B -- black music for black
adults. A good way to contrast it is with Motown: They made black
music for American teenagers."

Atlantic operated on a day-to-day basis. "We never had a recording
budget or a sales budget," Mr. Wexler says. "We always made it on
next month's receivables. We had a good roster of repeating artists
and were able to sell enough singles. I remember back in the
early '50s what we had to do was sell 60,000 singles a month. That
paid for our salaries and the operation.

"At a certain point, we had to grow -- a record company can't stay
static. But we never had a grand plan or strategy, only tactics. It
was not a conscious decision to go for the big market and rock 'n'
roll. In the beginning we made sporadic efforts that didn't quite
work out. But eventually we had Cream and Sonny & Cher and the Bee
Gees. Then Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Led Zeppelin."

In 1967, the same year Mr. Wexler guided Aretha Franklin to an
unbroken string of Top 10 hits, he persuaded his partners -- Ahmet
and Nesuhi -- to sell Atlantic to the Warner media conglomerate
(then called Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which was soon bought by Steve
Ross's Kinney Services). It was a decision Mr. Wexler now regrets as
naïvely premature.

The three continued to head Atlantic, but were accountable to
shareholders; the small Tiffany label that had successfully competed
with the majors became a major itself. "In the long run the deal
didn't work out too bad for Ahmet," says Mr. Wexler, referring to
Ertegun's 40-year reign as the leading record man at the Warner
family of labels. Mr. Wexler did not fare as well.

"The fact that we had sold didn't change the way we worked, because
Steve Ross never interfered. But some of those big brains on the
corporate board would come up with ideas like we should poll the
kids at the malls to see what songs Aretha Franklin should record. I
would explode when they'd bring up that stuff."

Retirement

In 1975, Mr. Wexler left his post at Atlantic and became an in-
demand free-lance producer. The next few years saw him create albums
for Bob Dylan, Etta James, Willie Nelson and Dire Straits, and a
memorable soundtrack for the film "Pretty Baby." In 1985, he married
his third wife, the novelist Jean Arnold, and entered a life of
semiretirement.

Today, the Wexlers reside in a gated community in Sarasota, Fla.
Their house overlooks a placid seawater inlet. In the living room,
Grammy awards and other statuettes stand among photographs of family
and friends: Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, the Muscle Shoals rhythm
section. On the walls are original Magritte lithographs, Félix
Vallotton woodcuts, and a portrait of New Orleans piano maestro
Malcolm Rebennack -- known popularly as Dr. John.

"The two albums I'm proudest of producing are Dr. John's 'Gumbo'
and 'Doug Sahm and Band,'" Mr. Wexler says, naming a pair of titles
that cover the richly varied heritage of, respectively, New Orleans
and Texas. "And they both tanked," he adds almost gleefully. "Two of
Atlantic's worst sellers."

Mr. Wexler does little to hide the fact that he has disengaged
himself from the music business. He scoffs when asked if he still
reads Billboard. "In what way could it possibly engage me? I'm not
involved in it. It seems very alien to me."

In fact, Mr. Wexler hides little at all. Two weeks ago, white-
whiskered and T-shirted, he exhibited much of the legendary drive
that enabled him to produce and promote Atlantic's musicians to the
top of the charts. He moved briskly from room to room, and from task
to task: Overseeing his wife's coming surgery. Creating copies of
music from his personal collection -- "I'm always burning CDs for
people. I used to burn a lot for Ahmet." Fielding calls from a new
circle of music enthusiasts wishing to include his words in a
variety of audio and video projects.

"Everybody seems to be coming to my door: BBC, NPR. Well, there
aren't too many people at the age of 90 that are coherent or even
alive. And not everybody can deliver a paragraph extemporaneously."

Mr. Wexler may remain in the full embrace of music, and of his left-
leaning roots: "I'm a liberal, white-wine-drinking, quiche-eating,
foreign-movie-watching, yellow-dog Democrat," he exclaimed at one
point. But the kind of health concerns that come with advanced age
have him mindful of entering his 10th decade. "I'm not ravished by
the idea I'm going to be 90. Please, no paper hats, no ice cream."

The End of an Era

That Mr. Wexler is one of a few surviving members of the music-
focused fraternity of his youth was brought home by last month's sad
news. "I just wrote a letter to [Ahmet Ertegun's widow] Mica saying
that every day when I wake up I don't think Ahmet's gone, I just
think he's not here. I've been playing Jimmy Yancey over and over
and over."

In "Rhythm and the Blues," Mr. Wexler's 1993 autobiography that
describes a path that began on the sidewalks of Manhattan and
reached the highest musical summits, there are two simple words on
the dedication page: "For Ahmet."

"Well, in a way," Mr. Wexler explains, "he handed me a life."

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