Trying To Get To You

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ruminations On Jerry Wexler

Jerry Wexler was one of my heroes. As I got into soul music in my late teens, it seemed as though the credit "Produced by Jerry Wexler" was on every album I bought. Aretha Franklin. Ray Charles. Sam & Dave. Wilson Pickett. The Drifters. And on and on. In possession of an obsessive mind, I soon began reading pretty much everything I could about him, and as I made the decision to be in the record business, he quickly became someone I aspired to be.

I admired and identified with him tremendously. He was an intellectual misfit, voraciously reading and loving the work of American writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald - yet he was an underachieving student. His identified completely as a Jew, yet he was a vociferous atheist. He distrusted authority, but he spoke with certitude of taste. His opinion was not just another opinion. He did not suffer fools at all. And, of course, he had amazing taste – able to see greatness in artists no matter what the style, no matter what the genre, no matter what the era. It’s a long and varied road from Joe Turner to Ray Charles, from the Drifters to Wilson Pickett, from Clapton to Led Zeppelin, from Dr. John to the B-52’s and from Willie Nelson to the Gang of Four, but Wexler was able to discern what was special about all of them as musicians and as people, not always in that order, and then he guided, prodded, cajoled, begged and inspired them to create their best work.

Of course, it the triumph he shared with Aretha Franklin that Wexler will be most remembered, and lionized for. He took a supremely talented woman who was hyped as the greatest jazz voice since Billie Holiday - then completely miscast as a singer of pop and lite jazz, and under his watchful eye, had her recreate herself as the most important female vocalist – musically, culturally, spiritually – of the second half of the twentieth century. How did he do it? He created the space for her be herself. “I just sat her down at the piano and let her be herself,” he later said. What an marvelous thing – letting someone be themselves. (And believe me, I’ve worked in the record business long enough to know that letting someone be themselves is the unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule.) If soul was the musical expression of a race of people ready to affirm who and what they were and demand what they wanted (which resonated universally), than Aretha was the epitome of that expression. The miracle of soul music (and Wexler’s legacy) is that it is an affirmation valuing personal authenticity that will resonate as long as people listen to music.

When I had my first interview to be an intern at Atlantic Records in the early 90’s, my vision of Atlantic was what it had been in the mid-60’s. I was bursting at the seams with excitement and tremendously naive. I remember excitedly asking the H.R. person I was talking to, “Does Jerry Wexler still work here?” She smiled, a look of, “I don’t believe this kid,” and told me that he had left the company over 15 years previously. I loved interning at Atlantic – but I was working on Winger, Skid Row and INXS - not the Drifters, Sam & Dave and Donnie Hathaway.

My second summer at Atlantic, I interned for Jerry’s son, Paul Wexler, a wonderful guy, and we became friends. (Paul – if you’re reading this, email me – I’d love to reconnect.) By my second summer in the record biz, I knew enough that I had to play things cooler. When I found out whose son Paul was, I didn’t approach him and go, “Wow! You’re Jerry Wexler’s son! Tell me everything!” I just did my job for him and we began to talk about our mutual love of the Grateful Dead (Paul turned me on to the great Binghamton, 5/2/70 show, a legendary one in Dead-lore) and other artists. The best compliment Paul gave me was one day a couple of weeks into my internship, when he said, “You know your stuff.”

Eventually, Paul talked to me a bit of what it was like to be Jerry Wexler’s son. It wasn’t easy. Jerry was on the road for most of Paul’s childhood, and when he was home, it was all about him and the business. Jerry was opinionated to the point of arrogance, even with his kids, so when Paul would play some early Rolling Stones (consisting of covers of many songs that Jerry had produced in their original versions) or the Grateful Dead, Jerry often would irritably inquire, “What are you playing this shit for?” And being the son of a famous/legendary father is never uncomplicated. Paul told me a story that when he met Eric Clapton, Clapton shook his hand and said, “tough act to follow.” I learned that there was a great price paid for all of that success. And I knew it left its mark because Paul never referred to his father as “Dad.” It was always “Jerry.”

(This was in the early 90’s – judging from the tone in which Paul spoke of his father in the obituaries today, I am guessing that they got closer in the past 15 years before Jerry’s death. I certainly hope that was the case.)

Jerry Wexler was a giant of American music. It's almost impossible to gauge the impact he had. But whether it's the legacy of Aretha in singers like Mariah & Christina (Jerry hated Mariah - thought she oversang), the term R&B itself (Jerry invented it), the legacy of Stax, the rise of Southern Rock and so much more, Jerry Wexler was a contribution to it all.

What a thing to be.


Hieronymus Murphy said...

A wonderful tribute to a great man - thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Jerry's letter to the NY Times is priceless...

Eve Siegel said...

a very nice tribute. just a thought - this is the third article i've read that referred to Wexler's atheism. Curious that you also mentioned his religion. Have you ever noticed that articles never mention a person's religion when they are Christian, but always mention when a person's jewish?

Ben Lazar said...

Well, I think his religion, or lack thereof, is interesting, given that he was a master producer of a kind of music that is completely linked to church and Christianity. Many of the artists he worked with were religious Christians (Aretha, Dylan in his "Slow Train Coming" period, etc.) so I do think it's pretty ironic that the great producer of this music was a Jewish Atheist.

Eve Siegel said...

Ben, I'll respectfully disagree. IMHO Aretha's music was no more churchy than Otis, Sam & Dave, many Stax artists, et. al. No one mentions religions of Steve Cropper, Al Stewart, etc.