Jerry Wexler, Unwitting Inventor of 'R&B' – Interview

By | November 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM

New York – Jerry Wexler is the classic record business guy.

For more than three decades, Wexler, as co-owner of Atlantic Records and later senior VP at Warner Bros. Records, signed and worked with scores of vocalists and instrumentalists, and produced some of the greatest rock and soul records ever made.

Now 86 and long retired, Wexler is still applauded as an insightful producer, crafty deal-maker and promoter, divining rod of hit songs and occasional writer of songs and liner notes.

“He is one of my greatest heroes,” Sire Records founder Seymour Stein says. “Jerry is a consummate record man and, along with Ahmet Ertegun, his old partner at Atlantic, our foremost elder statesman.”

Wexler helped create Atlantic’s “second generation” legacy – the music he refers to as “immaculate funk” – with great gospel/blues-influenced tunes, tour de force vocals, killer grooves and meticulously crafted arrangements.

The list of artists Wexler signed, produced or co-produced at Atlantic includes LaVern Baker, the Drifters and Ray Charles in the ’50s; Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin in the ’60s; and Duane Allman, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack in the ’70s. At Warner Bros. in the ’80s, he signed Dire Straits and the B-52’s and produced Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana.

Wexler learned the music business ropes during a 42-month stint as a reporter at Billboard, starting in 1949, when the magazine was a mere 55 years old. He remembers those years “like it was yesterday.”

Q: WHAT WAS IT LIKE STARTING OUT AT BILLBOARD?

A: When I started there, (I made) $75 a week, and I ended up at $150 a week. That was good money back then.

Q: WHEN DID YOU GRADUATE FROM CUB REPORTER TO A PRESENCE IN THE NEWSROOM?

A: I became a presence almost immediately. I was the only guy who knew how to use a semi-colon! Seriously, I don’t think there were any really gifted prose-ologists on the staff, but I prided myself on my writing back then.

Q: WHAT WERE SOME OF THE STORIES YOU COVERED?

A: I covered a lot of big stories, including the rise of (royalties collection group) BMI as a force, a mechanism, to open the lid to the new music that eventually became rock’n’roll. Also, I covered the terrific fights between ASCAP and BMI, and the performance-rights-group court consent decree (modified by the courts in 1950).

I’m sure they bored the Billboard reading public. But I had terrific sources at both ASCAP and BMI – people inside, on the board – and the story of these consent decrees, providing rate-court arbitration on challenged licensing rates, changed all music (business) to come.

Q: YOU ALSO DID RECORD REVIEWS, RIGHT?

A: Oh, yeah. The staff of four of us did about 100 records a week. We even did classical. With those, we made up as many sonorous phrases as we could think of – because none of us had the slightest idea of what we were talking about!

There was a record-review night. Guys from the labels would come up and show us their wares. Syd Nathan (of King) would come by; Mitch Miller (of Columbia) would drop by. That’s where Syd discovered young Seymour Stein! We all took records home over the weekend to review if we thought they were good enough to make it in the Spotlight section, or whatever it was called back then.

Q: YOU ARE GENERALLY CREDITED WITH CHANGING WHAT WAS KNOWN AS THE RACE RECORDS CHART IN BILLBOARD TO RHYTHM & BLUES, A TERM YOU COINED. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

A: We were trying to bring up the terminology a little bit. It leached up to us that somehow the term “race records” was considered pejorative by some people. So we tried to make a decision.

It was really against my wishes. I figured it’s in the purview of people being described to describe themselves. You know, it has been a big thing, (using terms) from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “African-American.”

And back then, the word “race,” used as an adjective, always had a great deal of esteem attached to it. Because, back in the day, when you called a man a “race man,” that was a man who lived, exuded and swore by his essential Negritude.

Back in Harlem, they would say, “That man is a race man to the bricks” – meaning from the top of his head to the ground. So “race records” was OK with me. However, I wasn’t the one who made the decision.

Back then we closed the book on Friday and came back to work on a Tuesday. So we had a meeting on a Friday and discussed it, and asked, “What are you going to call it?” So I threw in the term “rhythm and blues,” and they said, “That sounds OK.”

The next week, and from then on, the heading became that.

Q: WHAT WAS DIFFERENT ABOUT MUSIC JOURNALISM IN THAT ERA?

A: Traditionally, trade papers used the telephone (to get stories). Now they also use the Internet, e-mail and so on.

But, man, in my day, I would use “shank’s mare.” I would go on foot to the top floor of the Brill Building, poke my head in every office and work my way down.

I’d go over to 11th Avenue to the record jobbers and the jukebox guys, and ask ’em, “What’s hot? What you got piled up in front?” That’s why it was so great. We didn’t do it the easy way. We went out and walked and saw and met our contacts. Every week.

Back then, I believe we did not depend on promotional puffs from record companies. We did not print them. We did all true reporting, to my recollection.

Here’s another thing. I met everybody in the business: music publishers, song pluggers, producers, label owners. All sorts of characters. Those were the days of the crazy barons like Nathan, Herman Lubinsky (of Savoy), Lew Chudd (of Imperial) and Art Rupe (of Specialty).

I saw Little Richard’s Specialty contract one time, and it specified that the more records he sold, the smaller a royalty (rate) he got!

Q: WHEN YOU LEFT BILLBOARD, YOU BEGAN A TRULY AMAZING CAREER AS A TALENT SCOUT, PRODUCER AND ENTREPRENEUR. WHO IS THE MOST COMPLEX PERFORMER YOU EVER ENCOUNTERED?

A: Donny Hathaway, without question. He was so complex because his musical thinking went to planes of satori that one couldn’t imagine. And in sessions, when he would start to talk about the “projection of music theory,” going into one of his extended excursions into the empyrian to other musicians, or to me privately, nobody could keep up with him.

Donny was very idiosyncratic in sessions. One time I brought up Al Jackson from Booker T. & the MG’s to play drums on some of his sessions. Now, if there ever was an in-time drummer, it was Al Jackson.

But Donny kept saying, “Your two (beat) is in the wrong place.” It was totally incorrect; Jackson was perfect. This went on for hours. We went back to the drums, the snare; tried this, tried that. Then, finally, Donny suddenly said, “That’s it!” And it was the same thing Jackson had been playing all along!

Q: WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THE STATE OF THE RECORD INDUSTRY TODAY?

A: I don’t keep up that much. All I know is that the industry is in an awful state, and that conglomeration, agglomeration, has certainly taken a lot of the soul out of the business. And what with the problems of downloading and counterfeiting, things are in such terrible shape – witness the decimation of staffs, the unbelievable firings. It’s just a tragedy.

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