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Jerry Wexler, who invented the term “rhythm & blues” as a Billboard journalist in the late 1940s and went on to cultivate the careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin as a partner at Atlantic Records, has died. He was 91.
He had been ill for a couple of years with congenital heart disease and died Friday at his home in Siesta Key, Fla.
Wexler had a stint at Warner Bros. Records, but he made his mark at Atlantic. If label founders Herb Abramson and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun led the way into exploring rhythm and blues, it was Wexler who ultimately led Atlantic deep into Southern soul.
Atlantic already had established itself as an up-and- coming R&B label thanks to hits from such artists as Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, Stick McGhee and the Clovers, as Charles, just signed, was waiting in the wings. In 1965, Wexler signed an Atlantic distribution deal for the Memphis-based label Stax, which was putting out records by Carla Thomas. Before long, Stax began a golden era of hits from Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Otis Redding, among others.
As the ’60s wore on, Wexler grew more involved with producing and much less with running Atlantic. He left Atlantic for good in 1975, then resurfaced two years later as vp of A&R for Warner Bros. Records.
Wexler also worked with Bob Dylan, the Drifters, Carlos Santana, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the J. Geils Band, Dusty Springfield, Cher and Willie Nelson.
Wexler was born Jan. 10, 1917, in the Bronx. After graduating from the school now known as Kansas State University and a stint in the Army, he was hired in 1947 at BMI, writing continuity copy for radio stations and plugging the organization’s songs.
Later that year a friend recommended him to Billboard, where he was hired with a starting pay of $75 a week. At the magazine, Wexler invented the term “rhythm & blues” to replace the moniker “race records.” He stayed at Billboard until 1951, when he went to work for Big Three, the music publishing arm of MGM Records, before joining Atlantic in 1953.
Wexler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Ed Christman is a senior correspondent for Billboard.
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