Record producer Jerry Wexler dies

At Billboard, coined the term 'rhythm & blues'

NEW YORK -- 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.

Wexler began using FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., as a home base for sessions. "More than any other locale or individual, Muscle Shoals changed my life -- musically and every which way," Wexler wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "Rhythm & the Blues: A Life in American Music."

The first artist he brought to Muscle Shoals was Franklin, whose 1967 debut, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," redefined soul music.

As the '60s wore on, Wexler grew more involved with producing and much less with running Atlantic, though he was still closely involved in signing Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band and Donnie Hathaway. 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 such acts as Bob Dylan, the Drifters, Carlos Santana, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Big Joe Turner, the J. Geils Band, Dusty Springfield, Cher, Willie Nelson and Kim Carnes.

In his autobiography, Wexler wrote that with the help of Karen Berg, they signed the B-52's, Dire Straits and Gang of Four. During the latter half of the 1970s, he produced James' "Deep in the Night," Dylan's Christian album "Slow Train Coming," Carnes "Sailin' " and Dire Straits "Communique," among others.

Later, Wexler was involved with "The Wiz" soundtrack, the Dylan album "Saved" and recordings by a young George Michael, Billy Vera, Lou Ann Barton and Kenny Drew Jr.

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," which was then the name of the chart tracking such music.

He stayed at Billboard until 1951, when he went to work for Big Three, the music publishing arm of MGM Records.

The following year, Atlantic tried to recruit him, but Wexler said he would only join if he was made a partner, and nothing happened. A year later, when Abramson joined the Army, Atlantic came back with another offer and this time agreed to take him in as a partner.

Wexler was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with its second class in 1987.
comments powered by Disqus