Gerald "Jerry" Wexler (January 10, 1917 – August 15, 2008) was a music journalist-turned music producer, and was one of the main record industry players behind music from the 1950s through the 1980s. He coined the term "rhythm and blues", and was integral in signing and/or producing many of the biggest acts of the time, including Ray Charles, the Allman Brothers, Chris Connor, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Wilson Pickett, Dire Straits, Dusty Springfield and Bob Dylan. Wexler was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 2017 to the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Wexler was born in The Bronx, New York City, the son of a German Jewish father and a Polish Jewish mother; he grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. Despite graduating from George Washington High School at age 15, he dropped out of the City College of New York after two semesters. In 1935, Wexler enrolled at what is now Kansas State University, where he studied intermittently for several years. Following his service in the Army, Wexler became a serious student, and he graduated from Kansas State with a B.A. in journalism in 1946.
|Rock and Roll; Respect; Interview with Jerry Wexler, 22:01, WGBH Open Archive|
During his time as an editor, reporter, and writer for Billboard Magazine, Wexler coined the term "rhythm and blues". In June 1949, at his suggestion, the magazine changed the name of the Race Records chart to Rhythm & Blues Records. Wexler wrote, "'Race' was a common term then, a self-referral used by blacks...On the other hand, 'Race Records' didn't sit well...I came up with a handle I thought suited the music well – 'rhythm and blues.'... [It was] a label more appropriate to more enlightened times."
Wexler became a partner in Atlantic Records in 1953. There followed classic recordings with Ray Charles, the Drifters and Ruth Brown. With Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, he built Atlantic Records into a major force in the recording industry.
In the 1960s, he recorded Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and oversaw production of Dusty Springfield's highly acclaimed Dusty in Memphis and Lulu's New Routes albums. He also cultivated a tight relationship with Stax Records, was an enthusiastic proponent of the then-developing Muscle Shoals Sound and launched the fortunes of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In 1967 he was named Record Executive of the Year for turning Aretha Franklin's career around. His work in this decade put Atlantic at the forefront of soul music.
In 1968, he and Ahmet Ertegun signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic Records on the recommendation of singer Dusty Springfield and from what they knew of the band's guitarist, Jimmy Page, from his performances with The Yardbirds. With its strong catalog, Atlantic Records was purchased by Warner Bros. Records in 1968. In 1975, Wexler moved from Atlantic to its parent Warner Records.
In 1979, Wexler produced Bob Dylan's controversial first "born again" album, Slow Train Coming at Muscle Shoals; a single from that album, "Gotta Serve Somebody", won a Grammy award in 1980. When Wexler agreed to produce, he was unaware of the nature of the material that awaited him. "Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals - as Bob did - but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived", recalled Wexler. "That's when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral... I like the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel... [But] I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, 'Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I'm hopeless. Let's just make an album.'"
Wexler spent a majority of the 1990s living on David's Lane in East Hampton, NY, where he shared living space with a Chinese family who aided him with daily functions and kept him company.
Interviews and archive footage of Wexler are featured prominently in the 2000 documentary film Immaculate Funk, which explores the roots of the classic American R&B and soul music.
Jerry Wexler died at his home in Sarasota, Florida, on August 15, 2008, from congestive heart failure. Asked by a documentary filmmaker several years before his death what he wanted on his tombstone, Wexler replied "Two words: 'More bass'."
Jerry Wexler, who as a reporter for Billboard magazine in the late 1940s christened black popular music with the name 'rhythm and blues,' and who as a record producer helped lead the genre to mainstream popularity, propelling the careers of Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and other performers, died on Friday at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 91.
Legendary record producer Jerry Wexler, who helped shape R&B music with influential recordings of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and other greats, and later made key recordings with the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, has died, said his son, Paul. He was 91. Paul Wexler said his father died at home in Sarasota, Fla., about 3:45 a.m. Friday of heart disease; the death was first confirmed to The Associated Press by David Ritz, co-author of Wexler's 1993 memoir, "Rhythm and the Blues."