A legend in music passed on today at the age of 91 – Jerry Wexler, the man who (among many other things) coined the term ‘Rhythm & Blues’ while working as a writer for Billboard magazine at the end of the 1940s. In addition to shaping the language of the music press, Wexler joined forces with Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in 1953 in order to record and promote up and coming artists such as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and the Drifters.
Wexler served as A&R man and as producer for the entire spectrum of popular music from the 50s to the 90s, while making Atlantic one of the most eclectic major labels ever. Among the artists Wexler produced and promoted during that time were Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Charles Mingus, Sonny & Cher, Crosby Stills and Nash, and many others.
He established ties with Stax records and made soul music a mainstream concern in the 60s. He also helped to develop a music scene and an accompanying recording centre in Muscle Shoals Alabama, FAME records, which served as a base of operations for acts such as the Allman Brothers, Etta James, and Candi Staton.
Wexler stayed at Atlantic until the mid-70s. But even after his association with Ertegun ended, Wexler continued to work with a wide range of artists, from Bob Dylan (Wexler produced Dylan’s 1979 album Slow Train Coming), to George Michael, with whom he recorded an early version of the Wham hit single “Careless Whisper”. He was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Jerry Wexler retired from the music business in the 1990s, having done more than his share to help drive popular music as a potent social force. His constant drive to develop artists should serve as an example to everyone in the industry that the long view pays off when it comes to making stars out of musicians; it takes time, respect, and passion for art, all of which Wexler had to spare. And his interest across the musical spectrum – R&B, soul, hard rock, pop, folk-rock, and jazz – should serve as a reminder that good music and talent transcends genres, demographics, and cultural backgrounds.
Thanks Jerry. Here’s hoping we’ll see your like again, although I sadly suspect we won’t.
Read this article about Jerry Wexler for a more in-depth overview of his life and work.