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NEWS

 In honor of Jerry Wexler:

 the soul man of

Atlantic Records

wexler-aretha

Jerry Wexler (left), Aretha Franklin (center)

click on photo to enlarge

 by Steven Hashimoto

Let’s talk about Jerry Wexler. If you hadn’t heard, he died Friday, (August 15, 2008) at the age of 91 (and sadly ironic that his death follows Isaac Hayes by a week).  One could argue that few people affected American pop culture, and indeed America itself, as profoundly as Wexler did.

He was born in 1917 in New York City, the son of a Jewish window washer.  Wexler served in the Navy during WWII and later attended Kansas State University. When he joined Atlantic, it was a small label that specialized in "race records."  Wexler helped change the face of that niche music into internationally renowned American R&B and soul music that continues to influence artists and audiences today. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

       The gigantic footprint he left in American music began when he hummed “The Tennessee Waltz”, a song that he liked, to Patti Page, who then recorded it and turned it into a monster hit record in 1950. As an early partner in Atlantic Records in the ‘60s, he was responsible for bringing artists like Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Dusty Springfield, Ruth Brown and many more into the roster, and produced records that introduced the funkier Stax/Volt sound to America. Although his career ran parallel to Berry Gordy’s at Motown, the Motown sound was a more cosmopolitan, urbane type of music, at least compared to the gritty down-home funk of Wexler’s records.

     Prior to Wexler's joining Atlantic records, he was an editor at Billboard Magazine who coined the term "Rhythm and Blues" in 1949, to replace the title "Race Records" for the trade magazine's black music charts.

      I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the soul music of Atlantic, Stax, Volt, Motown and Tamla records were as much a contributing factor to the civil-rights struggles of the ‘60s as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and The Freedom Riders were; the sound of Aretha and Otis and the Wicked Pickett helped to introduce young, white America to the African-American experience. And with hindsight one can see that both the Motown and Atlantic/Stax/Volt musical formula were based on racial reconciliation in the studios; the studio bands of all of those labels were racially mixed, perhaps providing a metaphor for what American society itself could be.

      I find it interesting (again, in hindsight) that some of the most influential introducers of Black music into the mainstream were not Black. Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun were Turkish immigrants, and were the money men behind Atlantic Records, but that description doesn’t really do them justice; it implies that they supplied the capital and then sat back and raked in the profits. In the cultural, political and racial climate of the American ‘50s and ‘60s, selling Black music to White America was by no means a surefire proposition, and enormous props must be given to them for their belief that it could be done, and that it was a worthwhile thing to do. And without Wexler’s radar-like sense for what was good, and without the technical acumen of Atlantic’s recording engineer Tom Dowd, I don’t believe that those records would have made much of an impact outside of regional interest.

And then there were Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, the owners of Stax/Volt, two White Southerners who recorded and put out some of the funkiest records the world will ever hear. Again, no one could have predicted that they would enter into American cultural history, but unfortunately their story did not end in financial success, as Atlantic’s did, even though Atlantic did buy their label and tried to bail them out.

       Wexler’s contributions weren’t confined to the field of R&B; he also signed Led Zeppelin, and produced records for artists such as Santana, Bob Dylan and Dire Straits, but R&B remained the love of his life. When asked what he’d like on his tombstone, he replied “More Bass”. I know that tonight (I’m writing this Saturday afternoon) I’ll play at least one of Wexler’s tunes, maybe “Mustang Sally” or “Land Of 1,000 Dances.”  I hope this week every single one of  you (my fellow musicians) will also pay tribute to him at one of your gigs. 

Steven Hashimoto is a Chicago area musician, composer, graphic artist and writer.

 Contact him at: www.myspace.com/stevenhashimoto

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