Monday, August 18, 2008

Jerry Wexler has left the building

Jerry Wexler is as much of a hero to me as is Ahmet Ertegun, Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, Brent Ritzel, Alan McGee, and Gerard Cosloy are. What do all of these men have in common? All are men who are or were principals in record companies run by people who actually gave a damn about the art, the quality of entertainment coming out of their companies. It's not likely that you'd see (much) cotton-candy caliber output from their respective labels: Atlantic, Sun, Stax, Stiff, Happy Tails, Creation, and both Matador and Homestead, respectively. And if they ever did release cotton candy (in Stiff's case, at least), they did it with a nudge and a wink, to remind you this is supposed to be fun, too.

Jerry Wexler got his start at Billboard, and during his tenure there, coined the term "rhythm and blues" in order to grant legitimacy and dignity to what was dismissively called "race music". While at Billboard, Ahmet Ertegun begged him to work with him at Atlantic; Wexler agreed ONLY if he could get an ownership stake. The two of them were an unbeatable team; Ahmet was the public face of the label, glad-handing the artists and DJs, and staying out all night in clubs finding the next-best thing. Coupled with that was Jerry Wexler's keen strength in the office, promoting tirelessly to DJs and scribes, whipping their excellent product up the charts. Not only was he a very hard-working man, you knew he loved the music more so than the business end. Under Ahmet and Jerry, Atlantic was the most successful label which released GOOD music, be it East coast R&B, wonderful jazz of the likes of Coltrane, southern soul, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin... Atlantic always earned their peers' respect with hard work and amazing releases from an incredible roster.

Not all Wexler did was laudable; his decision to sell the label to the organization which ultimately became Warner Communications looked like a slight misjudgment in some ways at the time. Further, related the sale to WCI, Wexler's role is questionable at best in the shameful way Stax lost their entire back catalog to Atlantic when they opted to sever ties with Atlantic. These mistakes are recounted as well as his finest triumphs, in his excellent (and even-handed; he is sometimes his own harshest critic) autobiography Rhythm And The Blues, still available used for obscenely high prices from Amazon. I purchased my copy from the Strand in NYC, and wouldn't you know it, it was inscribed to some unknown person by Mr. Wexler himself.

I wish I'd had the chance to tell Jerry Wexler himself thank you for the countless contributions that both he and Atlantic Records gave to our culture. Without his foresight, Stax would have remained only regionally successful, denying us Booker T & the MG's and Otis. Aretha Franklin's career very well may have petered out after an unsuccessful MOR attempt at Columbia Records. Ahmet Ertegun might not have chosen such a results-driven-with ears partner or not decided to sell out to Warners, which would have made Atlantic Records' road that much tougher in the independent distribution channels. If you take the George Bailey-scenario, "what- would- music- look- like-without- Jerry- Wexler", the end result would be a gaping void of amazingly wonderful music. Jerry Wexler died last week of congenital heart failure, at the age of 91; his legacy will forever be as huge as the A on the red-and-black Atlantic 45s. Never again will the music industry see quite someone as rarefied as Jerry Wexler; the highest level of respect is due. Thank you, Jerry Wexler, and may your legacy forever burn brightly.


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