Jerry Wexler, RIP


Bob from Brockley has a nice tribute to the late Jerry Wexler, one of the most influential and accomplished producers in pop history:

Born in 1917, he was already close to 40 when he produced his first records at Ahmet Ertugen's and Herb Abramson's Atlantic Records, including the incredible music of Professor Longhair, then Ray Charles (meaning he was there at the birth of soul music) and Big Joe Turner (meaning he was there at the birth of rock 'n' roll)….

In the 1960s, Wexler gave us Aretha's "Respect" and "Do Right Woman", Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour" and Dusty in Memphis. In the 1970s, he gave us Dr John's Gumbo and worked on Etta James' best (and funkiest) records. And he enabled Willie Nelson to reinvent country music. Nelson's Shotgun Willie—co-produced with Wexler's friend, the Turkish Arif Mardin, half recorded at Atlantic in New York, half in Memphis—was the key record in "outlaw country", one of my favourite genres. Part of what the album did was reconnect country to its close relation, blues….

He also took Dylan to Muscle Shoals for his wonderful, underrated Slow Train Coming.

Shotgun Willie and Slow Train Coming, by a country star and a rock star, contain some of the best soul music ever recorded. Because they were produced by the same white Jewish guy.


NEXT: Joseph and the Electoral-Colored Dreamcoat

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  1. I was impressed that he was the guy who invented the term “rhythm & blues” to replace “race records.”

  2. “then Ray Charles (meaning he was there at the birth of soul music) ”
    You mean there was no soul before Ray Charles?
    What about Howling Jack?

    “And he enabled Willie Nelson to reinvent country music. ”
    Please. Willie Nelson is the most overrated musician ever. One or two songs and a medoicre character do not make a legend.

  3. I’m afraid I’ve never heard of a pre-Charles soul singer called Howling Jack. I just did a search for him at the All Music Guide, and Mr. Jack seems to have escaped its attention as well. Please fill us in on his musical contributions.

    While you’re at it, I’m curious to know which “one or two” Willie Nelson songs meet your approval.

  4. Most people are only familiar with Willie Nelson’s post-“Red Headed Stranger” output. Although “Shotgun Willie” is IMO his best album, his RCA output (what my family refers to as “The Nehru Jacket-era Willie Nelson”) is his best stuff overall. “Mr. Record Man”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Hello Walls”, “The Party’s Over”, “Healing Hands of Time”… damn, I could go on and on.

    Sure, Willie’s been a caricature of himself since around 1980 or so, but that doesn’t take away from his legacy.

  5. Willie’s been a caricature of himself since around 1980 or so

    He was a caricature of himself in the ’80s, but I think he recorded some very good stuff in the ’90s. Moonlight Becomes You, for example — it might basically be a copy of Stardust, but it’s superior to Stardust. Can’t fault a man for doing something better the second time around.

  6. Howlin’ Wolf, not Howlin’ Jack.
    You get the point. Wexler is getting too much credit. The PR person is going overboard.

  7. Howlin’ Wolf was not a soul singer.

  8. Howlin’ Wolf sang some soul.
    While we are at it, what is the difference between soul, blues, rythm and blues, jazz, chicago jazz, orleans jazz?
    Not much. It is all marketing, putting a different label on very similar music.

  9. Terry, you kind of suck.


    Willy Nelson

    One or two songs and a medoicre character do not make a legend.

    You are plain ignorant. You dont have to be a fan of his even to point out that he’s got decades of recorded music out there, much of it great and influential stuff. He wet girls pants back in the day. Plus, any man considered to have been the first to smoke dope in the white house is pretty fucking hip.


    Terry | August 19, 2008, 8:43pm | #

    While we are at it, what is the difference between soul, blues, rythm and blues, jazz, chicago jazz, orleans jazz?
    Not much. It is all marketing, putting a different label on very similar music.


    jackie wilson, robert johnson, big joe turner, louis armstrong, muddy waters, and professor longhair… if you think a) this is the same fucking music, and b) marketing is what made them seem ‘different’, you are ignorant, retarded, or both.

    try listening to
    “lonely teardrops”
    “crossroads blues”
    “potato head blues”
    “got my mojo worlking”

    …and then claim these are all the same shit.

    That said…

    On Wexler – it shouldnt diminish his importance in any way, but he wasnt as much the direct ‘producer’ of many artists in the technical sense of the term, but more the hollywood sense. He had great taste and guts. he bankrolled the artists on his ear and taste for raw sounds, and left the music-making technicalities to a lot of superstar secondary characters like engineer/producer tom dowd, Arif Mardin, or the fellas at Muscle Shoals and Stax (like Ike Turner, steve cropper, etc) to supply the basic material. He was a taste guru. Not a song producer really. But still, none of the stuff that he was behind would have happened without his passion and influence.

    People who want to see some good background stuff on him and the Atlantic golden era should see the recent Stax history that came out from PBS,

    … check out this as well =

    …Wexler’s not the main character in either story, but he figures importantly in showing how both Dowd & Wexler drove both the growth of jazz, R&B, southern soul, and in the 70s UK rock stuff like cream, derek & the dominoes, then southern rock like Lynrd Skynrd & The Allmans etc. Wexler & Atlantic were a major influence on American music in the second half of the century, and it’s easy to underestimate how important he was in helping changing the way the music world evolved.

  10. Oh, i left out the early R&B example from my list (for big joe turner)…

    this helps

    R&B was just jazz, blues, and pop music merging to make something that used bits of each to make entertainment rather than overly-instrumental or cerebral jazz, without the grimyness of the blues, but with more sass and sex than white pop music.

    good stuff. this is the kind of stuff wexler got bullish in early.

  11. another way of saying the above

    R&B was for white people 🙂

  12. Terry: It wasn’t “marketing” that made those categories. Otherwise they’d bear some resemblance to the layout of a CD store. I agree that those genres are all part of the same family tree, but come on — there’s a pretty enormous difference between the sound of a John Coltrane record, a Solomon Burke record, and a Muddy Waters record.

    As for Howlin’ Wolf — while it’s certainly possible that he recorded some soul songs at some point in his career, I really doubt that he did so before Ray Charles.

    Gilmore: R&B could be pretty damn grimy. At least in its southern incarnations.

  13. Jesse

    You’re talking to the wrong fella here. I used to DJ southern soul and funk from the 60s in college and some club work after, and have 3K records from the era eating up my living room space. my preferences were always toward more of the nastyish r&b/soul/funk stuff. My mecca in the 90s were the guys in the UK keeping the stuff going. keb darge, snowboy, raw deal, et al.

    i was just making a distinction for the guy who sees none as far as where the genres start and end.

  14. p.s. i didnt mean ike turner couple posts above…but isaac hayes.

    not that it matters.

    im often mildly depressed how little most people really appreciate the whole of american music in this century (or at least americans!), because its something pretty amazing to consider in its scope. Most people dont think about how something like charlie christian led to something like jimi hendrix. Or how that led to where we are today.

    anyhoos. RIP Wexler. you were a bastard curmudgeon that made a real difference. or at least could tell that something was just fun fucking stuff.

  15. Altho, as a white folk, I’m not sure I’m qualified to say, but I don’t think it’s right that R&B is for white folks. R&B was the pop music bought by black people, although some white people always listened to it. Jazz’s audience base was mixed from early on; around the time R&B emerged, blues was no longer a big thing in most black communities among the younger generations and was being listened to more by white kids.

    But Gilmore is right that Wexler was not the producer in the technical sense of lots of those records – although he was with lots. Arif Mardin’s contribution is even more underrated!

    On Willie, yes, most post-1980 stuff was well below par, although Across the Borderline (94) was pretty highly rated critically, and I think Milk Cow Blues (2000) is really great.

  16. Oh, and did Ray invent soul? Well, yes and no. I think the biopic “Ray” does a really good job of the moment in 1954 when “I’ve Got A Woman” was recorded – at which Wexler was present He took a gospel song and gospel sound and gospel sensibility and made it about sex. It’s hard to hear now how shocking this was then.

    Of course, there were other musicians who made tracks that we might now think of as soul around this time, but not really.

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