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    Behind The Sound - Jerry Wexler
    by Jeff Kaliss

    From his youth as an avid record collector in the '30s to his stint as a writer for Billboard in the '40s to his joining the nascent Atlantic Records in the early '50s, Jerry Wexler , a New York Jew, found himself head-over-heels in love with a genre of black music for which he'd invent a name: rhythm-and-blues. He's still in love. "It's music that reached me and touched me," he told this writer. "And I found a methodology and a venue where I could go and make records in this idiom, with musicians who knew how to play it . . . truthfully, in time, and in tune, simply, with a deep blues feeling."

    The methodology made Wexler and his "venue," Atlantic, far more money than either would have imagined, primarily because of the unanticipated evolution, later in the '50s, of r&b into rock 'n' roll, and its appeal to young whites in search of soul and something to dance to. "It afforded a relief from the blandness of white culture," Wexler explained to me. "Generations had been raised on very bland popular music, everything from Victor Herbert to Perry Como. . . It was a steady diet of Hershey bars. . . [but] black music awakened dormant appetites."

    As a producer, executive, and sometime songwriter, Wexler helped deliver a number of notable talents to the bourgeoning market, ultimately extending himself to those white performers who played and sang with their own kind of soul. Among the acts he produced albums for, almost all on Atlantic, were the Drifters and Ray Charles in the '50s; Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield in the '60s; more Aretha, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, and Dire Straits in the '70s; Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana in the '80s; and Etta James in the '90s. He also worked with Bobby Darin, Wilson Pickett, Sonny and Cher, Otis Redding, King Curtis, and Duane Allman.

    Their soulfulness aside, that collection of stars covers a variety of personalities and musical approaches, and Wexler's abiding love of good music seems to have left him flexible and adaptable, able to bring to each artist the variety of Wexler's own experience. In his autobiography, "Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music," written with David Ritz and published in 1993, Wexler credits Milt Gabler of Decca Records with inspiring him in "the natural art of bending and blending genres" when Wexler was still writing for Billboard. Wexler subsequently turned Mitch Miller on to the output of country songwriter Hank Williams, which "added momentum to mainstreaming country music."

    Wexler describes three kinds of producers: the documentarian, like Leonard Chess; the star in his own right, like Phil Spector; and the enhancer, like himself, who must "find the right song, the right arranger, the right band, the right studio --- in short, do whatever it takes to get the best out of the artist." Sometimes that involved Wexler in heavy parenting of a project, sometimes not. "With Ray [Charles]," he recalls, "I got out of the way, but with Mac [Malcolm Rebennack, aka Dr. John] I like to think I was part of the way."

    Although Wexler "lost my maiden" as a producer with LaVern Baker, Ray Charles was his first superstar, and one of the first big money-makers for Atlantic. "Our main job," says Wexler, "was to make certain the studio was ready when he was available and once having recorded him, to present him to as large a public as possible." The team hit big with "What'd I Say" which "reached out and grabbed the dance-crazed youth market" in the late '50s "with a song whose sexy hump-and-pump spirit horny teenagers found irresistible." Other hits followed.

    With a wealth of eclectic musical knowledge dating back decades, Wexler also proved a wizard at providing performers with the right songs. He and Atlantic partner Ahmet Ertegun produced the first incarnation of the Drifters, and Wexler, in a truly innovative arrangement, later passed production of the group on to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The results took form as some of the wildest and most soulful top tunes of the late '50s and early '60s. By this time, rock 'n' roll was a booming industry, and "'commercial' was not a pejorative for me," Wexler admits. He did not, however, favor dumbing down lyrics to reach an immature white audience, and lauded Ray Charles's delivery of "grown-up" material.

    Wexler's chief partner at Atlantic was Ahmet Ertegun, who signed such groups as Cream, the Bee Gees, and Buffalo Springfield and who perhaps had a longer-range view of the possibilities of rock, less anchored to black r&b than Wexler's.

    Shortly after scoring with Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" and after that singer's untimely death in 1967, Wexler found a champion in Aretha Franklin, who'd been previously signed by John Hammond. Seeking alternatives to the New York scene, Wexler had become enamored of a studio and its associated musicians in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and felt that Franklin "was a natural for the Southern side of recording." Franklin's connection with Wexler was one of his longest, and spawned an unusually successful string of albums and songs, including a cover of Redding's "Respect," "Chain of Fools," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin from a suggestion by Wexler. "From the start," says Wexler, "I saw (Aretha) had raised the ante and upgraded the art form."

    If he helped launch Franklin's career, Wexler can also be credited with helping guide country legend Willie Nelson through a fortuitous turn in his musical history. Wexler knew that Nelson's reputation as an "outlaw" or "renegade" had put him on the outs with the Nashville country hierarchy, but decided to "just let Willie be Willie." The two albums they made together in the early '70s at New York and Muscle Shoals, "Shotgun Willie" and "Phases and Stages," added several staples to Nelson's songlist, including his perennial concert opener "Whiskey River" and "Bloody Mary Morning," and dressed Nelson for success with a wild, wizened image which helped remake country and widen its appeal. In another bag during this period, Wexler produced Dr. John's "Gumbo" as a celebration of the New Orleans spirit in which John/Rebennack had been raised, and with which Wexler had been entranced since recording there with Professor Longhair in the early '50s. As noted above, Wexler experienced a far greater personal, emotional involvement with recording Rebennack than he had with Ray Charles.

    He found himself at the helm of another career surprise when Bob Dylan, who'd been introduced to Wexler by Doug Sahm, asked Wexler to produce an album of songs "about born-again Christians in the old corral." The producer was quite ready, because "(a)fter Ray and Aretha, Dylan was the third real genius I worked with." Wexler took Dylan to Muscle Shoals and insisted that he stay present during the building of rhythm arrangements, which involved {} Mark Knopfler. "I want the singer there for the whole process," Wexler explains, "molding the music around his vocal phrasing." Wexler also asked the leader of the ascending Dire Straits "to play like Albert King, not Mark Knopfler." The single "Gotta Serve Somebody" made it into the top ten, and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone praised the entire album, "Slow Train Coming," which garnered Dylan his first Grammy. "Like Dylan," Wenner wrote, "Wexler has his finest LP since those fabulous Sixties, one that ranks with his greatest achivements." Wexler responds, "I was, for once, in total agreement with Rolling Stone."

    Now at age 82, Wexler remains close enough to observe the culture he helped form and far enough away to enjoy his comfortable waterside homes in Florida, from which he chatted with me, and New York. "To imagine that it would become such a sweeping global tidal wave," he said to me about black music, "and that young white people in great numbers without the faintest notion of the propelling agenda would buy and support this music, it sort of boggles the mind. And it's an illustration that, from the vantage point of age and some removal from immediacy, you cannot make any generalizations about how 'applicable' any form of music may be."

    Selected Discography

    Ray Charles -- The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 (3 cd's)
    Joe Turner -- The Boss of the Blues
    Joe Turner -- Big, Bad, Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology (3 cd's) (Rhino)
    Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-74 (8 cd's)
    The Drifters -- Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll, 1953-1958
    Champion Jack Dupree -- Blues from The Gutter
    Ray Charles and Milt Jackson -- Soul Brothers
    Solomon Burke -- Home in Your Heart: The Best of Solomon Burke
    Drifters 1959-1965: All Time Greatest Hits and More
    Wilson Pickett -- A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett
    Betty Carter -- 'Round Midnight
    King Curtis -- Plays the Memphis Greatest Hits
    Aretha Franklin -- Lady Soul
    Aretha Franklin -- Aretha Now
    Aretha Franklin -- Spirit in the Dark
    Aretha Franklin -- Amazing Grace
    Aretha Franklin -- Live at the Fillmore West
    Donny Hathaway -- A Donny Hathaway Collection
    Dr. John -- Gumbo
    Wilie Nelson -- Shotgun Willie
    Allen Toussaint -- Motion
    The Staples -- Unlock Your Heart
    Dire Straits -- Communique (Warner Bros)
    Bob Dylan -- Slow Train Coming (Columbia)
    Billy Vera -- Billy Vera
    Carlos Santana -- Havana Moon (Columbia)
    Etta James -- The Right Time (Elektra)

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