Industry Legend Jerry Wexler Dies At 91
Music industry legend Jerry Wexler, who kick-started his career as a Billboard journalist in the late 1940s and went on to cultivate the careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin whileMusic industry legend Jerry Wexler, who kick-started his career as a Billboard journalist in the late 1940s and went on to cultivate the careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin while a partner at Atlantic Records, has died at the age of 91 at his home in Siesta Key, Fla.
Wexler was born on Jan. 10, 1917, into a Jewish family in the Bronx. After graduating from the school now known as Kansas State University and spending a stint in the Army, he was hired in 1947 at BMI, writing continuity copy for radio stations and plugging the organization's songs.
Later that year a friend recommended him to Billboard, where he was hired with a starting pay of $75 a week. At Billboard, Wexler invented the term "rhythm & blues" to replace the name "race records," which was then the name of the chart tracking such music.
He stayed at Billboard until 1951, when he went to work for Big Three, the music publishing arm of MGM Records. The following year, Atlantic Records tried to recruit him, but Wexler said he would only join if he was made a partner, and nothing happened. A year later, when co-founder Herb Abramson joined the Army, Atlantic came back with another offer and this time agreed to take him in as a partner.
Atlantic had already established itself as an up-and-coming R&B label thanks to hits from artists like Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, Stick McGhee and the Clovers, with the just-signed Ray Charles waiting in the wings. If Atlantic founders Abramson and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun led the way into exploring rhythm and blues, it would be Wexler who ultimately led the label deep into Southern soul.
In 1959, he signed a distribution deal for Memphis-based Satellite Records, which was putting out songs by Carla Thomas. That label would later become known as Stax. Before long, Stax began a golden era of hits from Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and William Bell, among others.
Before long, Wexler had begun using FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., as a home base for sessions. "More than any other locale or individual, Muscle Shoals changed my life -- musically and every which way," Wexler wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "Rhythm & the Blues: A Life in American Music."
The first artist he brought to Muscle Shoals was Aretha Franklin, whose 1967 debut, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," redefined soul music.
As the '60s wore on, Wexler grew more involved with producing and much less with running Atlantic, although he was still closely involved in signing Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band and Donny Hathaway. He left Atlantic for good in 1975, but resurfaced two years later returned as VP of A&R for Warner Bros. Records.
In his autobiography, Wexler says that with the help of Karen Berg, they signed the B-52's, Dire Straits and Gang Of Four. During the latter half of the 1970s, Wexler produced Etta James' "Deep in the Night," Bob Dylan's Christian album, "Slow Train Coming," Kim Carnes "Sailin'" and Dire Straits "Communique," among others.
Later in life, Wexler was involved with "The Wiz" soundtrack, the Dylan album "Saved" and recordings by a young George Michael, Bill Vera, Lou Ann Barton and Kenny Drew Jr.
Funeral details have yet to be announced.