The remarkable legacy of Jerry Wexler, dead at 91

Jerry Wexler, legendary head of Atlantic Records (with partner Ahmet Ertegun) from 1953 to 1975, has died at age 91 but he leaves behind a nearly unmatched legacy of R&B, pop, and rock music. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized his achievements when they inducted him in 1987 as one of the first non-performers.

Just to kick this tribute off — he’s also the guy who coined the term “Rhythm and Blues” when, as a staff writer for Billboard magazine, he wanted to replace “Race Music” as the header on the black music charts. His early collaborations with Ray Charles, Joe Turner, and The Coasters (among others) built a new foundation for American music. All of this music collaboration in the 50s and early 60s may have been a warm-up, however, for perhaps his greatest contribution to the music world — luring an un-empowered Aretha Franklin away from Columbia and introducing America to the “Queen of Soul” with “Respect” and a string of powerhouse hits from 1967 on.

Aretha and Jerry collaborate during an early recording session

Aretha and Jerry collaborate during an early recording session

When a guy as big as Wexler dies, you can count on a flood of in-depth articles in all the trades as well as the mainstream publications. Take some time to read through them and you’ll find that your own musical tastes have been, in part, shaped by this towering musical figure.

I know he shaped mine. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I loved listening to Ray Charles, The Coasters, The Drifters and — like America — I fell in love with Aretha’s voice in ’67 and knew that R&B, soul, and indeed pop music would never be the same. Oh, and then there was Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave — also big favorites of mine.

Wexler never relaxed his quest for developing talent — he brought Dusty Springfield to America to record her critically acclaimed “Dusty in Memphis” album and he penned deals with R&B- influenced British acts like the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. The man is unbelievable and his handprint on the music business will last a very long time.

He was also a “words” guy, starting off as a journalist and harboring a life-long interest in writing and philosophy. His passion for people and art and music — now extinguished in his own life — still burns bright for those of us who choose to embrace it. Here’s to you, Jerry, for a life very well lived.

Andy: Chris, hope you don’t mind me barging in — here’s a list Rolling Stone published of Jerry’s “favorite” songs… the ones he was most proud of:

  1. Professor Longhair, “Tipitina” (1953)
  2. Ray Charles, “I Got a Woman” (1954)
  3. Big Joe Turner, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954)
  4. LaVern Baker, “Tweedlee Dee” (1954)
  5. Champion Jack Dupree, “Junker’s Blues” (1958 )
  6. The Drifters, “There Goes My Baby” (1959)
  7. Ray Charles, “What I’d Say” (1959)
  8. Solomon Burke, “If You Need Me” (1963)
  9. Booker T. & the MG’s, “Green Onions” (1962)
  10. Wilson Pickett, “In the Midnight Hour” (1965)
  11. Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967)
  12. Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man” (1969)
  13. Dr. John, “Iko Iko” (1972)
  14. Doug Sahn, “(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone” (1973)
  15. Willie Nelson, “Bloody Mary Morning” (1974)
  16. The Sanford/Townsend Band, “Smoke From a Distant Fire” (1977)
  17. James Booker, “Winin’ Boy Blues” (1978 )
  18. Etta James, “Take It to the Limit” (1978 )
  19. Dire Straits, “Lady Writer” (1979)
  20. Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979)

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