Today marks five years since legendary music producer Jerry Wexler died in his Siesta Key home at the age of 91. As a reporter for Billboard in the late 1940s, Wexler convinced the magazine to change the term "race records" to "rhythm and blues." Then, as partner and producer at Atlantic Records, he became one of the genre's most important impresarios.
Wexler's myriad musical accomplishments include everything from producing landmark recordings by the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke to signing Led Zeppelin and playing an integral role in launching the Allman Brothers Band. But for those of us lucky enough to have spent time with the great man, Wexler was also a brilliant raconteur with a gristly exterior and huge heart. These qualities, I believe, served him well while running recording sessions with fresh talent and superstars alike.
“Money Honey,” Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters, 1953: “The singing was like nothing I’d ever heard,” Wexler wrote in his award-winning autobiography “Rhythm & the Blues,” coauthored with David Ritz. “The three- and four-part harmony was pitch-perfect, with Clyde indicating the various parts. The gospel feel was real.”
“What I’d Say,” Ray Charles, 1959: Wexler worked with Charles on a whole box-set worth of beautiful music called “The Birth of Soul” but here’s the sexualized gospel melody, with equally suggestive lyrics, that cemented Charles’ and Atlantic’s place as major players in the music industry.
“Cry To Me,” Solomon Burke, 1962: Wexler, needing a new star after the departure of Charles, played a key role in choosing this song and many others that would become hits for King of Rock ’N’ Soul Solomon Burke.
“In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett, 1965: Picket wrote this song with guitar great Steve Cropper at the urging of Wexler. “I put the two of them in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and the simple exhortation – ‘Write!’ – which they did,” he wrote in “Rhythm & the Blues.”
“Respect,” Aretha Franklin, 1967: Franklin had been releasing albums for years at Columbia before signing with Atlantic and teaming with Wexler, who got her recording Southern soul chestnuts including this feminist anthem – written by Otis Redding – culled from the album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” In 2002, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 1 for its cover story "Women in Rock: 50 Essential Albums."
“Son Of A Preacher Man,” Dusty Springfield, 1969: Wexler worked his magic again by bringing one of England's biggest pop singer's South to record her masterpiece “Dusty in Memphis,” which includes this hit originally marked for Franklin. The Springfield recording had a huge second life in the mid-1990s when it appeared in Quentin Tarantino's breakthrough black comedy/crime film "Pulp Fiction" (see below).
“Giving Up,” Donny Hathaway, 1971: Wexler called this song “the benchmark in the art of forthright emotional vocal communication. I consider this one of the two or three greatest productions in Atlantic’s long history, worthy of placement alongside Ray’s ‘What I’d Say’ and Aretha’s ‘Respect.”
“Iko Iko,” Dr. John, 1972: Wexler and his Atlantic partner Ahmet Ertegun went to New Orleans in the early 1950s to record legendary pianist Professor Longhair. Twenty years later, Wexler helped New Orleans native Dr. John get his groove back with this killer album of Crescent City classics that includes this hit.
“Bloody Mary Morning,” Willie Nelson, 1974: Nelson didn’t become a star until the release of “Red Headed Stranger” in 1975, but his previous two albums produced by Wexler – 1973’s “Shotgun Willie” and ’74’s “Phases and Stages” – are perhaps even better; and played key roles in paving the way for the Outlaw Movement.
“Gotta Serve Somebody,” Bob Dylan, 1979: “So it turns out to be a wall-to-wall Jesus album. I couldn't care less. They were beautiful songs," Wexler told me in 2003 when I asked him about being approached by Dylan to produce the iconic singer-songwriter’s controversial gospel album “Slow Train Coming.” It opens with this Grammy-winning single.
Listen to these songs and more music produced or coproduced by Jerry Wexler on my Spotify playlist "Jerry Wexler Ticket Sarasota."