New York (August 18, 2008)–Record executive and producer Jerry Wexler, known for his long partnership with Ahmet Ertegun and the recordings he produced for their label, Atlantic Records, died August 15 in Sarasota, Florida. He was 91.
Born in New York City in 1917, Wexler grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood. He attended college in Manhattan, Kansas, though the live music of Kansas City would prove more important to his education. He served in the Army during World War II, and then returned to Kansas to obtain a degree.
By his own admission, he had been an indifferent student and had little focus in life until becoming a reporter for Billboard magazine in 1949. There, Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues” to describe the genre that was then referred to as “race music.” In 1953, when Atlantic Records partner Herb Abramson joined the army, Ertegun invited Wexler to join the young label, which was recording and releasing a fast-evolving music that drew on gospel and blues.
The “Atlantic sound,” tough, gritty and extremely influential music that Wexler would also describe as “immaculate funk,” was exemplified early on by Ray Charles’s 1954 hit, “I Got a Woman.” Though Charles eventually left the independent label for ABC, Atlantic had established itself, and Wexler had begun a brilliant career as producer and label executive.
Atlantic Records’ influence cannot be overstated: Charles, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, the Drifters, the Coasters and, starting in 1967, Aretha Franklin were among the artists that recorded their strongest work for Atlantic. Along with Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, Wexler crafted irresistible recordings at the label’s New York studio. Dowd died in 2002; Mardin and Ertegun died in 2006.
In 1967 alone, Franklin recorded the hits “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” Baby, I Love You,” and “Since You’ve Been Gone,” all of which topped the Billboard R&B chart. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Ain’t No Way,” also recorded in 1967, reached Nos. 2 and 9, respectively.
Atlantic would then have enormous success with rock artists, including Led Zeppelin and Cream, while Wexler later produced artists including Bob Dylan, Dusty Springfield, Willie Nelson, Donny Hathaway, Dire Straits, Linda Ronstadt and Carlos Santana. Beginning in the 1960s, he frequently worked at Stax Records’ Memphis, Tennessee studio and Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.