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Jammin' with Jerry.

When it comes to American music of the last 60 years, few people have played a more influential role than Jerry Wexler. Producer-songwriter-fan extraordinaire, Wexler grew up mesmerized by the rhythms of Harlem's nightspots in the '30s and eventually became a partner in Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun. During his tenure there he worked with the Who's Who of the business, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones. During a stint at Billboard magazine, Wexler coined the term "rhythm and blues" to describe what had usually been described as "race music."

A part-time Sarasota resident, Wexler has co-written with David Ritz a book about his life and career appropriately called "Rhythm and Blues: A Life in American Music" (due out this month from Alfred A. Knopf). Local arts writer and r&b lover Kevin Dean talked with him recently at his Siesta Key home.

KD: I noticed all your CDs. Are you sorry to see records go?

JW: Oh, no. I never cared about technology. It's the program that counts. I have a lot of compilations of old music on CDs so I'm hearing stuff I never heard before. I know there's been a big to-do from audiophiles that, "Oh, there's something cold about it," or they don't like digital. But I'm not an audiophile. I'm a music lover.

KD: How do you explain your early interest in jazz, which caused you to go into Harlem to places like the Chicken Shack back in the '30s?

JW: I can't explain it, I just did it. I was brought up in Washington Heights which is adjacent to Harlem. I heard music on the radio, I guess, and somehow I was attracted to that music, especially -- in the beginning -- swing music, Big Bands, small combos and so on. (pulling out CDs) I got these -- Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong -- from a friend who's a distributor in Georgia. I live in two places so I'm always carrying these things back and forth. I spend a lot of money on records.

KD: Did you ever desire to play?

JW: Not really. My mother put me in piano lessons and it was a disaster. I wore out about six piano teachers because while taking lessons I'd hear that swat of the broom handle against the ball down the street or the sound of a basketball on a concrete playground. It tore me up. They were playing stickball and here I am, playing around with Czerny.

KD: The excerpts from Billboard in your book sounded like they were written by the ultimate fan. Is that the way you approached your writing?

JW: Let me put it this way. If I went to Birdland to hear Lester Young or whoever, I had at least the minimal information as a basis to write about them. I've always been annoyed when people are put in a position to assess or criticize who clearly don't have the information. I even want sports reporters to know everything all the way back to the beginning.

You have to be saturated; you have to know the history. So, back to the question, I knew the history. I brought information and love of whatever it was to the job. My approach has been with the bias of a fan, including my work in the studio, talent scouting, whatever. The same is or was true of my partners, the Erteguns. Because there are different ways of coming into the independent record business. Some of the people who got into independent record labels after the war were people who owned pressing factories. They knew nothing about music so they would find someone to handle the music part. Some of them were songwriters. Fletcher Henderson, who was an owner of Black Swan, came in as an orchestrator and arranger and bandleader.

KD: How about the Chess brothers?

JW: That was an interesting entry. The Chess brothers were immigrants from Poland who with their father used to drive a junk wagon picking up tin cans and bottles in the black area of Chicago. What was on the jukebox in that area was race records, so that was their natural next step -- recording black music in Chicago. The greatest fan slash record man was John Hammond. He could also be a musician -- he played cello or violin, I believe -- but that was not his real identity. His identity was as a superfan. He began by covering black music events for one of the English papers and Sir Joseph Lockwood, who was head of Polyphone Records, contacted him. He recorded Fletcher Henderson. That was John's entry.

KD: The fan is more likely to keep the integrity of the music that drew him.

JW: Well, who knows? Once Mammon comes into the picture there may be changes. I like to think my record company maintained its integrity. Some purists might find us guilty of Led Zeppelin and the road to heavy metal. (laugh)

KD: You were interested in that clean, crisp sound but at the same time keeping the music as pure as possible.

JW: Oh, sure. Because people with desire and some taste but limited resources would record music in a naive sense -- in the way that a painting is naive -- but not pay enough attention to musical integrity, the keeping time and clean recording with no distortion. There are some horrible records that are still supposed to be legendary. But people associate them with certain times in their youth so it's evocative for them. That doesn't make it worth a damn; it's still horrible music.

You might be able to forgive poor recording quality if the playing is there. I was listening to "Mojo Hand" -- Lightning Hopkins -- it's a fantastic record for all counts because the guitar is in tune, he's singing in tune, the quality is good. Rationalizing slop is part of the McLuhanist era of forgiving. There's no requirement anymore for melody, in-tune singing. In fact raucous screeching is part of the deal. Apparently it's speaking to some constituency, which to me is alarming.

KD: A lot of the bands that came out of San Francisco in the '60s might fit that as well. Do you think Janis Joplin was overrated?

JW: That's a very tough question. Janis was touched by the demons. She had tremendous fire and tremendous desire. Her problem was not curbing excess. Aretha Franklin knew what her limits were. Conversely Patti Labelle had a tough time finding herself because of not putting limits. Letting go with fabulous screams -- that's Werner Erhard. It's cathartic to the person but comes the sophomoric question, "Is it art?"

KD: Did you think that Clint Eastwood captured the jazz scene well in Bird?

JW: No, I didn't like it. First of all, that actor's mumbling -- there was no inkling of what Bird's character was really like. I also had a problem with Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross, particularly assigning a singer like her to imitate the reality. 'Round Midnight |with jazz man Dexter Gordon~ was magnificent, though.

KD: When you got into producing records were you trying to make the records that you wanted to hear?

JW: Oh, yeah. In the beginning what I wanted to hear -- and my partners wanted to hear -- that format or line coincided with the market. In other words, if I wanted to hear Joe Turner sing "Eight-Ball Blues" that would sell, played in a certain way with a good Kansas City piano player. But that changed when rhythm and blues changed to rock. It's what I call Column A and Column B. Column A is what you like. There was only a Column A. But later on when rock came there was a Column B. You didn't have to like it but it was something that sold. That was very difficult to get to sometimes. How do people whose icon was "West End Blues" by Louis Armstrong -- how did they react to Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin? We did -- we had to. So there had to be adjustments made.

KD: Did you ever feel that you compromised on a record?

JW: Not that I made. Excuse me, yes I did. In retrospect. I wasn't aware of the compromise. One we did make was out of total rage and frustration -- the inability to get our black records on white radio. That limited sales potential. So what we did -- and I'm as guilty as my partners -- we tried to tone down and smooth out the backgrounds by bringing in white studio singers singing backgrounds on black records. "Corinna, Corinna" by Joe Turner and "C.C. Rider" by Chuck Willis are two egregious examples. They were both smash hits. But I wince when I hear those records today and I shouldn't have done it. I didn't have to do it.

But outside of those exceptions I never tried to program the commercial compromise in my records. That doesn't mean my company Atlantic didn't put out a lot of records that did have this built in. We're talking about records that I personally made in the studio with my partners. I couldn't do it and I wouldn't do it. Along with that, I signed many singers and groups to have on the label with whom I could not connect. So I would never go into the studio with them. I let other people take care of that.

There were two sides there -- the administrative, capitalistic enterprise to maximize sales -- and then being a line producer of a record. Our idea was we never wanted to stop growing. But there are certain very praiseworthy record companies or individuals who have always hewed to the line, such as Alligator Records. All they did was deep down Chicago blues. Then there were the jazz purists like Bob Weinstock. They were keepers of the flame. But it's very different for a record company to keep at that one sales level and keep to that artistic principle -- it's almost a law that you have to grow or die.

KD: In your book you stated you recorded three geniuses -- Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Can you define what it is about what they've done that sets them apart?

JW: It's very difficult to verbalize it. It's just that each one was sui generis and creative, plus they had total abandonment to the form, to the expression. Plus absolutely fabulous chops and ability plus the great individual creative spark that creates a whole music. Ray Charles created a whole genre. Aretha Franklin took it to a different level. Bob Dylan does what he does, and he's even underrated as a singer. I think he has a marvelous voice when he chooses to use it. When he wants to sing a ballad he can. By the way, it was a pleasure working with him. No problems at all.

KD: You worked with him at a time when he seemed to be searching, in his Christian period.

JW: Right. First of all when he approached me I was just totally knocked out. "Where do we begin? What are we gonna sing? The Yellow Pages? Cool, whatever you want." And I had no notion when we started that it was going to be religious and gospel. We started pre-production in California and it soon became apparent that it was all about Jesus. He tried to proselytize me a little. It wasn't just born-again Baptist, though. I mean, there were cataclysms and starships and Planet Earth and I don't know what all involved. The beginning of a New Age something or other.

KD: You've known so many musicians. Did you generally like them once you got to know them?

JW: Mostly. When I first started working in the studio with musicians we worked with the best of the day -- you could get the best for scale then. Later on outstanding players got double. Back then it was $40 for a three-hour session. In the beginning I was afraid of being exposed as some sort of sophomoric jerk who was a fan. In my book I mentioned being awed by Jesse Stone, who was an arranger and great songwriter. I always felt that he sort of looked at me with a jaundiced eye, like "Hey, kid, you ain't fooling me." It took a lot of self-possession to get out there and talk to a star about changing a bass line, even though the reality may have been I was the boss signing the checks. I've seen musicians -- like Grady Tate, for example -- he didn't care if you were William Paley and David Sarnoff combined; if you said something stupid over the talkback you got it back in kind immediately.

KD: There were some people you found difficult to work with. Anybody impossible?

JW: There was a long time when I wouldn't go in the studio with Wilson Pickett. But it might have been mutual.

KD: Yeah, he comes off in the book as rather cantankerous.

JW: There was a long time when I let other people handle his records. Then we got back together.

KD: Do you think there's a self-destructive streak in very talented people?

JW: That's the cliche, drugs, booze, etc. I don't know if it's any more so than the general population. Although when people get rich they can purchase the substances of destruction in greater quantity.

KD: There've been a lot of claims from people like Little Richard about being robbed of their royalties.

JW: I've seen some horrible situations. I saw a contract -- I won't mention the label -- where the royalty was ridiculously low, with the royalty reduced when sales accelerated instead of going the other way.

KD: Has the music business destroyed as many people as it's made, in one way or another?

JW: I don't know about destroying. There's been some very sad neglect of some people, like Jelly Roll Morton. The business didn't destroy him, but he got out of phase -- the music changed. Oddly enough the music that he had been playing, which was a hybrid of ragtime and early jazz, was almost rococo, ornate music with incredible arrangements with contrary motions inside the movements, instrumentations that were very complex. It moved from that to swing. Swing was really a reduction artistically from Jelly Roll Morton's New Orleans ragtime jazz thing. It swept and became so big because it was much easier for the uninformed public to pick up on this music. There'd be repeating riffs that were very obvious and digestible, voicings of instruments that were very close together and just a straight-ahead beat. That's not to say that swing music wasn't fantastic at its best. But ragtime was lovely, beautiful music. You could say that ragtime was

(Continued on page 89.)

destroyed by the publishing establishment. In the beginning it was played exclusively by blacks. And the publishers got hold of it and cheapened and debased it, making it palatable for a little mind.

KD: I think a lot of us my age who came to r&b did so through listening to bands like the Rolling Stones in the early '60s. Were the British cover versions of r&b very good, do you think?

JW: The Stones were fantastic. They were really good. Mick Jagger was really wonderful in picking up the essence of the records he was covering. He sounds like the people whose records he was replicating. They had a great rhythm section with Keith driving it.

KD: I think "Little Red Rooster" was a great example.

JW: "Little Red Rooster" -- it was recorded by Margie Day and was the first recording on Dot Records, which became the most vanilla record label of all time, with the Hilltoppers and Pat Boone.

KD: Why did you start working in Muscle Shoals, Alabama?

JW: It started around 1960, '61. I'd been with Atlantic for seven years at that time. We'd had a tremendous run of success, a lot of great records. But entropy was setting in. We were running out of steam, out of energy. The musicians were playing the same licks, arrangers were using the same ideas. There was no inspiration. I had signed Wilson Pickett and turned him over to another producer, who made a record with him that didn't sell. So it was back in my lap to do something with him. I got the idea of taking him to Memphis to Stax Records. I was really stimulated by the way they recorded head arrangements.

Up to that time we'd been working with written arrangements, so we were locked into whatever the arranger came up with. I remember how depressed I'd get in a session trying to change a written arrangement, changing a lick here with a pencil and scratching out, etc. Anyhow, I saw Booker T and the MGs coming into the studio in Memphis, taking off their coats, strapping their instruments on and playing music. So I brought Wilson Pickett. We started recording head arrangements.

They're not jam sessions. A head arrangement is just as much as arrangement as a written one, but it's arrived at in a different way, with a lot of collective input and in stages. When you get through no one can ever tell that's how it was done. So we had this terrific success in the session in Memphis and then we wore out our welcome. We continued our relationship with Stax Records but they barred the door to us.

But I'd found this fabulous new way to work. We couldn't re-create it in New York; you just don't create anything like that there. The next thing that came to my attention was Fame Records in Muscle Shoals, where they worked the same way. So I went to Muscle Shoals. The first record we did was "Land of 1,000 Dances," and we were on a roll. That began a two-decade or more relationship. We used the same way of recording, starting with chord charts and developing rhythm patterns, vocals, background, etc., until you're all together. It's improvised but not ad lib. Everything is very carefully sculptured.

KD: You recorded with the Stones there?

JW: I didn't, but Mick and Keith recorded there. It was the only time I was ever in the control room with them and I was very impressed with their record production and the way they created and directed the music. I couldn't imagine that rock musicians would have the ingenuity and the talent, but they sure could and they did. I never saw better production.

KD: Does that partly explain their longevity?

JW: I think so. Because it had to do with the source, of real musical originality, creative impulse and imagination.

KD: I'm trying to visualize Keith Richards and Mick Jagger walking around Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

JW: It was great. There's a story that Dick Cooper, who was a publicist at that time, tells about sitting out on the lawn of the Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn and people passing them by who didn't know who they were. They were amused by it. They enjoyed it. Southern people at that time were also too cool and self-centered to fall into celebrity worship. In general I still find that pretty much in the South. There's a certain feeling of self-worth, that you don't abase yourself in front of another human being no matter who he is.

By the way, this has always been true of rhythm and blues. You can go back to a juke joint in Robert Johnson's time. Some devotee of the blues would be there taking his gin and digging the music, but there wasn't fawning. It was like, "Hey, man, this is a brother. He's playing his music. I'm paying for this and getting my value." This has always been the way black music fans relate, respond, even with people they have enormous respect and admiration for.

KD: Is it because it's basically folk music?

JW: Well, it's like Louis Armstrong once said. "Somebody has to explain folk music to me, because all music had to be written and played by some folks." (laugh) I don't know if it's a question of folk music. It had to do with a way of being centered and having self-esteem. There was none of this slobbering.

KD: They weren't getting paid much.

JW: They were in the same position on the bottom of the agrarian ladder that their customers were.

KD: Back in the days of segregation white men driving around with black men in the car was dangerous sometimes. Did you ever face that with your black musicians?

JW: I never saw it. I once had a problem in Memphis. I had invited Rufus Thomas and Mrs. Thomas and Carla Thomas, their daughter, to dinner. There was no place we could go in Memphis. At least that's what I was told. I don't think it was true. So we wound up in a hotel suite and after they left there was a knock on my door -- "Vice Squad. You've got a woman in there." Somebody saw black people there. That was the only incident.

The fact is today you're much better off if you're black to raise your children in the South than in the ghettos of Detroit or Chicago. It's great for Northern liberals to attitudinize, but they're full of it, because their only contact with blacks is when they come to clean their kitchens. In the South blacks and whites live together. In Muscle Shoals I never heard the "n" word from a white musician.

KD: Which brings me to the next question. To what extent has jazz, r&b, rock 'n' roll brought the races together?

JW: Ah, terrific. Music and the economy were the two major factors. The green dollar was the relevant color, not black or white.

KD: Are there some people you would still like to record that you've never recorded?

JW: I could have dug working with Bruce Springsteen. I think he's fantastic. Another one, believe it or not, is Lou Reed. I would dig him.

KD: Are you working on any projects now?

JW: No, other than that I've been very busy with the book. I just talked to the p.r. guy and I may do a very limited speaking tour, maybe New York, L.A., San Francisco.

I tried to be honest in the book and not guarded. I hope that comes through.
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Title Annotation:songwriter and producer Jerry Wexler
Author:Dean, Kevin
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1993
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