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Wex on Wax: Twenty Essential Jerry Wexler Productions

A few years back, Jerry Wexler burned a CD for friends of the songs he was the most proud of from his half-century career in music. Here's the playlist.

August 15, 2008 8:28 AM ET
1. Professor Longhair, "Tipitina" (1953)
Wexler met Professor Longhair — the father of New Orleans funk — on his first Atlantic road trip. He was surprised to find the piano man light on material, so he asked Fess to sing something like the 8-bar blues "Tee Nah Nah." The made-to-order invention is now a New Orleans anthem and "has lived on in the liturgy," wrote Wexler.

2. Ray Charles, "I Got a Woman" (1954)
Wexler once said that all he did with Charles in the studio was "turn on the lights" and get out of the way. With "I Got a Woman," Wex and Ahmet Ertegun booked Charles time in an Atlanta radio station, and the budding soul genius emerged with the first example of what would become his signature style: this thinly disguised gospel melody praising a crosstown booty call.

3. Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954)
Sex — slyly suggested or overtly celebrated — became an Atlantic trademark with tunes like this evergreen. "One of my favorite images of erotic poetry," Wexler wrote of the line — "You wear those dresses/The sun comes shining through." Penned by staff writer Jesse Stone, that's Wexler and Ertegun belting out the song's refrain.

4. LaVern Baker, "Tweedlee Dee" (1954)
"I lost my maiden with LaVern Baker, speaking musically of course," Wexler wrote of the first artist he produced with no help This was a #14 hit; white pop singer Georgia Gibb's cleaned-up version made #1. So Wexler came up with a gimmick: before boarding a plane, Baker insured herself and made Gibbs the beneficiary. "If my plane crashes you'll need this more than I do," she explained.

5. Champion Jack Dupree, "Junker's Blues" (1958)
This hard look at drug addiction from another New Orleans piano professor was boldly honest for its time. "Back then it took chutzpah to call the album Blues from the Gutter," Wexler said. "The only music we recorded was the music that we liked."

6. The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959)
Nobody is right all the time: Wexler hated this Lieber and Stoller production, waiting a year before releasing it (it went straight to #1). But more importantly, Wexler had recognized the potential in the L.A. songwriting team. In '57, he lured them to Atlantic as the industry's first independent A&R men.

7. Ray Charles, "What I'd Say" (1959)
Charles left Atlantic this Top 10 — one of the great example of soulful call and response — just as he jumped to the very large ABC Records (one more hit followed, titled ironically, "I'm Moving On.") Charles's departure never sat right with Wexler. "My feeling is we never really had a shot to get into the bidding."

8. Solomon Burke, "If You Need Me" (1963)
Co-produced by Wexler with protege Bert Berns. It was one of Burke's most successful hits, and the label's most needed. "Solomon came along when the British Invasion was gearing up. Burke carried Atlantic by selling a shitload of records — and they were terrific."

9. Booker T. & the MG's, "Green Onions" (1962)
In New York, Wexler "was out of inspiration." In a small Memphis studio, he got his groove back. Atlantic began distributing Stax recordings to the world, laying the foundation for the rise of Sixties soul. The first major yield was this simple but deep-and-funky blues by Stax's biracial house band.

10. Wilson Pickett, "In the Midnight Hour" (1965)
Wexler's first production down south with an Atlantic artist. Wex himself suggested the rhythmic pause that helped make this a monster, busting a move in the studio to show what he meant. "The delayed backbeat thing . . . we used that on a lot of records," Stax guitarist Steve Cropper said.

11. Aretha Franklin, "Respect" (1967)
Ebony magazine called turbulent mid-1967 "the summer of 'Retha, Rap and Revolt!" Wexler's greatest triumph was to simply urge Franklin to let her natural, gospel-soaked voice do its thing. Before 1968 ended, she had scored 12 Top 40 songs for Atlantic, including this #1 that did service as a Civil Rights anthem.

12. Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man" (1969)
Springfield was intimidated by the studio band during the recording of Dusty in Memphis — "I never got a note out of her during the Memphis sessions". Back in NYC, with tracks blasting in headphones — she preferred not to hear herself — she sang with "perfect intonation, every note correct."

13. Dr. John, "Iko Iko" (1972)
"New Orleans is portable, if you have the musicians," Wexler once said. A chat between the producer and piano man Dr. John during an L.A. session inspired Gumbo, a glorious musical overview of the Crescent City, from barrelhouse blues to Mardi Gras street chants — like this number.

14. Doug Sahm, "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone" (1973)
Wexler loved Doug Sahm, and Sahm loved Texas. Wexler produced the singer and multi-instrumentalist's valentine to his home state, joining him with an eclectic bunch that included Bob Dylan and performed tunes by Lone Star music legends Bob Wills, T. Bone Walker, Willie Nelson, and this Charlie Pride classic.

15. Willie Nelson, "Bloody Mary Morning" (1974)
Wexler's last hurrah while on Atlantic's payroll were two Willie Nelson albums: Shotgun Willie, recorded in NYC, and its followup in Alabama. " They said Muscle Shoals was too R&B for Willie. I said Willie was too R&B for Nashville." Phases and Stages included this farewell to a failed romance.

16. The Sanford/Townsend Band, "Smoke From a Distant Fire" (1977)
Wexler's first taste of success as a freelance producer was this Top 10 hit by the singer/songwriting team Ed Sanford and John Townsend. "The song had a beautiful Doobie Brothers feeling — hard-driving but seamless and smooth." It also marked the first of many collaborations with producer Barry Beckett.

17. James Booker, "Winin' Boy Blues" (1978)
Producing the soundtrack to Pretty Baby — the New Orleans-based film that sparked the career of12-year old Brooke Shields — Wexler recreated the earliest days of jazz. It was a true labor of love; he hired a ragtime orchestra and local piano legend James Booker, who performed this Jelly Roll Morton number.

18. Etta James, "Take It to the Limit" (1978)
Wexler wrote, "like Aretha, Etta is a church in herself." James considers this her best album, a brilliant example of Wexler's ability match singer and songs — "Sugar on the Floor", "Piece of My Heart", Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" — and this Eagles ballad re-imagined as a gospel anthem with full choir.

19. Dire Straits, "Lady Writer" (1979)
Only nine months after Dire Strait's explosive debut, Wexler and Beckett produced their followup in the Bahamas, including this uptempo hit. "Barry and I were able to help the rockers get a bluesy edge," Wexler bragged. "Dire Straits was an example of how funky Englishmen can be when they pay attention."

20. Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979)
Having bumped into Wexler for years, Dylan asked him to craft his first born-again album. "He starts playing all these tunes and it's wall to wall Jesus . . . what am I going to do?" Wexler took him to Muscle Shoals, and Dylan grabbed a Grammy with this breakout single.

The Record Collector: Jerry Wexler Dies at 91

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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