Jerry Wexler’s dedication to his job as one of three guiding hands of Atlantic Records has led to his recognition as one of the most aware and fully informed record executives in the record industry today. His affection and respect for artists and their music is mirrored by his special rapport with them and the high esteem in which he is held by these artists.
Jerry is so highly respected as a record producer (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, etc.), that the Bill Gavin Poll of disc jockeys across the country have voted him “Record Man of The Year” for two consecutive years: 1967 and 1968. His affability is augmented by his keen business sense and the invaluable, yet indescribable ability to “feel” when a record has that “certain something,” plus a fantastic sense of “timing” (the best example of which is Aretha Franklin’s success on Atlantic).
Atlantic’s artists who are not produced by Jerry and who seek out his opinion on their recordings know that he will speak frankly.
“I would always let them have it, exactly what I thought.” This even applies to some artists who are not signed to Atlantic for whom Jerry’s opinion is invaluable. Otis Redding was reportedly seeking to find a way via the Atlantic-Stax/Volt tie-in to have Jerry produce his next sessions at the time of his death last December.
“Above all I dig the Stax operation. I have tried to utilize a lot of their techniques. Our methods here which go back a dozen or 15 years, served us in good stead until the Stax thing came along, and showed us that we were sort of super-annuated. We had the good fortune to form the symbiotic relationship where we could feed on each other. I just think they are fantastic. The reason I picked Stax as my first choice, is because they are the best at the kind of music that I like the most.
Jerry’s most spectacular and consistent recent successes as a producer have been with Aretha Franklin. It was Jerry who selected “I Never Loved A Man” for Aretha to record at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Jerry declines having had any special foresight for Aretha.
“I had heard her sing on records, and I just thought she was fabulous, and I thought it would be nice if I would have the opportunity to record her some day. I had no intimation that she was going to have a string of Number One million-sellers, and she would upset the world. The ballads and blues she sang at Columbia were a little manicured. We just went in and started doing our soul so-called style of recording her.”
Aretha herself credits Jerry’s “timing,” but also credits her success to the fact she and Jerry work well together. “Aretha and I select all the songs together, spending a lot of time together. I get a song-bag together and she gets a song-bag together, and we sit down and exchange ideas and we just eliminate until we get what we need.”
Jerry joined Atlantic in 1953. He had had some previous music business experience at BMI and Billboard Magazine (“I got a job there reviewing records”), and the offer came to him from Atlantic President Ahmet Ertegun, a friend from the old days of jazz record collecting — “collectors used to run in packs” — packs which also included Ahmet’s brother, Nesuhi (now an Atlantic Vice-President), and Ralph J. Gleason, the noted jazz critic once with Downbeat, who has since helped and written for nearly all the new musical publications since then (currently Rolling Stone).
“We were as many as six partners at one time,” recalls Jerry about the people who were in on the early progress of the small R&B label at various times, “but now we’re down to three. It’s a very happy relationship.”
Jerry credits Ahmet Ertegun in helping him to get his feet wet producing Ray Charles’ first sessions. Ray’s contract was purchased from a small California company, Swingtime, for “the princely sum of $2,000.” Jerry disclaims any influence on Ray’s recordings, stating: “Recording Ray Charles is like putting a meter on fresh air — ain’t nothin’ to it — just open up the pots. It was very instructive.” However, the real key to Ray’s success in Jerry’s eyes was “when he formulated his own permanent band.” When this happened, Ray called Atlantic one day from Atlanta, Ga., suggesting that they come down and record him.