Home Music Music News

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.

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

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment