Friday, August 15, 2008

Execobit: Jerry Wexler

Music journalist, executive and producer Jerry Wexler died earlier today.

Born in 1917, to an emigre Pole, Wexler had initially adopted journalism as a career after his mandated spell in the US Army. He joined Billboard in 1947, staying for four years - during this time coining the phrase "rhythm and blues" - before turning gamekeeper and joining a promotions company. Within a year, Ahmet Ertegun was sounding him out for a role at Atlantic Records; Wexler refused, holding out for a partnership. By 1953, Ertegun had come round to Wexler's way of thinking and sold him a share.

With a management style he described as that of a despot with problems delegating, he played a role in building up Atlantic's reputation and sales. He took charge of everything he could - doing production duties, for example, on Aretha Franklin's version of Respect.

An attempt to establish a powerbase in Nashville proved to be his undoing at Atlantic; following its failure he parted company with the label.

In 1977 he joined Warner Brothers as its East Coast man - a role which led him to sign Dire Straits and the B-52s, shaping the FM sound for the early 1980s. The assocation, though, didn't last long, and Wexler would quickly cut ties with the majors, carving out a freelance niche working with Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Etta James, Allen Toussaint, the Staple Singers, George Michael and others.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made space for him in 1987, leading him to sum up his career:

"We were making rhythm and blues music — black music by black musicians for black adult buyers perpetrated by white Jewish and Turkish entrepreneurs."

Signalling his retirement, when Wexler moved to Florida towards the end of the last decade, he also canceled his Billboard subscription. He enjoyed a period offering contributions to a stream of documentaries about the music industry during its glory years, and a small glittery portrayal of his life in the Ray Charles biopic Ray.

Wexler is survived by his wife, Jean Alexander and his children Paul and Lisa. He was 91.