The late Jerry Wexler was born into a Jewish working class family in New York City in 1918. A combination of good ears, business sense, and chutzpa took Jerry from Manhattan window washer to the top of the R&B charts, producing artists like Ray Charles. Before his career as a record producer, Jerry Wexler did stints at BMI music publishing, Billboard Magazine, where as a writer he coined the term rhythm and blues. In 1953, he joined Ahmet Ertegun as a partner at Atlantic Records, where for over 20 years, he produced hits from Big Joe Turner, Solomon Burke, Dusty Springfield, and many more. But Wexler was hard pressed to explain how his upbringing led him to that point.
Jerry Wexler: How does one explain the paradox, and I’ve been taxed with this, who is this Jew boy from Washington Heights to tell a great African American blues singer how to sing their music? There’s no explanation.
Nick Spitzer: How did it come about that you joined Atlantic Records?
JW: Well, I used to hang out with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Herb Abramson because we were one of a small coterie of jazz collectors, and we used to do something nobody does anymore. We’d go to somebody’s house and play records all evening long. So there was a job opening at Atlantic and they offered me the job.
NS: Now you’re here at Atlantic Records, and I’m thinking of a parallel life, somebody like Moe Ash, who comes out of a Jewish international sort of left background, and he worked at that very documentary level.
NS: You folks were not being documentary as much as you were creating artists.
JW: Exactly, I’m glad you’re making that distinction because folk music and jazz are really produced by the performers but pop music and rhythm and blues, the record producer has a lot to do with the formulation of the record.
NS: Jerry what did you try to do with and for Aretha Franklin as an artist once she became part of what you were going to do?
JW: First of all, what we tried to do was provide her with a setting that would best serve her. Secondly, I wanted her to play on her records. You bring something to the table when you play. Maybe it’s just a little rhythm guitar and so on. But what Aretha brought was not just adequate but great piano playing. Aretha was a great arranger.
NS: When you look back at Ray Charles and all your work with him, what made him a genius in your mind?
JW: Well, I said I worked with 3 geniuses and I said it was Ray, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan. In order for them to fit the designation in my mind, first of all they brought something brand new to the table. But the real hallmark, the real defining difference, was the difference between them and the next number 2. Who was the number 2 to Ray Charles? Yeah Stevie Wonder maybe, not close. Who was number 2 to Bob Dylan? There is none. Who is number 2 to Aretha Franklin? Patti LaBelle? In other words it’s the distance between a performer of that stature and the next person.
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