Heroes (Part 8)
Jerry Wexler, the father of soul
Jerry Wexler was the proud father. Soul was the bouncing baby. John Morrish passes round the photo album.
JERRY WEXLER IS A PHENOMENON. While other producers were struggling to find an individual style, he created a genre. They called it Soul.
Of course, it is obvious that soul was never the property of any one man, certainly not the property of a white college-educated New Yorker. Jerry Wexler was completely unconnected with whole areas of the soul world: he had nothing to do with James Brown, for instance.
And yet, Wexler had the uncanny knack of being at the right place at the right time, when the whole nature of the music was at a turning point. As a producer he was there with the first Northern rock 'n' rollers, with Ray Charles's fusion of r'n'b and gospel, with the reawakening of Aretha Franklin, and with the originators of the Stax "backbeat".
And when he wasn't producing himself, he was encouraging other great talents (for instance Leiber and Stoller) or buying in some of the most important artists of the era (Otis Redding, Percy Sledge).
Interestingly, in Jerry Wexler's own production work we see a struggle that is mirrored in the rest of Atlantic's output, and indeed in black American music as a whole.
It's the struggle between what you might call "purity", "simplicity", or "honesty" and "production", "arrangement" or, in Wexler's characteristic term, "sweetening".
Looking back over the Atlantic catalogue and contrasting it with the products of certain other record companies of the time, notably the black-owned Motown, it's quite possible to see Atlantic, the longest independent, as the key repository of 'pure' black music.
That's only partly true. From the beginning, Atlantic was concerned with survival. And survival meant selling to whites as well as blacks. And if most of your product was by black artists, you had to find ways of selling that product across the race line. Hence the sweetening.
In the early years Atlantic seems to have struggled from crisis to crisis like most small record companies. Founders Ahmet Ertegun, the son of the Turkish ambassador to Washington, and Herb Abramson, a dentistry student, were jazz fans first and foremost, who took on the expanding rhythm and blues field when they were forced to record everything in sight during the last months of 1947, because of an impending Musicians' Union strike.
By the time Abramson was drafted, to be replaced by Jerry Wexler, Atlantic had put together an interesting roster of artists and gathered some important collaborators. Of these the most notable was Jesse Stone, a man who has more claim than most to have invented rock 'n' roll, at least in its Northern version.
Ahmet and Herb had been in the habit of taking the long trip South, selling records, sweet-talking DJs and distributors, and scouting for talent. On one trip they took Jesse with them and set him the task of learning how Southern rhythm and blues was made. They set up stall in New Orleans for a day, and recorded anybody who came by.
Back in New York, Jesse was faced with making something out of what he had heard. "I had to learn rock 'n' roll – we didn't call it rock 'n' roll then – and it wasn't something I could do easily at first. I considered it backward, musically, and I didn't like it, until I started to learn that the rhythm content was the important thing... And I think I was one of the first people to write in a bass pattern which was important for dancing – and I had always been a dancer," he told Charlie Gillett.
Almost immediately, Jerry Wexler was called in to supervise sessions: the word 'producer' had not yet been invented. Jerry's instincts were rather more 'pop' than than those of the company's founders.
In 1953-4, the combination of Wexler, Ertegun and Stone recorded three records that ushered in the new rock 'n' roll era. Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters brought the company a top ten r'n'b hit with "Money Honey", a beefed-up vocal group number with a blues-style lyric but a singable chorus.
Then there was Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" which went on to be a massive worldwide smash in a cleaned-up version by Bill Haley. The Chords "Sh-boom", a pop vocal harmony sound, suffered the same fate on a smaller scale.
Clearly, the Atlantic team had found the sound the world wanted to hear, but not the artists. It was a problem that was not easily solved.
Meanwhile, the publishing royalties from hits like Haley's were ploughed back into the company, to good effect. The early hits were recorded in the company offices at 234, 56th Street, New York. When a session was under way, the desks would be pushed aside.
Atlantic's engineer, even in the early days, was Tom Dowd, later to be celebrated in his own right as a producer.
Dowd concentrated on getting a clear, sharply defined sound. Unlike most of the records of the era, you don't hear the faders going up and down on Atlantic recordings. And the company's investment in technology was always in advance of the market. By the end of the fifties the company had an 8-track machine. It had been recording in stereo, even before a commercial stereo disc system had been marketed.
Some indication of the ambiguity felt by Atlantic towards those who made white covers of their black originals can be gained from the fact that the company's chief engineer was permitted to do the engineering on the covers.
In any event, a strategy of "sweetening" the Atlantic sound seems to have been adopted. Working with powerful talents like LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter and the versatile Chuck Willis, Wexler concentrated first on the basics: everybody in tune, a clearly-pitched bass line, and a strong lead vocal. He would rehearse for weeks, if necessary, to get those basics right.
Then the "sweetenings" were added. Sometimes, they work (the marimba on Chuck Willis's "C.C. Rider" for instance). More often, they sound intrusive to modern ears. In 1975, Jerry gave Charlie Gillett this explanation: "As for those vocal groups we used in there behind LaVern and Chuck, I could kick my ass every time I hear those tunes. Attribute it to insecurity and fright, trying to survive in the land of the Hilltoppers and Pat Boone."
If Jerry Wexler's career had stayed in that curious "pop – r'n'b" vein, he would probably be no more today than a footnote in some scholar's thesis. But in 1954, Jerry first came across Ray Charles. It was the first of three great musical encounters that ensured that Wexler left his mark on musical history.
"We were just blown away by Ray's ability," Wexler told Paul Gambaccini in a recent television interview. But having signed him, Atlantic didn't know quite what to do with him. When he came to them he was a cool piano-blues artist with a tendency to sing in a Nat "King" Cole style. Bringing him to New York and putting him up in the office with Jesse Stone's regular band, they soon realised he wasn't suited to the usual Atlantic treatment. He was a song-writer and a highly-skilled musician and arranger.
Before Wexler came on the scene, Ray got a novelty hit with a Coasters-style ghetto-speak blues. But it wasn't the real man at all.
The real Ray Charles had been listening to gospel music, and had got himself a band. So when Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler went down to Atlanta in November 1954 to hear him, they were among the first witnesses of a fusion as far reaching as that achieved by Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips in the same year.
"'I've Got A Woman' was the archetype tune – 16 bars, gospel chord progressions," was how Jerry Wexler summed it up in a sleevenote. It was an incredibly audacious move. Some of gospel's dominant vocal stylings (the drawn out scream, the frenzied mumbling, the wild melisma) had found their way into pop music before this, but here Charles was taking genuine gospel tunes and changing the words for his own strictly secular purposes.
The fusion was complete, all Wexler had to do was to trap it on a length of tape. Later Ray Charles sessions added strings, horns, and his own backing singers, The Raelettes, but during his Atlantic years at least, the central gospel strain remained. Its significance was huge: it meant the end of the dominance of the 12-bar blues in black music, giving way to the 8- and 16-bar gospel forms, and it meant an open house for any black singer to raid the gospel catalogue of expressive gestures. That was an advance, at least before the gestures became habits and the revolt, as Thom Gunn put it in a different context, became a style.
Of course, the gospel Ray was only one side of this musical chameleon's personality. When he left Atlantic for the massive ABC Paramount conglomerate he set about a career as an international popular entertainer. But before he left, he gave Atlantic one of the most fascinating recordings ever made, even in the well-known version which, it is said, is a special edit intended for radio play. An uncensored version of "What'd I Say" has never been released.
It is an astonishingly adventurous million-seller. Despite the 12-bar format, the song is some sort of re-creation of a wild Pentecostalist church service, although once again rigidly secular in its lyrical content. Jerry Wexler's contribution was simple: letting him do it. The gamble paid off for all parties.
Ray Charles's departure was a great blow for Atlantic. Wexler only rekindled his enthusiasm by giving a country & western song to Solomon Burke, a fine black singer who had never found his true direction. But before long he handed Burke over to Burke Berns and got back to looking after business.
It was another Southern sound that dragged him out of that apparent torpor. At the beginning of the 60s, Atlantic had signed a distribution deal with a label called Satellite (later Stax) and its associated studio.
Nothing that came from the label much interested Jerry before Otis Redding, and more particularly the lean, brassy sound cooked up between studio boss Jim Stewart and his musicians, Booker T and the M.G.s, together with the Mar-Keys, a horn section. First, Jerry sent Tom Dowd down to engineer Otis's exquisite "Otis Blue" album, which was to appear on Atco, Atlantic's pop offshoot.
Then he made plans to use the facilities himself. In doing so, he had to accept a new system of work. The producer was king in New York, but in Memphis, Tennessee, he was not much more than an observer at a meeting between old friends. And of these old friends, the M.G.s, under the direction of guitarist Steve Cropper, were the very best. A perfect example of racial integration, being literally half-black and half-white, the M.G.s produced superbly atmospheric and crisp results from modest instrumental resources. Cropper's sparse guitar and Booker T Jones' (or Isaac Hayes') even sparser piano led the way, while the horns rifted against the vocal line in unison or minimal harmony. And "Duck" Dunn's fluid bass lines have rarely been equalled.
In the South, the session men put the music together. In return, they were paid not by the hour as they would have been in New York, but by the completed job. The studios worked the same way too.
In theory, this meant you could spend longer on a song for the same money. In practice, they worked so quickly that you were on the plane before you knew it. Otis's debut, "These Arms of Mine", was recorded in 40 minutes.
But Jerry planned to work not with Otis but with Wilson Pickett, another in the long line of fine black singers that Atlantic didn't know what to do with.
The session that produced "In the Midnight Hour" was the second of Jerry Wexler's great contributions. Pickett and Cropper worked the tune out between them, but somehow it wasn't happening, until Jerry came out of the booth and danced "the Jerk" to show them where he wanted the accent to fall. He wanted it on the second and fourth beats of each bar, heavily accented and slightly delayed. The result was almost the trademark of Stax over the next few years, appearing on records by at least Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and Don Covay. It seems incredible that one man should invent, single handed, a beat — but that's what happened.
Ironically, the success of that session led to Wexler and Atlantic's artists being banned from Stax. No matter, he had found the sound and the working methods he needed, so he was in the South to stay, at least for a while.
He found several alternatives, of which the first was Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or, to give it its real title, Fame Recording Studios. It was in the nature of manager/engineer Rick Hall's dictatorial methods that the M.G.-style session groups he formed were constantly splitting up and scattering around the South. Jerry used most of them in turn.
But it was to Muscle Shoals that Jerry Wexler went when he was trying to find a "natural" style for Aretha Franklin, a passionate gospel-trained singer who had spent eight unhappy years recording standards and show tunes with the giant Columbia record company.
Jerry planned an album. Instead they did "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)", and a rhythm track for "Do Right Woman – Do Right Man", and then they were back on the plane to New York. A personality flare-up involving Aretha's then husband is said to have been the cause.
But brief as it was (one day!) the session was Wexler's third great moment, and arguably the greatest of the three. After the aborted B-side was cobbled together back in New York, Aretha got her first top ten hit. It was a vindication for Wexler, for Aretha, and for the Southern "group-production" method.
Strangely, Aretha never went back to Muscle Shoals, nor to Memphis. Jerry took her to Miami several times, and then in the end she stuck to New York, where the legendary King Curtis put together a superb band that could simulate the Southern approach. Meanwhile, Jerry introduced a full-time arranger, Arif Mardin (of Scritti Politti fame), and her arrangements gradually became more elaborate.
And so Jerry Wexler's producing career, or at least its most productive phase, seemed to come full circle. Starting off at Atlantic New York with written arrangements and "sweetening", he had gone south for greater spontaneity and feel. And then he went north again.
"I think she was limited by the nature of her feeling... She had such a gospel feeling it may have circumscribed her audience," said Wexler of Aretha in his recent television interview with Gambaccini.
He went on to say that he would retire when the phone stopped ringing. Let us hope it never does.
Charlie Gillett, "Making Tracks", (W. H. Allen 1975 out of print) "The Sound of the City" (Souvenir Press 1983).
John Tobler & Stuart Grundy "The Record Producers" (BBC 1982).
Bill Millar, "The Drifters'' (Studio Vista 1971).
It's a tragedy that so many of the essential tracks for these articles, especially from the earlier part of the period, are unavailable. This would never happen with jazz or classical music, I suspect. "Black Magic" (Pickwick PLD 8000), a tacky-looking but valuable compilation.
Solomon Burke, "Cry To Me" (Charly CRB 1075).
Ray Charles, "Tell The Truth" (Charly CRB 1071). Excellent compilations, good sleeve-notes, but some curious unexplained omissions.
Aretha Franklin, "Aretha's Greatest Hits", a desert island disc.
Feature by John Morrish
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