A song comes on the radio. Itâ€™s one of those songs that has defined your life. It could be Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, or Wilson Pickett. If your romantic life has been like mine, â€œWhen A Man Loves A Womanâ€ has figured into it a time or two. A smile crosses your face, or maybe you feel the tears well up in your eyes. Maybe both at once. You think about where you were, and who you were there with that long-ago night. You begin to move. Itâ€™s not something that you do consciously; the rhythm takes control of you.
Any one of the songs that weâ€™re providing here would be a career-maker for a record producer. These very special songs have one thing in common — an uncommon producer. All of these songs were produced by Jerry Wexler, who died early this morning at his home in Florida. He was 91 years old.
Wexler was a partner in the creation of Atlantic Records — in its heyday, the greatest record label that ever existed. Atlantic was founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson. When Abramson left for the Army in 1953, Wexler joined the company. He would remain at Atlantic for more than 20 years.
Atlantic built its reputation by providing a home for the great rhythm and blues and jazz artists of the time. It was Wexlerâ€™s work that made the company, in those days an indie label, a great power in the world of soul music. He rescued Aretha Franklin from seven years of singing show tunes at Columbia Records and urged her to be herself. He forged a strong relationship with Stax Records, putting the Memphis label on the map. Later, together with Ertegun, he signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
His life was not all triumph, however. In his 1993 autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, written with David Ritz, he admitted to being unfaithful to his wife Shirley, who he adored. She divorced him in 1973. He told of being emotionally unavailable to his children, but he tried to make up for it later in life by taking care of his daughter Anita before she died, of AIDS, in 1989. When she died, it was almost as if he died with her. His daughter Lisa and son Paul were with him when he passed away.
“The number of artists that he was involved with and helped significantly or just made great records with, the list is almost unbelievable,” Paul Wexler said. “And many of them are gone now.”
I read Wexlerâ€™s book a some years ago, and it was one of those books that made me feel close to its down-to-earth author, a tough Bronx street kid until the end. I had a friend in those days, a well-known songwriter, who was friends with him. I peppered her with questions about him; I wanted to know everything about the man who had made those records that were such an integral part of my life. She told me that he was the most wonderful man, but that he was terribly lonely in his old age.
How could it be true? How could this giant be alone after all that he had contributed? She even suggested that she would give me his number, and I could call him. I never made that call. I donâ€™t know what I would have said, except maybe â€œThank you, Jerry.â€
View Jerry Wexlerâ€™s discography here, and enjoy the small selection of Wexler-produced classics we’ve collected for your listening enjoyment. For further reading, check out this incredible look back at Wexler’s life and career.
Dusty Springfield – Just A Little Lovin’
Lou Ann Barton – Brand New Lover
Aretha Franklin – Spirit In The Dark (live with Ray Charles)
King Curtis – Ridin’ Thumb
Willie Nelson – Shotgun Willie
Willie Nelson – Sad Songs and Waltzes
Allen Toussaint – With You In Mind
Professor Longhair – Hey Little Girl
Willie Nelson – How Will I Know I’m Falling in Love
Bob Dylan – Gotta Serve Somebody
Ray Charles – Let The Good Times Roll
Dr. John – Junko Partner
Willie Nelson – I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone
Aretha Franklin – The Long And Winding Road
Wilson Pickett – In the Midnight Hour