Jerry Wexler

The great Atlantic Records producer gave us rhythm and blues -- as well as just about every R&B legend -- and retooled the very foundations of music producing.

Topics: Music,

Jerry Wexler

“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone, oh whoa whoa,” Jerry Wexler sings into the receiver, enunciating the doo-wop embellishments that soul singer Solomon Burke grafted onto the Jim Reeves country hit. Hearing Wexler describe the early-’60s session in his unique mix of New York Jewish jive and high-flown diction is at once disarming and disconcerting. At 84, he speaks about the musicians he has known with the easy mix of affection and familiarity one might use in talking about a childhood friend or an alcoholic uncle. And while the trepidation that one might feel is quickly deflected by his charm and humor, it is difficult to reconcile Wexler’s casual magnanimity with either the fantasy of the intimidating and brilliant producer or the factual enormity of his achievement. “Solomon was beautiful, baby. He sounded just like Dean Martin.

As a partner at Atlantic Records, and later as an independent producer, Wexler worked with Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Professor Longhair, LaVerne Baker, Ivory Joe Hunter, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Dr. John, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, Donny Hathaway, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and many others. He did much more, however, than preside over the creation of great music. As much as any of the artists he produced, Wexler helped establish the direction of ’50s rhythm and blues and later came to define the sound of soul, a moment that for many remains the creative zenith of postwar popular music.

The key was Wexler’s belief not only in the commercial possibilities of rhythm and blues but in its potential to be art, a notion he brought with him from the world of jazz. A radical conviction in the early ’50s, it enabled black music to permeate the white mainstream almost as persuasively as the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. “Wexler was cutting records as if they were short stories,” says Jim Dickinson, the Memphis, Tenn., musician and producer. “He brought the depth of literature to a music that was basically treated as if it was primitive.”



Among modern record men, only Sam Phillips casts a longer shadow than Wexler. While Phillips pioneered an explosive combination of country and R&B by recording white Southern artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Wexler remained focused on his first love — jazz, the blues and their antecedents. Nevertheless, he helped develop a music that was no less audacious and racially iconoclastic. Borrowing from gospel, jazz, pop and even classical music, soul was an amalgam of the tutored and the instinctive, its history a collaboration of white and black musicians creating what Wexler calls “immaculate funk,” a music that, in the words of Atlantic arranger and producer Arif Mardin, “churned, but with precision.”

More perplexing — though equally crucial — was Wexler’s ability to imagine artists as they had not yet imagined themselves, to repeatedly capture on tape what they had only previously suspected. Unlike Phillips, the supreme talent scout, Wexler was not a discoverer of raw talent. The artists he worked with were rarely strangers to the studio, but frequently came away from the encounter with career-altering recordings, somehow more fully realized. Often they came away stars. That Wexler could help reinvent musicians as diverse as Turner, Springfield and Nelson in three separate decades is a feat that borders on the mysterious.

Getting a square look at the mystery, however, can be surprisingly difficult. Neither “Rhythm and the Blues,” Wexler’s 1993 memoir, nor conversations with the man himself provide a completely satisfying answer. Articulate to a fault, he can be by turns scintillating and opaque, hilarious and evasive. Perhaps that is not surprising, considering that Wexler has been described in various quarters as a musical innovator, a brilliant producer, a shrewd businessman, a master manipulator and a shameless carpetbagger. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that the story of soul cannot be told without him.

Born in 1917, Gerald Wexler grew up in New York’s largely immigrant neighborhood of Washington Heights. His father, Harry, who arrived from Poland at age 19, worked as a window washer, and his withdrawn acceptance of his lot — an early-morning route with a pail and ladder — came to symbolize for Wexler the entrapment and hopelessness of his working-class family at the onset of the Depression.

It was his mother, however, who represented the fantasy of escape and transcendence. An attractive woman who had little interest in the pieties of her social station, Elsa Wexler turned heads in Washington Heights as she strolled in homemade hats and costume jewelry, a golf bag thrown over her shoulder. A committed socialist, she spent hours selling copies of the Daily Worker in Harlem. Elsa also brought home copies of Shakespeare, Molihre, Havelock Ellis and Theodore Dreiser, deciding that Gerald would be everything she was not — a Brahmin, a contributor to culture and most of all a writer, a desire that she managed to instill in her son.

In the meantime, Wexler spent his adolescence at Artie’s poolroom on the corner of 181st Street and Bennett Avenue, cutting classes and hustling three-cushion billiards. Wexler had little use for public education, and after graduating from high school in 1932, he enrolled in City College, only to drop out two semesters later. During his truant afternoons, however, he managed to acquire a more enduring passion than pool — jazz. Haunting Salvation Army depots and used-furniture stores under the els for abandoned records during the day, Wexler and his friends would spend evenings dancing to Fletcher Henderson’s band at the Savoy Ballroom.

Elsa’s final attempt to school her son entailed removing him from his dysfunctional surroundings, and in 1936 Gerald enrolled in Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science as a journalism major. Kansas City gave Wexler his first taste of shouted blues and country music, but less than two years later he was back in New York, as a result of bad grades and a dismal attitude.

Back at home, economics necessitated the unthinkable, and Jerry joined his father on the window-washing circuit with his own ladder and pail. He hated washing windows, but it was his after-hours existence as a Jazz Age hipster that made the menial labor tolerable. In the evenings, Roy Eldridge, Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday beckoned from clubs in Harlem and on 52nd Street, and Wexler remembers the period with uninhibited pleasure: “Nothing would make me happier than to share a joint with Max Kaminsky in the basement of Jimmy Ryan’s.”

His first inkling of a career in the music business must have come from a close-knit circle of jazz record collectors who met at Milt Gabler’s Commodore Music Shop. George Avakian, Bob Thiel, Alfred Lion and John Hammond were among the core members, and all would eventually be remembered as luminaries of the recording industry. “We thought — what hubris — ‘We can make these records,’” recalls Wexler.

Before his first brush with the industry, however, the newly married Wexler was drafted, and spent the World War II stationed in Florida and Texas. After his discharge he returned to Kansas to complete his degree. But in 1947, a journalism diploma in hand, Wexler found himself back in Washington Heights, living with his wife Shirley’s parents. He was 30 and in search of his first real job.

After months of rejection by the big New York papers, he found a job as a cub reporter at Billboard magazine. It was an unexpected detour into the music industry, but soon Wexler was interviewing song pluggers at Lindy’s Delicatessen, composers at the Brill Building and jukebox roughnecks and rack jobbers on 11th Avenue. It was an invaluable education and Wexler proved to be a natural. He turned Patti Page on to “The Tennessee Waltz,” which became one of pop music’s biggest pre-rock ‘n’ roll records and, more tellingly, changed the title of Billboard’s black music chart from “Race Records” to “Rhythm and Blues,” a rubric used to this day.

During his years as a reporter, Wexler grew increasingly close to Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, two fellow record collectors and jazz cognoscenti who had founded Atlantic Records, a small rhythm and blues label in New York. The three men would attend concerts, trade gossip and vacation together at Fire Island, and soon Wexler was asked to join the company. In an act of characteristic audacity, Wexler demanded to be a full partner, a request that was greeted with incredulous laughter. But a year later, when Abramson went into the Army for a two-year stint (he would leave the company by the end of the ’50s), Ertegun agreed to Wexler’s terms.

By the time Wexler came aboard in 1953, Atlantic had already scored hits with artists such as Ruth Brown, Stick McGhee and Joe Turner. It had also signed a blind singer named Ray Charles, who still sang in the polished style of Nat “King” Cole. The well-tailored and suave Ertegun, the son of a wartime Turkish ambassador, showed a predilection for the more bohemian aspects of making records, and the daily operations of the company fell to his new partner.

The job involved nearly every aspect of the process, and Wexler hired musicians, produced sessions, promoted records with distributors and disk jockeys, balanced the books and occasionally even composed ad hoc songs, since suitable material was usually at a deficit. At the time, paying off influential jockeys such as Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips was another chore that came with the territory. Wexler recalls that fear fueled his early years at Atlantic, but when the hits started coming, as they did soon and fast, the fear was partially supplanted with euphoria. As Wexler told author Peter Guralnick, “We didn’t know shit about making records, but we were having fun.”

Ostensibly motivated by wartime shellac rationing, the major labels of the time had systematically shut out black R&B musicians. The real reason had to do with simple arithmetic — in a racially segregated market, a hit record by Charles Brown or T-Bone Walker might sell 50,000 copies, while a hit by Perry Como could sell more than a million.

Atlantic was among the many independent labels that came to dominate the so-called race market, one of the small regional operations that marketed music by black musicians to black listeners — a significant crossover audience was still years away. Herman Lubinsky at Savoy, Syd Nathan at King, Art Rupe at Specialty, Lew Chudd at Imperial, the Bihari Brothers at Modern, Don Robey at Duke, Bess Berman at Apollo and Chicago’s famous Chess brothers were among the leading purveyors of rhythm and blues records.

Many of the companies were run by immigrants, often Jews, who came to the business as a result of prevalent discrimination and a willingness to cross racial boundaries in search of an opportunity. And while many were gifted talent scouts and harbored a deep appreciation for the music they recorded, for most the motivation remained primarily financial, and tales of mercenary business practices, rushed sessions and primitive facilities were not uncommon.

From the beginning, Atlantic stood in stark contrast to its competitors. Ertegun and Wexler brought to the business of R&B a professionalism and sophistication that more often characterized the recording and marketing of jazz. Extensive rehearsals, meticulous arrangements and scrupulous attention to detail distinguished the Atlantic session work. And with the arrival of Tom Dowd, the young engineer who would later double as a producer and arranger, the records with the black and red labels quickly became known for their clean, well-balanced sound.

Ertegun and Wexler also proved to be enlightened businessmen, and tirelessly cultivated a national network of disc jockeys, distributors and salesmen. The main factors that distinguished Atlantic, however, were a seriousness of purpose that everyone brought to the enterprise, and in Wexler’s admittedly self-congratulatory formulation, the qualities of “taste, intelligence and probity. If a guy came into Chess [Records] with a great tune, Leonard Chess would record him. If that guy came to Atlantic, we would buy the tune and give it to Solomon Burke.”

The approach quickly bore dividends, and during Wexler’s first two years at the label, 30 Atlantic sides landed in the R&B Top 10. Meanwhile, the creativity of the Atlantic approach increased in tandem with sales: In 1957, Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller came to Atlantic. Already the authors of several R&B hits — they wrote “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton and were collaborating on some of Elvis’ most ambitious songs — the songwriters teamed up with the Coasters to create what Stoller dubbed “playlets”: songs imbued with the density of musical theater, combining whimsical characters, narrative lyrics and bizarre sounds. “Little Egypt,” “Along Came Jones” and “Down in Mexico” injected a new strain of novelty and sophistication into R&B, and would be reprised in the ’60s with Lieber and Stoller’s work with the Drifters and Phil Spector.

Just as important as Atlantic’s commercial breakthroughs was a series of patently uncommercial attempts to unite contemporary musicians with older musical styles, a strategy Wexler would return to frequently throughout his career. For a 1956 Joe Turner session, he assembled a small ensemble of veteran jazz musicians that included legendary boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson. The result, “Boss of the Blues,” with Turner singing lazy Kansas City shuffles with a 1930s-style jazz combo, must have reminded Wexler of seeing Turner as a singing bartender while an undergraduate in Kansas 20 years earlier. Likewise, on an album astonishingly titled “Blues From the Gutter,” Champion Jack Dupree performed his drug-themed compositions along with interpretations of the earliest blues standards, backed by a superbly sensitive band. Both albums are paragons of authenticity and chemistry, and became career-defining sessions for the prolifically recorded bluesmen.

When Lew Chudd asked Ertegun’s brother Nesuhi to start a line of jazz LPs at Imperial, Wexler and Ertegun brought him to Atlantic to do the same, this time as a partner. The idea was obviously appealing to everyone involved, and Nesuhi soon assembled dozens of recordings by both avant-garde musicians such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, as well as the more traditional Chris Connor, Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short. In addition to making the Atlantic name as talismanic in the field of jazz as it had become for fans of rhythm and blues, Nesuhi also took over the design and packaging of the albums, bringing in renowned photographers such as Lee Friedlander and Jerry Schatzberg.

However, the most groundbreaking event for Atlantic in the 1950s was a Ray Charles session that changed the direction of R&B as fundamentally as any record before or after. “I’ve Got a Woman” opened the floodgates of soul and single-handedly laid down the blueprint for a new music: The gospel base, the churchy, unrestrained vocal and the backing trumpets and reeds were all in place. Charles soon completed the formula by adding the Cookies, soon renamed the Raeletts, whose background vocals functioned as an attenuated secular choir.

The 1954 session launched a period of unparalleled creative and commercial success for Charles, and before the decade was over he would record both instrumental jazz and influential big-band sides with fully orchestrated strings. Ironically, Wexler’s remarkable intuition in the studio served him again. As he had with Lieber and Stoller, he left Charles to his own devices, for the most part, and was rewarded for his discretion. “To record Ray Charles all Ahmet and Jerry had to do was turn on the lights in the studio,” says writer Stanley Booth, “and Ray didn’t even need that.”

By the early ’60s, Atlantic’s remarkable run seemed suddenly at an end. The racial boundaries that had defined Atlantic’s mission a decade earlier had been obliterated by rock ‘n’ roll as well as Atlantic’s own crossover success, and the British invasion was on its way. More important, Ray Charles had left Atlantic for a sweeter deal at ABC, prompting much soul-searching at the 56th Street offices. Ahmet was becoming increasingly drawn to rock and pop, and Wexler was for the first time feeling stifled and bored.

Salvation arrived in the person of Solomon Burke, a soul singer of overwhelming charisma and remarkable stylistic range. Starting with “Just Out of Reach,” a country song recorded as a soul ballad, Wexler and Burke created a string of hits that carried the label financially and represented the first fully realized examples of the classic soul sound. Unusually inventive large ensemble arrangements — just listen to the tuba obbligato on “Down in the Valley” — accompanied Burke’s soulful, yet precisely controlled singing. It was the full realization of what Wexler calls his “devotion to the bel canto tradition,” and remains the epitome of the Atlantic ideal.

Simultaneously, Wexler’s attention was becoming increasingly drawn south. In 1960, when “‘Cause I Love You,” an up-tempo duet performed by Memphis singer and disc jockey Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became a regional hit, Wexler signed a distribution deal with Satellite, a tiny label that would soon be renamed Stax. Started by bank employee Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, who had mortgaged her home to purchase an Ampex monaural tape recorder, Stax was based in an abandoned movie palace that served as a studio, office and record store. The store, built around the theater’s popcorn counter, became a gathering place for the black and white musicians who would create the Stax sound, and included Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and Chips Moman, the guitarist and producer who later became one of Memphis’ biggest hit makers as head of American Studio.

With its surfeit of talent, Stax gradually accumulated hits by local artists such as Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell and Booker T. and the MGs, the house rhythm section that had scored a surprise million seller with an instrumental B-side entitled “Green Onions.” But it was the company’s breakaway success with Macon, Ga., singer Otis Redding, who had scored five Top 20 R&B hits in 1965 alone, that got Wexler’s attention. He assigned Sam and Dave, an R&B duo he had signed in Miami, to the hot label, and soon arrived himself at the Memphis studio with another new Atlantic signatory, a singer named Wilson Pickett.

The sessions at Stax affected Wexler as profoundly as any collaboration of his career. After years of relying on arrangers and charts, Wexler was knocked out by the Southern method of improvising arrangements on the spot, based on feel rather than a preconceived structure. “I’d watch them come in in the morning,” wrote Wexler of the Stax rhythm section, “hang up their coats, grab their axes and start to play. If they didn’t have a session or a song, they’d ad-lib, developing chord and rhythm patterns until something blossomed. It was effortless, easy as breathing.” The Southern spontaneity shook Wexler out of his ennui, inspiring him to become more directly involved in the music making and sparking his most productive period.

In turn, the young Memphis musicians were certainly aware of his reputation, and impressed by Wexlers New York-accented hipsterisms and his ability to make everyone in the studio focus on the matter at hand. More important, the musical rapport proved uncanny. “He wanted to play the kind of music we wanted to play,” says Chips Moman. “The guys didn’t mind staying late to help Jerry out, because he always kept the session interesting.”

At the first Pickett session at Stax, Pickett and Steve Cropper approached Wexler with an original composition entitled “In the Midnight Hour.” Wexler objected to the rhythm track, suggesting that the beat from a recent dance hit by the Larks would improve the tune. Unable to explain what he wanted musically, Wexler started doing the jerk in front the dumbfounded band. The result became Pickett’s breakthrough smash, and in short order Sam & Dave and Don Covay charted hits recorded with the Stax sound.

Almost as soon as the productive partnership had begun, Pickett’s abrasiveness and a growing sense of confidence in the future of Stax cooled Stewart to the idea of outside production. But Wexler wasn’t about to return to the status quo in New York. “Southern recording had changed my life,” he says, “and I wanted to record that way forever.” He had been tipped that an equally talented group of musicians was working out of a small studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., called Fame Studios, and when Fame’s Rick Hall sent him an acetate made by an orderly named Percy Sledge — “When a Man Loves a Woman” — Wexler was sold. The song went on to become the first soul record to reach No. 1 on the pop charts, and Wexler, again with Pickett in tow, headed to Alabama.

In Muscle Shoals, Wexler discovered an even more empathetic group of musicians — ironically, all were Caucasian — who enabled him to crystallize the sound that would become most closely associated with ’60s soul. The building blocks were identical to those used at Stax — a tight rhythm section, keyboards, horns and massed background vocals — but Wexler, perhaps because he felt more at ease in the new studio, was free to use them more creatively, referring to them as “lines and patterns.” In the process, he transformed Muscle Shoals from a provincial outpost to one of the South’s major recording centers, a place that would eventually attract musicians as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Etta James and Simon and Garfunkel.

The first beneficiary of Wexler’s new headquarters was again Pickett, who recorded another parcel of hits with “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway” and “Land of a Thousand Dances.” But it was Aretha Franklin’s arrival that marked the high point of the Muscle Shoals experiment and Wexler’s career. Ever since hearing a 14-year-old Aretha sing “Precious Lord” on a Chess Records recording made at her father’s (the Rev. C.L. Franklin) church, Wexler was determined to sign her to Atlantic. His chance came in 1967, with Franklin languishing at Columbia, where she had spent six years enduring misguided attempts to package her as a pop singer. For her first session at Fame, Franklin brought a Ronnie Shannon song entitled “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”

Sitting at the piano in a studio filled with white musicians — most of whom knew little or nothing about her — Franklin struck the first chord of what would become one of the most remarkable acts of self-reinvention in popular music. The musicians were thunderstruck. “I’ve never heard so much emotion come from one human being,” drummer Roger Hawkins told Wexler, and Franklin’s tenure at Atlantic marked one of the most brilliant and commercially lucrative associations between an artist and a record company.

When asked about those first pivotal sessions with Aretha Franklin, Wexler replies: “I was cutting basic R&B and blues. All I had to do was drop her into the context.” While not inaccurate, the explanation does little to explain his M.O. in the studio, and doesn’t factor in the taste, intuition and imagination that Wexler had honed over the course of 20 years and injected into the proceedings with increasing skill. “Jerry will get up in the bass player’s face, so you could smell his breath, and sing a bass part,” says Jim Dickinson. “He may not necessarily want the bass player to play what he’s singing, he just wants him to play something different.”

Nevertheless, that “context” became much sought after, and Franklin’s phenomenal success cemented Wexler’s reputation as a master of rejuvenating careers in midstream, a testament to his ability to alternately use charm, force and diplomacy in coaxing the best from an artist. When he brought British pop singer Dusty Springfield to Chips Moman’s Memphis studio to make an album in 1968, he came away with nothing but instrumentals. Intimidated and insecure, Springfield had refused to sing. It took several agonizing sessions in New York — at one Springfield reportedly hurled an ashtray at Wexler’s head — to record the vocals. The result — the definitive “Dusty in Memphis” — revealed no evidence of struggle.

In 1967, at Wexler’s prompting, the Erteguns agreed to sell Atlantic. The partners continued to run the company, but for $17.5 million, a sum that even at the time was considered ludicrously small, they handed over Atlantic and its priceless catalog to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. The sale gave Wexler — the window washer’s son from Bennett Avenue — the security he had always craved, but laid the seeds for his eventual departure.

Meanwhile, Wexler split with Rick Hall at Muscle Shoals, just as he had several years before with Jim Stewart at Stax. Perhaps the success of Hall’s studio added to the perpetual tension between the two aggressive personalities, but as a result, Wexler found himself without a rhythm section. The split led to predictable accusations of carpetbagging and exploitation, which would resurface again when Jim Stewart discovered that he had signed over all the Stax masters to Atlantic as part of their distribution agreement. Somewhat incredibly, both Stewart and Wexler claim they were unaware of the provision. Not surprisingly, Atlantic’s corporate parent, Gulf & Western, was not particularly sympathetic to Stewart’s predicament.

After the break with Hall, in a move reminiscent of King Lear, Wexler moved to Florida, leaving his former company to be run by others and devoting himself to the full-time creation of records. He set up Atlantic South at Criteria Studios in Miami, and when the Muscle Shoals musicians cannily declined his offer to relocate, he recruited the Dixie Flyers, a band of Memphis musicians featuring Jim Dickinson on keyboards.

In Miami, the hits gradually started to slow down. Wexler continued to create superb records with new artists like Bonnie and Delaney, Tony Joe White, Doug Sahm and Donny Hathaway, while continuing to record proven stars like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. With Dr. John he created “Gumbo,” a brilliant pastiche of antique New Orleans funk, and during Atlantic’s short-lived Nashville operation, he recorded “Phases and Stages” with Willie Nelson, a musical makeover that presaged Nelson’s multiplatinum records with Columbia. Most enduringly, he conceived and produced Aretha’s “Amazing Grace,” a gospel masterpiece recorded during a church service in Los Angeles. But the forces of entropy that had caused Wexler to leave Memphis and Muscle Shoals came into play in Miami: Wexler and his wife, Shirley, divorced in 1972, and the fragmented Dixie Flyers joined Kris Kristofferson.

When Wexler returned to New York, he discovered that in his absence the Warner Bros. corporate culture had closed in on him. He was a stranger at the label, and a mid-’70s clash with Ahmet Ertegun’s protigi David Geffen served to demonstrate his alienation from the status quo. (“You’d jump in a pool of pus just to come up with a nickel in between your teeth,” screamed Wexler at a corporate luncheon as his former partners and Warner chairman Steve Ross looked on.) In 1975, after receiving little support from Ahmet, Wexler left the company he had helped build.

As it turned out, the demand for the Wexler sound was far from spent. In the ’80s he produced “Saved” for the born-again Bob Dylan, and subsequently worked with Santana, Dire Straits, Etta James and even George Michael. He also continued to pursue the revisionist concept albums he always enjoyed making. In 1982, he paired Linda Ronstadt with a small jazz ensemble for a session of jazz standards. Ronstadt decided not to release the album, but eventually recorded a similar album with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Willie Nelson loved Wexler’s idea of doing a Western Swing session, but Wexler’s heart attack consigned it to oblivion.

Even in his dealings with rock bands and pop idols, Wexler has remained true to the authentic vernacular sounds he has loved since childhood. Even as the music business that left him behind moves toward ever-greater corporate consolidation, Wexler remains an uncomfortable reminder of an individual’s — and an organization’s — ability to champion the most vulnerable and profound expressions of our culture, and in the process reconfigure the society around it. Along with Sam Phillips, he remains the epitome of that potential. “A lot of contemporary production tries to homogenize the music,” says Jim Dickinson. “They take away the element that’s alien. Jerry Wexler always turned that element up.”

As for the mysterious profession of record production, its infuriatingly subjective workings may remain locked in the grooves of the records and in the minds of the participants. Phillips, who has been known to indulge in instructive obfuscation and plain old hubris, sums it up thus: “Producing? I don’t know anything about producing records. But if you want to make some rock ‘n’ roll music, I can reach down and pull it out of your asshole.”

Dickinson recalls Wexler once telling him: “You never know who’s really going to produce the session. It could be the guy who brings the coffee.” “For a long time, I didn’t understand what that meant,” says Dickinson. “Producers whom I’ve worked with seemed to not do much of anything. I realized later that production is all in how you go about doing nothing.”

Speaking from his home in Long Island, where he lives with his wife, novelist Jean Arnold, Wexler seems simultaneously content and restless. As if chastened by past indiscretions, he is diplomatic and incommunicative on the subject of the music industry he once led. Instead he prefers to talk about the music he’s perpetually discovering and rediscovering — Kay Starr, Bob Wills, Dan Penn, the new Dr. John. He professes impatience with listening to his own records: “I know them so well.” But one suspects that for Wexler, playback pales in comparison with the moment of creation, the hours in the studio that still elicit his most animated responses.

“Jerry is a deeply spiritual guy,” says Stanley Booth, “but his religion is making music.” For Wexler, memories of recording Solomon Burke do seem to elicit far more joy than the notion of an afterlife, a subject on which Wexler remains doggedly pessimistic. “I’m so damn atheistic that I know there will be nothing to enjoy afterwards. Even if you’ve made an impact on world culture, you’re gone, baby.”

Alex Halberstadt has written for The New York Times, Grand Street, the Paris Review and other publications.

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    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

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