Eyewitness to rhythm & blues history


Oh, for Jerry Wexler's resume.

It includes: long-time partner during the glory years of Atlantic Records. Angel to Aretha Franklin. Producer for Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters and Willie Nelson. Author of the term "rhythm and blues" as a reporter for Billboard (thus replacing the loaded chart label for black music in the '40s, "race records").

At the same time, Mr. Wexler, like so many careerists, allowed his family life to deteriorate into catastrophe. He lost an adult daughter to AIDS, having long denied the extent of her drug problem. Two marriages split up because of his workaholism. Eventually his career sank, a victim of Mr. Wexler's unwavering loyalty to "music of the soul," his neurotic need for a quick financial payoff and his inability to fit into mega-rock corporatism.

Does all this make "Rhythm and the Blues," Mr. Wexler's life story, just another crash-and-burn confessional, yet another mewling piece of if-I-had-to-do-it-again revisionism?

Fortunately, no. Mr. Wexler and co-author David Ritz (biographer of Marvin Gaye, Brother Ray and Smokey Robinson) have a gift for storytelling and clear, uncluttered narrative, sparing readers stacks of tedium and voyeuristic cringing.

Mr. Wexler and Mr. Ritz steer clear of the pop self-psychoanalysis so readily found in the genre, opting instead for telling details and ribald anecdotes. Despite some omissions and utterances of false naivete, "Rhythm and the Blues" is a near-seamless romp through Mr. Wexler's history of R&B;, soul and pop.

From the outset, Mr. Wexler was a hipster, a cross between the characters of Damon Runyon and Horatio Alger. The son of a Talmudic scholar turned window cleaner and an overbearing, uppity mother, Mr. Wexler turned to pool hustling at age 13.

By his late teens, he and his Upper West Manhattan buddies were entranced by the rhythms of jazz and the free life the music promised. Despite Mr. Wexler's dalliances with college and his mother's insistence on a career in literature, he spent much of his youth as a no-goodnik-- hunting down records, hanging out in Harlem, smoking "reefers," occasionally helping Dad wash windows.

A stint in the Army introduced Mr. Wexler to discipline and focus (for which he is surprisingly grateful). A friend of a friend got him his first industry job at the then-fledgling Broadcast Music Inc.

Mr. Wexler's first 35 years were personally and musically rich, but so professionally unremarkable that one wonders if he could have entered the music business during any other era (especially now, given the industry's fetish for planning and marketing). But in the '50s, small specialized labels such as Atlantic ran on little money and plenty of energy and ideas, both of which Mr. Wexler had in abundance.

Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic's longtime chairman, must have sensed this, making Mr. Wexler a partner when another one (Herb Abramson) was drafted. Mr. Wexler began running the store, dishing out payola to open-handed disc jockeys, producing LaVern Baker (the first of many) despite having no knowledge of the studio, and developing an R&B; brain trust with Mr. Ertegun that was second to none.

Eventually, Mr. Ertegun had Atlantic branch out to include the white-rock imitators (Led Zeppelin, Electric Flag, Foreigner) of black r&b; stars, while Mr. Wexler nurtured the Stax/Volt scene in Memphis and the nascent Muscle Shoals connection in Alabama.

While Mr. Ertegun courted stars, Mr. Wexler stuck with what moved him: po' folks' blues, both pure and refined, played by blacks and good ol' boys down South.

Mr. Wexler's memories of the genius of Ray Charles, the brooding sensuality and power of Ms. Franklin and the anger of Mr. Pickett have the ring of truth. You can tell that Mr. Wexler got to the core of his artists by working to understand them.

When he gets too flowery or self-inflating, Mr. Ritz (I'm guessing) intersperses quotes from those who have experienced first-hand the other Jerry -- testy, insensitive, boorish. It's a nice trick, one that gives us a fleshed-out subject instead of a mere passel of reworked memories.

However, Mr. Wexler is capable of disingenuousness on some touchy issues. For example, he signed the Stax label to a subsidiary deal in the mid-'60s. When Stax's founders, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, decided to switch labels years later, they found they were hamstrung by a clause giving Atlantic sole ownership of all master tapes. Mr. Wexler contends he didn't know about this restrictive clause, which sounds more than a bit curious.

Similarly, he mentions but tiptoes around his falling out with Mr. Ertegun. Both during a proposed merger with Red Bird Records in 1964, and again when Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. in 1968 (for a paltry $17.5 million, mostly to massage Mr. Wexler's flagging ego), Mr. Ertegun and Mr. Wexler were on opposite sides of the fence. Reportedly, the two no longer speak. In this light, Mr. Wexler's dedication of this book to Mr. Ertegun looks like a ridiculous peace offering.

But despite the occasional glitch, "Rhythm and the Blues" is an endearing piece of work, full of Mr. Wexler's wit, energy and very vigorous life.


Title: "Rhythm and the Blues"

Author: Jerry Wexler and David Ritz

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 316 pages, $25

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