Rhythm and blues pioneer Jerry Wexler dead at 91

Fri Aug 15, 2008 6:59pm EDT
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By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Pioneering music executive Jerry Wexler, who helped build Atlantic Records into a rhythm and blues powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s with artists like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, died in Florida on Friday at age 91, Atlantic Records said.

Along with the late Ahmet Ertegun, co-head of Atlantic, Wexler revolutionized R&B music as the consummate businessman behind an independent label that had few rivals in its day, spearheading Atlantic's move into "Southern soul" music.

In addition to Charles and Franklin, Wexler helped develop such acts as Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Roberta Flack, often finding talent in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Miami.

But his influence was not limited to R&B. He helped guide the careers of many artists, including rockers Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits and the B-52's, as well as Bob Dylan and country star Willie Nelson.

"Jerry brought a rare combination of creativity, intelligence, wit, artistic sensibility and business savvy to the evolution of Atlantic from a small independent label into a major industry force," Atlantic said in a statement.

Neil Portnow, president of the Grammy-sponsoring National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, saluted Wexler as a "true music-making pioneer" whose work "created an amazing legacy of R&B, pop and rock."

Wexler was born in New York City, in January 1917, to a family of Jewish immigrants. He worked as a window washer with his father before serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he worked for music publication Billboard magazine as a journalist, where he coined the term "rhythm and blues."

A passionate jazz fan, Wexler joined Atlantic in 1953, working alongside Ertegun, who died in 2006, to compile a roster of talent that ranged from R&B acts like the Drifters, Solomon Burke, and LaVern Baker to the Rolling Stones.   Continued...

<p>Former music producer and Atlantic records executive Jerry Wexler in shown in this 1972 publicity photo released to Reuters August 15, 2008. REUTERS/Atlantic Records/Handout</p>