Saturday, August 16, 2008

Immaculate Funk

I was nervous as I walked up to the bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Before being hired as the west coast publicity director for Atlantic Records, it was necessary to get the approval of the company's two Great Men, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, legends in the music business. Ahmet had been easy. He laid on the Turkish charm and told me that he wanted me to be his eyes and ears on the coast (I soon learned he said that to everyone, including a number of notorious groupies). Jerry concerned me. He had started out as a writer for Billboard magazine, and the music he had produced with LaVern Baker, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and the Coasters was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. He was known to be a music fan and an intellectual who could use words like the horn of a musician. I wanted him to like me. So I wrote down my musical autobiography, in which Atlantic's roster of artists had played such a large role, and presented it to him during our interview in the bungalow as an introductory gift. He was impressed, and very complimentary.

That was nearly forty years ago. Jerry died yesterday at his home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 91. Both of us left Atlantic in 1975, he because they'd sold the company to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts in 1967 and he was never comfortable in the corporate environment; and me because working in the music business had become too toxic. I needed to escape to northern California from the temptations of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I never got to know Jerry well, but we did speak occasionally when he visited the Hollywood office, and I remember him from the 1970 company conference in Palm Springs, the beginning of my tenure with Atlantic (I worked there at three different periods) and the 25th anniversary celebration in Paris a couple of years later when I dined with him and his then wife Shirley (St├ęphane Grappelli played for our meal).

The last time we met was under strained circumstances. Jerry was in San Francisco for Aretha Franklin's performance at Bill Graham's Fillmore. It was a memorable event. King Curtis led the orchestra and Ray Charles made a surprise appearance. It's all captured on a classic Atlantic recording. I was supposed to be assisting Jerry, and I set up several interviews with writers at his hotel. But I was being courted by jazz critic Ralph Gleason who wanted me to do PR for Fantasy Records in Berkeley, the company made rich by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ralph had retired from writing his column for the San Francisco Chronicle and was now vice present of the company in which he had a financial interest (he was also the original investor for Rolling Stone Magazine). While I was visiting across the Bay with Ralph, Jerry was frantically trying to reach me (no cell phones in those days) about a canceled interview. He never forgave me for leaving him hanging.

“Immaculate Funk,” was Wexler’s phrase for the Atlantic sound, characterized by a heavy backbeat and a gospel influence. “It’s funky, it’s deep, it’s very emotional, but it’s clean,” he once said. Tom Thurman took the term for the title of his documentary in 2000 on "rhythm and blues," the label Jerry created at Billboard in the late 1940s for what had been called "race music." He was the son of a Polish immigrant who cleaned windows for a living, and a mother who wanted more for her son. She instilled in him a love for great books. He became passionate about music and in the clubs of Harlem and on 52nd Street he listened to Roy Eldridge, Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday. Sent away to the midwest for school, Wexler played hookey in Kansas City where he heard Count Basie, Bennie Moten and soul singers like Joe Turner. When he returned to Manhattan he hung out with other jazz and blues fans like the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, and John Hammond who later made his name as a producer at Columbia Records. After five years at Billboard, Ahmet invited him in 1953 to become a partner at Atlantic and the rest is history. Recalling the early days, Wexler told an interviewer, "We didn't know shit about making records, but we were having fun." "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." During Wexler's first two years at the label, 30 Atlantic sides landed in the R&B Top 10.

In his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music (1993, co-authored with David Ritz), Wexler wrote about his background: "I was simmered in a slow-cooking gumbo of New Orleans jazz, small Harlem combos, big bands, Western swing, country, jukebox race music, pop schmaltz." He will long be remembered for convincing Aretha to abandon the pop songs she was singing and return to her gospel roots. That partnership resulted in such masterpieces as "Respect" and "Natural Woman" (which Wexler wrote). When Ahmet got more involved in rock, signing Sonny & Cher, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Wexler turned his attention south and utilized outstanding studio bands to record hits in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. Eventually he moved to Miami where I watched him produce a session with the reunited Electric Flag in 1974. He also tried to start a country division for Atlantic, starting with Willie Nelson, but aside from Willie it never got off the ground.

I wasn't the only one to have a falling out with Wexler. He could be opinionated and abrasive. His former collaborators, Jim Stewart at Stax in Memphis and Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, later came to see him as a carpetbagger coming down to pilfer the patrimony of Southern music. Wexler particularly disliked David Geffen, the wunderkind who rose from an Laura Nyro's agent to become the head of Asylum Records and a co-founder of Dream Works films, whom he called a "greedy agent." When Geffen came to Wexler to ask him to release Stephen Stills from his solo contract in order to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, the older man kicked him out of his office. According to Geffen, "Wexler wouldn't even listen to me. He treated me like dirt. He screamed and yelled and acted like I was looking to rob him." At a later meeting of corporate executives, Wexler screamed at Geffen: "You'd jump in a pool of pus just to come up with a nickel between your teeth, " while his former partners and Warner chairman Steve Ross looked on in shock. It was almost a badge of honor to be at odds with the jive talking hipster record producer.

A few years ago, according to Rolling Stone, Wexler put together a CD for friends of the recordings he was most proud of producing. It's a remarkable list: Professor Longhair, "Tipitina" (1953), Ray Charles, "I Got a Woman" (1954), Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954), LaVern Baker, "Tweedlee Dee" (1954), Champion Jack Dupree, "Junker's Blues" (1958), The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959), Ray Charles, "What I'd Say" (1959), Solomon Burke, "If You Need Me" (1963), Booker T. & the MG's, "Green Onions" (1962), Wilson Pickett, "In the Midnight Hour" (1965), Aretha Franklin, "Respect" (1967), Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man" (1969), Dr. John, "Iko Iko" (1972), Doug Sahm, "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone" (1973), Willie Nelson, "Bloody Mary Morning" (1974), The Sanford/Townsend Band, "Smoke From a Distant Fire" (1977), James Booker, "Winin' Boy Blues" (1978), Etta James, "Take It to the Limit" (1978), Dire Straits, "Lady Writer" (1979), Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979).

The pioneers are all gone now: Ahmet and Nesuhi and Jerry (the three pictured below), producer Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd, the awesome engineer who started as a kid in the early Atlantic studio (actually an office with the desks pushed back) and became an innovator as the tape tracks multiplied, producing acclaimed albums by the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and the J. Geils Band (his work is chronicled in the 2003 documentary "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music"). I never more than rubbed shoulders with them during my brisk walk through the record business in the 1970s. But the music they helped make is a part of me, like bones and veins. "Dusty in Memphis" is still one of my favorite albums, Ray Charles taught me that musical genres are only guidelines, and Aretha is still the queen, despite her subsequent retreat into pop schmaltz.

There is a revealing and touching portrait of the R&B lion in winter in today's Washington Post. Staff writer Ann Hornaday visited Wexler last Spring when third wife, novelist Jean Arnold, was in a nursing home recovering from a stroke.
He ushered me into his darkened office ("my chamber of horrors"), where he kept in touch with family and friends by phone and fax ("I'm not online," he drawled in the elongated vowels of his native Bronx)...

Outside, palm trees swayed gently, while inside Wexler spoke of old times, new projects and lost friends like a man in a lush, quiet, green prison. Of a newly released record by a young artist covering one of his most legendary albums: "She has a beautiful voice, but there are no tracks." What kind of music was he listening to these days? "Mostly classic jazz. I can't stand rap -- there's no melody. And you can't understand a word they're saying." Does he hear from any of the artists he used to record? "Willie still checks in regularly," he said, referring to Willie Nelson. "He came to visit when he played the Van Wezel [Performing Arts Hall] in Sarasota. And Kris Kristofferson stopped by."
"Jerry is a deeply spiritual guy," says Stanley Booth, "but his religion is making music." Filmmaker Thurman asked the secular Jew and confirmed atheist, "What do you want written on your tombstone, Jerry?" He said, "Two words: More bass."

Writing about my glamorous past always brings up complicated emotions. For years I tried to forget about the five years I spent in the music business. It (the late nights, the drugs, the women) destroyed my first marriage and hurt my two sons. My second ex-wife refused to listen to my stories. And, truth to tell, they weren't very interesting. I didn't sing, I didn't write songs, and I didn't jam with the famous. A failed musician (just didn't have the chops), I was first and foremost a fan. I loved rhythm and blues, jazz, folk music and, to a limited extent, pop schmaltz (Perry Como and Teresa Brewer, among others). I even learned to love country hillbilly swing and Hawaiian hula music. But who wants to hear about how I snorted cocaine with ... ?

So here I am at 69 looking back on a lifetime of indulgence. Can I do penance for my self-centeredness by helping young monks learn English? Will I live as long as Jerry Wexler? If so, that means I have 22 years to make up for lost time.


Anonymous said...

OK - I'm confused - I thought you left *MCA* in '75?

Anyway - you know I've always found this sh*t interesting as hell....time to go write that tell-all book.

Son #1

Anonymous said...

" He will long be remembered for convincing Aretha to abandon the pop songs she was singing and return to her gospel roots. That partnership resulted in such masterpieces as "Respect" and "Natural Woman" (which Wexler wrote).

Not true!!! According to Carole King.....

"If you look at the writer's credit for "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" you'll see Jerry Wexler's name listed along with Gerry Goffin's and mine. That's because Jerry suggested the title "Natural Woman" to Gerry and me as part of an assignment to write a song for Aretha Franklin"
see for more info.