Jerry Wexler was born on 10 January 1917 in New York City. He completed a degree in journalism and worked for Billboard. In 1953 he started to work for Atlantic Records and was involved in producing the Drifters, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin. He has also produced Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan and Dire Straits. I spoke to him at his home in Florida for an interview which was broadcast on Saturday 26 February 2005.
SL: From reading your book, Rhythm and the Blues, I take it that you are a producer who is more keen on the feel than the technicalities.
JERRY WEXLER: Exactly and I had the advantage of having the legendary Tom Dowd who was perhaps the foremost sound engineer of the era. He was always sitting on my left. Most producers move the faders or twist the knobs and I never had to put my hands on the board, except perhaps very late on when the multiples reached 64 in which case Tom would say, ‘Please push these particular knobs or faders’, but otherwise I didn’t have to touch anything. The same would be true of microphones and miking the drums, miking the vocals and what kind of mike to use. We would get into a routine and if I wanted a particular sound on a particular singer, I would say to Tom, ‘Let’s use that German mike that we used on Ray Charles or Solomon Burke’, and so on. I became familiarised in a layman’s way with the bells and whistles that were available. I never had to understand them in depth, and all I would say to Tom is, ‘Let’s do so and so.’ The end product was our concern and that depended upon the final mix.
SL: So you were almost listening to the music as a listener would.
JERRY WEXLER: Exactly. When we mixed the record we would use various sized speakers and then finally put the playback on very small speakers, and even take a cassette or a CD out to the car and try it in an automobile as so much listening was done while people were driving with small speakers. One of the most important things was balance, to make sure that the singer could be distinguished and could be heard intelligibly over the instrumental background. A frequently committed sin in this business is the sin of drowning out the speaker and a lot of that is attributable to the vanity of the arranger or the producer who wants to his charts to be heard very prominently – he wants to hear those strings, he wants to hear those horns. I want to hear the bass drum and so on, but I think there have been many mistakes as this diminishes the vocal. After all, this business is pretty much about a singer and a song.
SL: I could never understand why Mick Jagger’s vocals were submerged on the Rolling Stones’ records in the 60s.
JERRY WEXLER: You would have to attribute to Mick and Keith themselves. Mick and Keith were really the producers of those records, they made the records and they took the decisions. The producers were more or less pro forma. I saw Mick and Keith in the studio at Muscle Shoals when they made Wild Horses and I was really impressed by them as record producers, not just as brilliant rock performers. They knew just wanted to do and how to do it, and they want about it decisively and economically, not wasting time and that’s another factor. Time-wasting is an enormous component in rock and roll and that comes from a lack of certitude, of not knowing what to do. Let’s try this or let’s try that. Not so with Mick and Keith: however the mix came out, that was their doing.
SL: In the 50s I presume that most artists would be trying out the songs in clubs and then coming into the studio. By the time of Sgt Pepper, a lot of artists would come in the studios to write the songs.
JERRY WEXLER: Yes, this is a multi-generational phenomenon. Back in the early 30s in the eras of small bands and big bands and singers like Bing Crosby or Gene Austin, the material was developed and refined in performance before they got into the studio. They would bring to the studio a more or less finished product. The objective was to catch this performance on tape, and of course it was mono and they had to catch it the way it sounded in the studio. Music moved on into rhythm and blues and rock and so on and many performers learnt their material in the studio and so it was matter of rehearsing and developing the songs there. I always took a rigorous stance on that. I insisted on diligent pre-production. I would say, ‘Work it out at home or at a rental studio, which is very cheap. In a recording studio the clock means dollars going by at a great pace, so come prepared.’ It went back to preparation on the road.
Take Ray Charles. When Ray assembled his own little seven piece combo, he would go out on the road and he would perfect all his material before he came into the studio. He would call me up and he would say, ‘Hey cousin, I’m coming in two or three weeks and I have three songs that we can do.’ We could do those songs without too much stress or time wasting. Then he would come back again and eventually we would have enough for an album. Same with Aretha Franklin. Instead of saying, ‘We will do an album here’, which could take anything from three weeks to a year in the case of a notorious British band, we didn’t often sit down with the notion of doing a whole album, a thematic album. We would do a few songs, put them away, and get the singer to come back. Then we would have enough to constitute an album’s worth.
SL: When Ray Charles wrote What’d I Say, did he perfect it on the road before you heard it?
JERRY WEXLER: Absolutely. Ray, God rest him, was a very modest man. He was aware of his level of creativity and I think he was a genius. He was aware of it but he never displayed it. He would call and say that he had a few songs but he wouldn’t usually make any comment about them. He called me up before he brought What’d I Say in and this became extravagant hyperbole when he said, ‘I think you might like this one pretty well.’ That constituted a rave for him and it was very easy to record. It was hardly a song: it was an extended rhythm lick with a few jingle like verses: most of them were Sears-Roebuck lines from the blues, ‘See that girl with the red dress on, She can do the Birdland all night long’, not exactly Shakespearian innovation. He strung a few lines together but the essence of that record was that boiling rhythm track and the back and forth between Ray and the Raelets. That was all prepared.
SL: Ray Charles may have been a modest man but you did put out albums with ‘Genius’ in their titles.
JERRY WEXLER: That was more or less my doing. There was only one album that was called The Genius Of Ray Charles. That was the last album he did for us and he went to greener pastures, I suppose. I had wanted to use the word ‘Genius’ in connection with a Ray Charles album for a year or two but my partners dissuaded me – that is, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun – they said, ‘Let’s not get so boastful.’ Finally, we all agreed that the album deserved the appellation so that’s how it came about.
SL: Save The Last Dance For Me was produced by Leiber and Stoller but were you overseeing these records?
JERRY WEXLER: No, I had nothing to do with it. Having them do the Drifters’ records was happenstance. In the first incarnation of the Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter, Ahmet Ertegun and I produced those records – Money Honey, Honey Love and all of those things. Then there was a hiatus: Clyde McPhatter left the group and went into the army. When he came back, he engaged on a solo career and the years went by with no Drifters, and the Drifters fragmented. The rights to the name unfortunately reverted to a manager and an accountant instead of to the members themselves. Therefore we had to deal with these people: we were not happy about it, but the name ‘The Drifters’ seemed to still have some value, even though it was in hibernation. I called the manager who was a trumpet player who had been married to Sarah Vaughan and I said, ‘You want to assemble a group and we call them the Drifters’ and see what we can do. He found a group called the Crowns whose lead singer was Ben E King and through commercial or artistic licence or whatever, we changed the Crowns into the Drifters. Leiber and Stoller had been producing the Coasters for us, and as Ahmet and I found ourselves very busy as the company was growing, we thought it might be a lark if they had a shot with the Drifters. They had There Goes My Baby which was a huge hit and they became the producers of this next generation of Drifters.