Jerry Wexler died August 14, 2008 at his home in Sarasota, Florida, age 91. This was the site of my only in-person encounter with the fabled Atlantic Records executive and producer, in January 2001, when Leslie and I had dinner with Jerry and his wife Jean Arnold. But as he did with so many others, Wex and I sustained a long-distance relationship by phone and fax, UPS and USPS. (In 2005, I was surprised and honored to receive a gift of the Ray Charles box set, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1952-1959, from the guy who produced nearly every track on its seven CDs.) In my case, these communications continued until about nine months before his death, after Jean suffered a stroke and Jerry went into terminal decline. It wasn’t dark yet, but it was getting there.
On Friday, October 30, 2009 at the Directors Guild Theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Jerry Wexler finally got the send-off he deserved. I’m not sure why it took over a year to happen, but the memorial was timed to coincide with two all-star Madison Square Garden concerts benefiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (JW was inducted in 1987 in the Non-Performer category). There may have been some overlap in attendance between the two events, but with the notable exception of Bonnie Raitt, none of the featured MSG performers showed up to honor Wex — including Aretha Franklin and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, the two whose careers were most closely entwined with his own.
Sam’s wife Joyce Moore appeared and explained that Sam was exhausted from his on-stage exertions of the previous night but sent his love and respect nonetheless. Aretha didn’t even send a message to be read in her absence — pretty cold, if you ask me, since it was Jerry Wexler who transformed ‘Re into the Queen of Soul through his production, his song selection, his choice of studio musicians and arrangers, and his relentless promotional campaigning.
The proceedings began with welcoming remarks from Jerry’s surviving children, Paul Wexler and Lisa Wexler; Paul acknowledged that “most of what I am today, I owe to my father…I wouldn’t change a lick, not even a note.” (Their older sister Anita, Jerry’s third child with his first wife Shirley, died in 1989 of AIDS-related illness before the age of 40.) We watched a pair of stunning video clips, culled from a PBS-type live-in-studio telecast circa 1972, in which the original Meters backed up first Professor Longhair and then Mac Rebbenack a/k/a Dr. John, with Allen Toussaint sitting in on piano. (‘Fess recorded brilliantly for Atlantic in 1949 and again in ’53; and despite his contentious relationship with Wexler, Rebbenack reached a career commercial peak during his Atlantic years, 1971-1974.)
The next video segment was no less compelling: Aretha Franklin performing in an unidentified church (possibly New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A., the site of her live recording Amazing Grace in January 1972), accompanied by a band and choir led, I think, by James Cleveland (also not identified). As the camera panned over the ecstatic congregation, we could see a slim long-haired white man rise from a rear seat, clapping in time: Mick Jagger.
“Peace in the Valley,” beautifully sung a capella by Vaneese Thomas, was the first live performance of the event. JW was a friend and admirer of her late father Rufus Thomas (1917-2001), and the 1960 Rufus & Carla Thomas duet “‘Cause I Love You” marked the start of the Stax/Atlantic partnership. Jerry then appeared in an undated interview to offer up a few well-polished anecdotes from his early years at Atlantic. At under five minutes, this segment was too brief: I would’ve liked to hear more from the man himself.
A succession of speakers offered their tributes. Jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins compared Wex to Bob Dylan in his “genius for absorbing everything in American music and giving back in a new way.” Giddins noted that at their first meeting, JW only wanted to talk about Adrian Rollini (a gifted if little-remembered white jazz player of the Twenties and Thirties) and that there was barely a song in Bing Crosby’s vast discography that Jerry could not sing from memory. In passing, Gary remarked that Nesuhi Ertegun, the younger brother of JW’s partner Ahmet Ertegun, “was referred to by jazz musicians as ‘the good Ertegun.'” Even if true, it was a cheap shot we could have done without, particularly since Ahmet’s widow Mica Ertegun was in the audience.
I’m a faithful listener to Bob Porter on “Saturday Morning Function” (WBGO-Newark NJ) while other readers may recognize his name from the production credits of numerous Prestige soul-jazz albums and assorted Atlantic reissues. Porter noted that it was Wexler who brought in some of the best R&B musicians of the period, people like [saxophonist] Sam “The Man” Taylor and [guitarist] Mickey Baker to form the first Atlantic studio band; who recruited the arranger Ray Ellis and who, in 1955, signed Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to the industry’s first formal independent production deal. “Make no mistake about it,” declared Porter, “it was Jerry Wexler and no other who was most responsible for bringing soul music to America.” (Full text of Bob’s remarks is posted here.)
Paul Wexler read a message from guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs, and we watched a video tribute from West Coast music executive Jerry Greenberg, who began his 18-year Atlantic career in 1967 as Wexler’s gofer. Greenberg likened this formative period to boot camp in the Marine Corps, with JW as DI: “Either you made it through or they found your body in a swamp somewhere, six months later.” When Greenberg moved up the Atlantic ladder, another eager A&R aspirant, Mark Meyerson, arrived in 1969 to take his place. Meyerson remembered Wexler delineating the difference between the 12-bar and 16-bar blues for him on the piano, and summed up his ex-boss’s professional credo as “if you were awake, then you were working.”
The author David Ritz met Wexler while co-writing Ray Charles’ autobiography Brother Ray in the mid-Eighties. He later co-authored Jerry’s own memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life In American Music (published 1993), and the two men remained fast friends until the end. Ritz conveyed deep feelings of both love and loss as he hailed “a ferocious wit, a a super-funky storyteller.” (David’s speech is posted on YouTube — click here.) Engineer/producer Jimmy Douglass talked rather more about his own career than the occasion warranted: Forty years on, it seemed he still held a grudge towards Jerry for initially offering eager young Jimmy a job in the Atlantic warehouse instead of in the Atlantic studio (“I hated that job”). Eventually, Douglass made it to the control room and worked with acts ranging from Slave and Stanley Turrentine to Foreigner and the Gang of Four.
The last word, on a more appreciative note, came from Zelma Redding, Otis’ widow, who fondly remembered the man who delivered the eulogy at her husband’s funeral in December 1967. Of this heartbreaking moment in Macon, GA, JW later wrote: “I could barely compose myself. My voice cracked, my eyes filled with tears.” Four years later, he would return to Macon to deliver another eulogy, this time for guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.
And now it was showtime.
Guitarist Jon Tiven led the backing band onstage, including bassist Jerry Jemmott (a veteran of countless JW-produced sessions), drummer Anton Fig, organist Mike Finnigan, and the members of The Uptown Horns. First up was New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint — Wexler produced his 1978 album Motion — who played piano and sang on the winsome ballad “With You In Mind.”
For nearly 20 years, Lisa Wexler has played drums for (and booked, and managed) the Woodstock-based all-female band Big Sister. This group was an unknown quantity to me but their two songs were excellent. Lisa and bassist Desiree Williams locked into a push-and-pull rhythmic groove behind singer/guitarist Lara Parks on the Big Sister original “Talk Down to Me” and a stirring cover of Freddie Scott‘s 1967 soul classic “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” with Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group adding a third guitar to the churn. William Bell, a class act still in warmly expressive voice after 50 years on stage, sang “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (his Stax debut single, from ’61) joined by original Muscle Shoals sessioneers Spooner Oldham (piano) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) along with master drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.
More surprising was the appearance of actress Ronee Blakeley (Nashville, A Nightmare On Elm Street) — Wexler produced her 1975 album Welcome in Muscle Shoals — in a heartfelt if vocally uncertain duet with Lenny Kaye on “I Can’t Make It Alone.” This Gerry Goffin/Carole King song is the closing track on the original LP version of Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield (1969), which stands as JW’s greatest production for any white artist.
If I was surprised to see Ronee Blakeley, I was frankly amazed to see Joe South make his unsteady way to center stage — all the way from Atlanta GA with his big Gretsch hollow-body guitar in hand, maybe the same one he played on Aretha Arrives and Blonde On Blonde. To the best of my recollection, the creator of “Games People Play,” “Hush,” and “Down In the Boondocks” had not appeared in NYC since 1994, when
he’d joined Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, and the late great Ted Hawkins for one of those singer/songwriter in-the-round shows at The Bottom Line. Overweight, unkempt, and moving slow (possibly due to diabetes, which can cause loss of feeling in the extremities), Joe nonetheless hit all his marks on “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” He sounded just like Joe South (i.e. great) and Jerry Jemmott played his butt off on the tune.
Another old Muscle Shoals hand, Donnie Fritts, sang and played piano on “We Had It All” — a favorite of Wexler’s from Donnie’s 1974 Atlantic album Prone To Lean. Lou Ann Barton ably represented the Austin music community with her rendition of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” a song from her JW-produced album Old Enough (1982); she looked and sounded terrific.
In 1963, at age seventeen, Bettye LaVette scored her only Top Ten R&B hit with the Atlantic single “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man.” Bettye told us that a year later, when she announced to a nonplussed Jerry Wexler that she was leaving the label, “he took out his personal checkbook and wrote me a check for $500. ‘Bettye,’ he said, ‘if you’re really leaving, you’re gonna need this’ — and he was right!” The Detroit soul survivor then offered a deep-blue “Drown In My Own Tears” — a #1 R&B hit for Ray Charles in 1956 and one of Wex’s all-time classics. Bettye LaVette can really bring the pain like few other singers working today.
Bettye was a tough act to follow but the blue-eyed soul brother Steve Bassett proved up to the task with his rousing closer (closing rouser?) of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Signed by Wex’s dear friend John Hammond (1910-1987) in 1980, Steve made his lone Columbia album in Muscle Shoals with co-producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. It didn’t sell beans, but gradually Bassett built up a solid career as an in-demand jingle and session singer, later self-releasing a slew of his own CDs from home base in Richmond, VA. Steve’s unpretentious, joyful delivery of the Big Joe Turner flag-waver sent us out onto West 57th Street on an uplifting cloud of good feeling, grateful to have been part of the occasion.
In attendance: Danny Fields, Aaron Fuchs (Tuff City Records, wearing a vintage Cash Box Magazine satin baseball jacket), A&R man/producer Mitch Miller (99 years young on July 4, 2010), music producer/filmmaker Leo Sacks, Paul Shaffer, Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Jeremy Tepper (Sirius/XM), attorney Judy Tint (Rhythm & Blues Foundation), photographer Dick Waterman, Harry Weinger (Motown/Universal); Atlantic veterans Jim Delehant, Barbara Harris, and Phillip Rauls; scribes Jim Bessman, Stanley Booth, Kandia Crazy Horse, Deborah Frost, and Holly George-Warren; and musicians Ben E. King, Bonnie Raitt, G.E. Smith, and Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band).
GIMME SOMETHING BETTER: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day by Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor (Penguin p/b, 2009)
In his introduction to Gimme Something Better, punk musician Jesse Michaels (ex-Operation Ivy) gives the thumbs-up to the book’s oral history format, in which quotes from dozens of interviewees have been cut up and assembled in roughly chronological order. “The oral history format,” he writes, “has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer. The Rock Writer writing about punk generally has one aim: to arrogate intellectual ownership of something he or she knows absolutely nothing about. That bullet is dodged here…The stories that follow are the real thing.”
One bullet may have been dodged, but a few others have left noticeable holes in the pierced and tattooed corpus of Gimme Something Better. For example, specific dates are included only when someone remembers to mention them. Thus, we learn that The Nuns first played the Mabuhay Gardens in “November or December 1976” (per photographer James Stark) but not when either The Ramones and Patti Smith played their eye-opening San Francisco debuts, the shows that led directly to the formation of bands like The Nuns.
Many independent records are cited by various speakers, sometimes with extravagant praise: Fang’s Landshark, declares Fat Mike of the band NOFX, “is, behind the Operation Ivy record, the second or third best record out of the East Bay.” Extrapolating from the chapter [“Berkeley Heathen Scum”] in which Mike’s quote appears, Landshark would seem to have been released in 1984. But the current Amazon.com listing (for a twofer CD of Landshark and Fang’s follow-up Where The Wild Things Are) says 1982 and there’s no accompanying discography in GSB to clarify this or any other details of release dates, labels, in-print/out-of-print status, etc. (And Fat Mike’s crew are no slackers in the disc-production department themselves: AllMusic.com credits NOFX with sixteen full-length albums over 20 years, right up to 2009’s Coaster.)
The last section of the book is a “Who’s Who” of interviewees arranged in alphabetical order by first names. In some instances, the subjects seem to have provided their own capsule descriptions, so details vary in quantity and quality. Anna Brown is a “Berkeley native. What she does is secret.” Dirk Dirksen’s role as “booker of Mabuhay Gardens” is noted but not his death in November 2006. And there’s no index.Finally, few of the speakers make any effort to describe the actual music played by all these bands. So if you’ve no idea what Crimpshrine or Isocracy sound like, you’re on your own on the ‘Net because Boulware and Tudor ain’t tellin’. Guess that’s a job for the dreaded Rock Critic in the next history of Bay Area punk rock (don’t hold your breath).
Despite these shortcomings, Gimme Something Better manages to effectively portray the scene’s divergent personalities, notable venues, and shifting tides of social history. The feeling is there even if many facts are omitted. (The 478-page paperback was reduced, say the authors, from an 800-page manuscript; supplementary bonus material is posted on their web site.)
We see the art-student bands (Mutants, Avengers, Crime) give way to satirical proto-hardcore (Dead Kenndys), then to younger and angrier hardcore (Millions of Dead Cops, Christ On Parade), then to chartbound pop-punk (Green Day, who I’m sure I’d rather listen to over MDC or COP). There are multi-faceted portraits of little-remembered venues like Ruthie’s Inn, a black-owned nightclub that hosted the likes of Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin before giving way to early Metallica and Slayer; and The Farm, a rundown but still-working farm where gigs were “cold sweat and dirt and manure dripping down on you. When you got home, you were covered in dirt” (Zeke Jak, p. 229). Gimme Something Better also tells the story of two Bay Area punk institutions still hanging on after nearly a quarter-century: 924 Gilman Street, the all-volunteer co-op venue (first show New Year’s Eve 1986); and America’s premier punk-rock fanzine, Maximum RocknRoll (first issue published 1982, as an LP insert), and its intriguing founder, the late Tim Yohannon (1945-1998).
[“If you got rich from an East Bay punk band, you owe everything to Tim Yohannon. He wa making a world-renowned magazine. If you had a bumfuck band in Milwaukee, only some people in Milwaukee knew about it. If you had a bumfuck band in the East Bay, everyone all over the world knew it…They should have a fuckin’ permanent memorial to the guy.” — Blag Jesus, p. 467]
Never a habitue of the hardcore scene on either coast, I admit to being taken aback, even repulsed by some of the incidents of violence recounted in Gimme Something Better. During an Elite Club set in ’82, Misfits guitarist Doyle brings down his instrument and splits open the head of a fan, Tim Sutliff. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys calls it “the worst thing I’d ever seen at a show in my life, by far” (p. 207-209). At a show by L.A. band 45 Grave, one Bob Noxious “got really drunk and…I vowed to kick anyone’s ass who came from an out-of-town band.” His chosen target was 45 Grave’s diminutive female singer, Dinah Cancer: “Bob came running across the fucking stage and she went flying out into the crowd. She was unconscious, lying on the dance floor” (Bill Halen, p. 180-182). In 1989, Sam McBride a/k/a Sammytown, the badly strung-out lead singer of Fang, strangled his girlfriend Dixie Lee Carney. Convicted of manslaughter, McBride served seven years in San Quentin and Soledad; upon release, he formed a new Fang that toured as recently as 2008. (Green Day covered Fang’s “I Want to Be On TV” on their 2002 album Shenanigans.)
But something else, something better if you will, stays with me after reading Gimme Something Better: a sense of wonder that the Bay Area punk-rockers were able to create as much music and related culture as they did while struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction, police harassment, and myriad intra-group conflicts. For better and worse, they made their own world, and the best of their efforts, their idealism and determination, remain a source of inspiration to this day, flowing through international youth culture like a subterranean stream below the concrete.
“We have a certain way of seeing the world. You can travel the world as a punk and people come to see you and you go to see them. That’s what you have in common and that’s actually a lot. It’s radically transformative. I am grateful. True ’til death! Just not death at 25.” (Anna Brown, p. 462)