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).
Born January 1, 1925 – New York, NY
Died October 27, 2002 – Aventura, FL
“Sometimes,” Ahmet Ertegun once said, “the guy who brings the coffee produces the session.” At the Atlantic Records of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, such creative serendipity often balanced precariously on the narrow but sturdy shoulders of Tom Dowd. One of the most gifted and innovative engineer/producers in recording history, he died October 27, 2002 at a nursing home in Aventura, Florida after a prolonged respiratory illness.
A youthful prodigy in physics and electronics, the New York City native graduated Stuyvesant High School at age 16 (my father, Howard Schwartz, graduated from the same school at the same age) and attended City College of New York before being drafted into the Army in 1942. Instead of being shipped overseas, Dowd was able to continue his work and studies in the physics labs of Columbia University as part of the US government-sponsored task force known as the Manhattan Project in the development of the atomic bomb. Dowd was also a trained musician (violin, piano, string bass, sousaphone) who performed with the Columbia band and orchestra. His horror at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is said to have led him to abandon nuclear physics and enter the recording field.
Beginning circa 1948, Tom toiled in various small New York studios recording everything from radio adverts to groundbreaking jazz dates with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music credits him with engineering the first stereo album, by the Wilbur De Paris Dixieland Band, “which required customized equipment, including two needles, to play it.” Dowd joined Atlantic as a full-time employee in 1954 (about a year after Jerry Wexler), when the label’s New York office still sometimes doubled as its recording studio. He became, in Wexler’s words, “the architect of the Atlantic sound,” bringing an unparalleled clarity and concision to the recording of r&b and jazz.
“Tom pushed those pots [volume controls] like a painter sorting colors,” wrote Wexler in his 1993 autobiography Rhythm and The Blues, co-authored with David Ritz. “He turned microphone placement into an art…When it came to sound, he displayed an exquisite sensitivity.”
In an October 1999 interview for MIX magazine, Dowd noted that “in February of ’58, the first [Atlantic] session on 8-track was Lavern Baker. Within the next 90 days, I went through Bobby Darin, the Coasters, Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles…I would be sitting in the studio doing the Coasters at 2 o’clock in the afternoon with Mike [Stoller] and Jerry [Leiber]. Ahmet would call me up and say, ‘Ten o’clock tonight, we’re going to do Mingus.’ You want culture shock? Go from the Coasters to Charlie Mingus in ten hours!” Dowd designed Atlantic’s first 8-track studio on West 60th Street in 1959 and began recording there the following year.
In 1963, on his first visit to Stax Records in Memphis, Tom performed emergency repairs on the label’s archaic mono equipment and the next day cut Rufus Thomas on “Walkin’ The Dog.” Two years later, in July 1965, Dowd installed the first two-track stereo tape recorder at Stax, then broke in the new setup by recording Otis Redding’s entire Otis Blue album in two marathon sessions within 24 hours.
During his Atlantic years, Tom Dowd engineered landmark sessions by John Coltrane (including “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things”), Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the (Young) Rascals, Dusty Springfield (including Dusty In Memphis), and Cream (including Disraeli Gears, which “was finished in one weekend” according to Eric Clapton). Some less celebrated albums from his immense Atlantic discography include The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby, Suddenly the Blues by Leo Wright, Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, Latin Bugalu by Charlie Palmieri, Blues From The Gutter by Champion Jack Dupree, and High On The Hog by Black Oak Arkansas. Dowd was never admitted to the Atlantic partnership and did not share in the rewards from the $17 million sale of the label in 1967. He remained a high-salaried employee until the mid-Seventies, when he left Atlantic to pursue independent production.
Musicians loved him for his great patience, his peerless technical ability, and his total dedication to the task at hand. It was Tom Dowd who introduced Duane Allman to Eric Clapton, and who a short time later produced Derek & the Dominoes’ 1970 double album Layla, And Other Assorted Love Songs. The Dowd/Clapton partnership persisted into the Eighties through such albums as 461 Ocean Boulevard, EC Was Here, and Money and Cigarettes.
“For better or worse, the strength of [Layla] rested almost entirely on Tom’s faith in me,” wrote Eric Clapton in an essay published on the occasion of NARAS (the Grammy organization) presenting Dowd with its 2002 Trustees Award. “I had no finished songs, no real concept or idea of where I was going, nothing but an abstract burning passion for live, spontaneous music.”
“On top of everything else, I refused to make the record under my own name, and was developing a powerful drink and drug problem – not a great position for any record producer to be placed in, but Tom pulled it off. He saw the potential and exercised the most incredible patience in getting through the obstacles that I would constantly place in front of him. It’s little wonder that I eventually came to look on him as a father figure.”
Dowd formed a similar long-lasting bond with another gifted but troubled musician, Gregg Allman, beginning in 1970 when Tom produced the Allman Brothers Band’s second album Idlewild South. Producer and group soldiered on through four more LPs, including the classic 1971 live double At Fillmore East. The band split in 1980, then regrouped nine years later—and Dowd took the controls once again for a pair of live sets and three more studio albums. (Where It All Begins, from 1994, ranks with the ABB’s best post-Duane Allman recordings.) Their final, touching reunion came September 13, 2002 when Tom—now using a wheelchair and and an oxygen tank—attended an Allman Brothers Band performance in West Palm Beach, Florida.
A less affectionate but even more lucrative affiliation was with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the albums Gimme Back My Bullets, One More From the Road, and the original band’s final testament Street Survivors. Dowd also made numerous dully-professional albums with the likes of Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, and Chicago. But in his last professional decade, working with the Allmans, Primal Scream, and Joe Bonamassa, Tom returned to the forceful, blues-based electric music that he had helped bring to prominence twenty years before.
As an album producer, Tom Dowd shared in other people’s Grammy Awards like Allmans’ 1995 win for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Incredibly, Dowd never won his own Grammy Award in the Producer and/or Engineering categories. His only elective Grammy, for Best Album Notes of 1992, was earned for his contribution to the liner booklet for the Aretha Franklin box set Queen Of Soul – The Atlantic Recordings—an award he shared with six other contributors. Ten years later, in a belated attempt to correct this gross oversight, NARAS presented Tom with both a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the Trustees Award. He was also the subject of the 2003 documentary film, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, directed by Mark Moormann.
“There is a tribe of musicians, spread all over the world, who have been fostered and nurtured by Tom Dowd,” wrote Eric Clapton. “We know who we are, and we are proud of who we are, but most of all, we are proud of him. I am honored and privileged to be one of them.”