Remembering soul man Jerry Wexler

He produced classics from Aretha to Zeppelin

Preparing to interview Jerry Wexler in the summer of 2003, I felt equal parts enthusiasm and fear. I was less than two years out of college and had only a couple significant profile stories to my credit. Wexler — universally hailed as a key figure in the history of popular music, particularly soul music — had helmed many of my favorite albums. The best-known include landmarks by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Dusty Springfield. These artists weren't hitmakers during my lifetime, but their recordings, which I largely discovered in my late teens, fascinated me more than the work of most contemporary stars. For me, interviewing Wexler would be tantamount to the editor of a high school newspaper sitting down with Justin Timberlake.

Wexler died on Aug. 15 at the age of 91. Though I knew he'd been ailing for many years, the news saddened me more than I would have expected. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer died at his Siesta Key home, where I met with him.

The music titan had granted me an interview to be published in the St. Petersburg Times. I anxiously rehearsed my questions as I drove from my apartment in downtown Sarasota to his place in an upscale gated community on the nearby barrier island. A servant who spoke heavily accented English opened the front door and led me to the living room. There sat the man who had produced The Genius of Ray Charles, Dusty In Memphis, and signed Led Zeppelin. Wexler studied me closely — perhaps bemused that the Times had sent a correspondent in his early 20s to interview him.

Before allowing me to turn on the tape recorder, he asked questions ranging from my birthplace to writing experience. The conversation quickly turned to my preferred music, and I rattled off the stars Wexler had produced, as well as artists he had not worked with, one being Hank Williams Sr. Wexler mentioned his affection for Williams' signature tune, "Lost Highway."

I agreed and then, audibly nervous, mentioned it always struck me as odd that although the song seems autobiographical it was one of the few Williams didn't write. "Um, yeah, I think a guy named Leon Payne wrote it," I muttered, hoping to God my memory hadn't failed me. Wexler grinned approvingly, and from that moment on the interview went smoothly.

It lasted nearly three hours. Wexler, despite his advanced age, proved to be one of the hippest, most quick-witted people I had ever encountered, a master raconteur who offered candid appraisals of his accomplishments. When asked about working with Ray, Aretha and Dylan, the trio he dubbed the "three geniuses," Wexler sounded as in awe of them as the rest of their fans.

"We never did anything to advance Ray Charles [at Atlantic]. He did it all. He advanced us," Wexler told me. "I spoke to him a couple of months ago. I hadn't spoken to him in years. There's still a lot of love. He said to me, 'Man, those were my best days.'"

Bob Dylan's controversial gospel album, 1979's Slow Train Coming, has always moved me deeply. Despite explicit born-again-Christian rhetoric that I don't subscribe to, there's a me-against-the-world passion in the singer's voice that transcends dogma. Not only did Wexler produce it, but he also witnessed Dylan's proselytizing firsthand. "I said, 'Bob, forget about me, you're talking to a confirmed, 62-year-old, card-carrying Jewish atheist,'" Wexler said. "[Dylan and I] only had good times."

After the interview wrapped, Wexler led me to an adjacent room lined with CDs and insisted I take copies of his proudest moments in the studio. He also signed a copy of his excellent, self-described "warts-and-all" autobiography, Rhythm & the Blues: A Life in American Music, which he had sent me prior to the interview along with a folder of documents that included newsclips from his days in the late 1940s as a reporter at Billboard magazine. One of his accomplishments there was to have the ugly term "race records" replaced with "rhythm and blues." He signed my book: "For Wade — respect and affection — Jerry Wexler."

My profile piece ran as "The Man from Atlantic" on the cover of the Times' Floridian section, Sun., Aug. 3, 2003. It paid $600, the most money I had ever earned for a single story. Wexler invited me to keep in touch, and I did, calling him if I was preparing to interview someone he had worked with — soul great Solomon Burke, for instance.

When I was working at the Bradenton Herald in June of 2004, reports came through the wires that Ray Charles had passed. I picked up the phone and dialed Wexler. He answered on the second ring. "I just got off the phone with Rolling Stone and before that, the L.A. Times," he said in his gruff but grandfatherly way. "But, I liked that piece you did on me, Wade, so I guess I'll make time for you. What kind of quote do you need?"

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