Saturday, August 16, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) | Legendary record producer Jerry Wexler, who helped shape R&B music with influential recordings of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and other greats, and later made key recordings with the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, has died, said his son, Paul. He was 91.

Paul Wexler said his father died at a hospice in Sarasota, Fla., about 3:45 a.m. Friday of congenital heart disease. Both his son and daughter Lisa were present at the time of his death. Paul Wexler told the Associated Press that his father’s death was “a tremendous loss.”

“The number of artists that he was involved with and helped significantly or just made great records with, the list is almost unbelievable,” the younger Mr. Wexler added. “And many of them are gone now.”

Mr. Wexler earned his reputation as a music industry giant while a partner at Atlantic Records with another legendary music figure, the late Ahmet Ertegun. Atlantic provided an outlet for the groundbreaking work of black performers in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, it was a home to rock icons like Led Zeppelin, first signed by Mr. Wexler, and the Rolling Stones. He later helped Mr. Dylan win his first Grammy by producing his 1979 “Slow Train Coming” album.

Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge were among the other R&B greats who benefited from Mr. Wexler’s deft recording touch. He also produced Dusty Springfield’s classic “Dusty in Memphis,” considered a masterpiece of “blue-eyed” soul.

Neil Portnow, president of the Grammy-awarding National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said Mr. Wexler’s contributions to music are “immense and immeasurable” and called him “a true music-making pioneer whose work at Atlantic Records created an amazing legacy of R&B, pop and rock.”

Mr. Burke said Mr. Wexler was the ultimate music man.

“He loved black music, R&B music and rhythm and blues was his foundation. He had a feeling for it; he had the knack to keep it going in his heart and recognize the talent that he felt was real,” Mr. Burke told the AP after learning of Mr. Wexler’s death. “Jerry Wexler didn’t change the sound of America, he put the sound to the public. He opened the doors and windows to the radio stations … and made everybody listen.”

Among the standards produced by Mr. Wexler: Miss Franklin’s “Respect,” a dazzling, feminist reworking of an Otis Redding song; Mr. Sledge’s deep ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Mr. Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” with a horn vamp inspired by Mr. Wexler’s admittedly rhythmless dancing.

Mr. Wexler was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

“No one really knew how to make a record when I started,” he said in a profile on the hall’s Web site. “You simply went into the studio, turned on the mike and said, ‘play.’ ”

The son of Polish immigrants and a music buff since his teens, Mr. Wexler landed a job writing for Billboard magazine in the late 1940s after serving in World War II and studying journalism in college. There he coined the term “rhythm and blues” for the magazine’s black music charts; previously, they were listed under “race records.”

In the studio, Mr. Wexler was a hands-on producer. Once, during a session with Mr. Charles, the tambourine player was off the beat. In his award-winning 1993 memoir, “Rhythm and the Blues,” Mr. Wexler recalled grabbing the instrument and playing it himself.

“Who’s that?” asked Mr. Charles.

“Me,” Mr. Wexler told the blind singer.

“You got it, baby!” Mr. Charles said.

Paul Wexler said a private service would take place in the coming weeks in Sarasota, and his father’s tombstone will read: “He changed the world.”

“I don’t think I’m overreaching,” he said.

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