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Jerry Wexler

Ray Charles Was A Genius: An Interview with Jerry Wexler

By Spencer Leigh
With a posthumous Grammy haul and an Oscar win for Jamie Foxx in the biopic Ray, there is great affection for the genius of Ray Charles. Spencer Leigh interviews Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer who worked with Ray, Aretha, Dylan & others.


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?

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

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.

SL: You made some wonderful records with LaVern Baker.

JERRY WEXLER: I loved her voice, I loved her attitude. She came to a tragic end, she had diabetes and died much too young. I often sensed a similarity between LaVern’s singing and Mahalia Jackson. We did do a gospel album with LaVern Baker by the way.

SL: And Saved is almost gospel.

JERRY WEXLER: And Leiber and Stoller produced that one. It is a Salvation Army thing, standing on the corner with a big bass drum and it is a wonderful record. Ahmet and I generally produced LaVern but that was one that they did. They had written the song and we thought that they would get the most out of it and they did.

SL: And what about the album, Dusty In Memphis?

JERRY WEXLER: Yes, some records were made as albums such as the one we did with your glorious Dusty Springfield. I think she is the greatest female singer ever to have come from the Empire.

SL: And Dusty In Memphis was excellent as she was able to have some great songs.

JERRY WEXLER: Dusty had a lot of great songs before she came to us – The Look Of Love that she did with Burt Bacharach – there was another aspect that we brought into the game which was this. She was recording with traditional orchestras and traditional arrangers with strings and horns and backing groups. We recorded her in the southern style with just a rhythm section of highly able rhythm and blues and country influenced musicians – the bass, guitar, drums, keyboards. We took her to Memphis which we were told would be a disaster because it seemed a bad match. But it turned out that Dusty In Memphis not only became a viable product but it also has an afterlife. It never seems to go away.

SL: She felt intimidated though.

JERRY WEXLER: Dusty had a very fragile temperament, and was a very fragile person. She didn’t feel right because it was Aretha Franklin’s booth or Wilson Pickett or so on. But the performance she finally delivered was incredible. She had a magical soullike quality of her own which is not rhythm and blues or jazz, I don’t how to characterise it. Usually if you say it is too white or too vanilla, you are saying that it lacks soul or passion, but Dusty was the incarnation of the white soul queen. She infused everything she did with tremendous passion. There was a certain sexual vulnerability that Dusty conveyed that was a very important component in reaching her audience.

SL: That title Son Of A Preacher Man makes me wonder if it had first been offered to Aretha Franklin.

JERRY WEXLER: Yes, I did offer it to her and she was not disposed to record it at the time. The selection of songs by Aretha Franklin was a very Byzantine business. It depended on how she felt about herself and the world at a particular time. She would not do a song of self-deprecation or mourning a departed lover. Even though her father was a very well known Baptist minister who had made many albums of his own, preaching, she didn’t want to do Son Of A Preacher Man. She felt it was not consistent with the way she felt about herself and her father. Dusty did such a fabulous job with it and had a big hit, and then Aretha consented to do the song but the horse was out of the barn. Her version became an album cut, and a very nice one. Later on I heard Dusty on an interview with the BBC demonstrating how Aretha Franklin had phrased it and she thought she did it better than herself.

SL: Didn’t the Beatles give Let It Be to Aretha Franklin and she turned it down at first?

JERRY WEXLER: That’s correct. They sent me an acetate and she didn’t turn it down. She recorded it but when it came to release time, she never approve it. The artist always had the right of approval, not only of selection but of the release time. She said, ‘I don’t want that out.’ A year went by and we had this beautiful record in the can and finally the Beatles decided enough is enough, and they made their own version and sent a legal notice restricting us from putting the record out. That was their right as they had their own version coming out. I can’t validate this but I think Aretha’s would have been a huge smash.

SL: Did Aretha acknowledge her mistake?

JERRY WEXLER: No! Aretha never showed any regret or remorse. She never said, ‘We should have done this.’ It was always up and onwards. She had a prideful nature and she would never admit, ‘Well, we did the wrong thing this time.’ She would never say that. And it would have served no purpose if she had.

SL: Dusty Springfield was a very fragile person and I presume Wilson Pickett was the opposite.

JERRY WEXLER: Wilson Pickett is a very headstrong tough man. He has an abrasive personality but I never had any problems with him in the studio. Outside of the studio in the office or in the world in general, he was not an easy person to have any discussion with.

SL: Did you think In The Midnight Hour was a smash as soon as you made it?

JERRY WEXLER: I never that notion about any record. When you make a record and it sounds good, the musicians and the engineers tend to be over-euphoric. I tried to restrain that false enthusiasm. I just tried to ascertain, ‘Is it a good record? Is it valid? Does it have a chance of reaching an audience? Did we achieve our intention and did it communicate?’ Not, ‘Is it going to be a world class smash?’ I would rather be pleasantly surprised.

SL: And you made an album with Bob Dylan that you must have had no idea about how commercial it was, and that’s his first Christian album, Slow Train Comin’.

JERRY WEXLER: Yeah. I had known Bob Dylan for a few years. When he called me and asked me to do the next album, I was thrilled to death. I was knocked out. It was ‘How high shall I jump and where do you want me to land?’ My co-producer, Barry Beckett and I went out to California where Dylan was living to select the material. It turned out to be wall-to-wall Jesus. I didn’t care, it could have been the telephone directory. It was Dylan and so we brought him to Muscle Shoals. We used Mark Knopfler as the lead guitarist.

SL: He doesn’t like many takes.

JERRY WEXLER: Absolutely. There are not enough encomia in the language to do justice to that great Muscle Shoals rhythm section. After Dylan had decided the songs he was going to do, he laid them out for us. They didn’t have much problem in getting the tracks together. In the first week we finished the rhythm tracks and Dylan’s vocals and at the end of the first week, Dylan went home. Then we did the sweetening, I don’t remember what we added. Even the vocal backgrounds had been done because Dylan had brought this gospel group with him. It was all done quickly and on the cheap.

SL: What are views about the Beatles’ record production?

"I think George Martin had a lot to do with the evolution of the four lads from Liverpool into the world class entity that they became."
Jerry Wexler

JERRY WEXLER: You can’t say enough about George Martin. I have the utmost regard for him, both as a wonderful gentleman and as a superb record producer. Think of the progression from She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah to Norwegian Wood. Think of the harmonic sophistication and the chords and the raising of the level of musicianship. This highly evolved transition must have been largely to do with George Martin’s musicianship. The BBC did a documentary of George reviewing of The White Album and I treasure it. George was moving the faders on the eight track and he would push a particular fader and say, ‘That’s the ride cymbal and there’s a vocal with it.’ I think George Martin had a lot to do with the evolution of the four lads from Liverpool into the world class entity that they became.

SL: Thank you very much for this interview. It’s clear you’ve had a wonderful life.

JERRY WEXLER: So far.

SL: Could there be another record in you?

JERRY WEXLER: At the age of 87 I can’t see myself putting the studio hours that are required. The ears and the sensibility are intact, at least I like to think so, but it is a question of the physical ability needed to log the hours.

SL: There is that phrase “Executive Producer”.

JERRY WEXLER: It is a rubric that I have eschewed my entire life. I was once required to do it by contract. The term is a diminishment of the line producer who did the work. It doesn’t mean anything: it could be the man who financed the session or the man who delivered the controlled substances to the band and so on. It would often be the attempt of the man in the suit or the vest behind the desk to glorify himself.

SL: Thank you very much.

JERRY WEXLER: You’re very welcome. Goodbye now.

last updated: 02/03/05
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