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The white guy who ‘got’ the blues: how Jerry Wexler gave Aretha her respect He made money with

Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin in 1960 CREDIT: Redferns

In the new Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, which chronicles the singer’s career from precocious child performer in Detroit to revered Queen of Soul throughout the world, an event is portrayed that was as crucial as any to the diva’s ascent.

At 24, Franklin had been cut adrift by Columbia Records after six years that had failed to provide any major hits. The label even wanted back some of the money they had spent on her. It was 1966: the moment at which Aretha was convinced to sign for Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler.

Wexler, a partner in Atlantic with founder Ahmet Ertegun, was steeped in jazz and blues, bebop, and big-band swing and he was a fan of Aretha’s voice, with a sense that it had been wasted on the album after album of jazz standards. The Columbia years had produced singles such as One Step Ahead, the easy charm of which still shines down the decades, but they hadn’t even begun to tap into what Franklin was capable of. Wexler would tell her to “drop the Judy Garland cabaret act” and be herself.

The movie portrays their meeting as a collision of opposites: “I’m crude and you’re a church girl,” says the street-smart New York entrepreneur to the daughter of Baptist minister C.L. Franklin (himself known as “the million-dollar voice”), after he unintentionally offends her. She insists that he calls her “Miss Franklin” but she’s not coy about the price of her signature: “I want hits.”

Had Wexler been unable to convince Aretha that he could deliver them, we would be looking at an alternative version of musical history in which the flawless run of Top Ten singles that followed never happened. There would have been no I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) (which reached Number 9 in the US pop charts), no Respect (No 1), Baby, I Love You (No 4), (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (No 8), Chain of Fools (No 2), Since You've Been Gone (No 5), Think (No 7) or Say a Little Prayer (No 10).

Wexler, vividly brought to life in the film by Marc Maron, was almost 40 when the opportunity to sign Franklin arose, but he had already had a significant impact on the fault line where black music met white audiences and the commercial music industry. He had been born in 1917, three months before the US entered the First World War, and brought up in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. Long a home to aspirational immigrant communities, at the time it attracted thousands of German-speaking Jews (later, the Latinx population that plays a part in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights).

Wexler’s father Harry was Polish-Jewish and had arrived in Manhattan in 1912, where he married Wexler’s German-Jewish mother Elsa Spitz. She doted on their son and wanted him to rise much higher than Harry’s window cleaning business, scrimping to send the boy to prep school, though the young Jerry preferred the local pool rooms. Eventually, she packed him off to study journalism in Kansas City, where he instead discovered the joys of its humming nightlife, and the chance to catch stars such as Count Basie and his Orchestra and blues shouter Big Joe Turner, of whom more soon. But on returning to New York, Wexler was able to get a job as a journalist working for Billboard magazine.

Since the mid-1930s, the paper had compiled a variety of music charts, including one for “Race Records”. Wexler was a prime mover in the decision to “clean up” this visible signifier of musical segregation and was responsible for rechristening the chart with his own coinage, Rhythm & Blues, which, he said in a filmed interview many years later, “seemed to have the right swing, the right resonance”.

Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin in 1969 CREDIT: Getty

Then, in the early Fifties, he joined Ertegun at Atlantic, which as a small independent label had originally been founded to excel in a niche that the major labels neglected – “to make black music by black artists for black adults”, as Wexler put it, which encompassed a wide range of musical styles. Wexler’s influence, as at Billboard, would gradually make such separatism obsolete.

He soon realized that Atlantic’s output could appeal to the much larger white market, which created the potential for crossover hits, yet even without the appellation of race, their records were difficult to get on the radio and white stars were raiding their artists’ catalogue and turning minor hits into smashes. Turner’s Shake, Rattle, and Roll, for instance, soon went higher in the charts for Bill Haley and the Comets, just as Elvis Presley had turned singer Arthur Crudup’s RCA Victor singles That’s All Right and My Baby Left Me into a golden ticket to superstardom.

In fact, ever alive to opportunity, Wexler had seen Presley’s potential and tried to sign him to Atlantic after he left Sun Records, offering him all the money he could raise – $30,000 – but was outbid by RCA. (Atlantic wouldn’t make the same mistake twice; they later signed The Rolling Stones, who had built their early career on black music.) Through the late Fifties and early Sixties, though, Atlantic was on a roll, with pop hits such as The Coasters’ Yakety Yak (on subsidiary label Atco), and with artists such as The Drifters, Bobby Darin, and Ray Charles.

Yet as Berry Gordy’s Motown in Detroit began to deliver hit after crossover hit for black artists, Wexler at Atlantic was putting his energy into working with rhythm & blues singers, such as Wilson Pickett, Ben E King, and Solomon Burke, gaining a reputation for treating the performers with a deep respect for their music, even to the extent sometimes of losing chart success.

Jerry Wexler in the studio with Cher CREDIT: Getty

Where Motown smoothly packaged soul music as sophisticated and urban, Atlantic kept its raw passion – and its blues and gospel roots – intact. Aretha believed the gospel “had a lot of what I feel is soul, a lot more feeling”. Respect depicts Wexler telling Franklin – who had turned down the chance to join Motown at the beginning of her career – “I’m gonna give you plenty of space to do your thing. This is your show, your record.”

Wexler was at the forefront of a new kind of crossover, matching black artists with white Southern musicians in a way that melded soul and country music. But as the film shows, their first recording session together was explosive. Wexler flew Aretha to FAME Studios in Alabama, 150 miles from her birthplace in Memphis, Tennessee. He had brought with him Stax Records guitarist Chips Moman (who would later produce Elvis’s classic recording of Suspicious Minds) and bassist Tommy Cogbill (whom sports fans can hear playing bass every time Sweet Caroline rings out in celebration).

They joined the sensational Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Yet, famously, after Aretha played one chord on the piano, the studio’s pianist Spooner Oldham, who played the unforgettable organ line on Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman, moved to electric piano. Everyone knew they were listening to someone very special. The arrangement, when it came together, followed from the simplest repeated riff from Oldham and, he recalled, from there, “she just soared like an eagle, in a supersonic stratosphere of singing”.

I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) was completed but the B-side of the single, Do Right Woman – Do Right Man remained unfinished. Aretha’s husband and manager Ted White had never wanted to go anywhere near the Mississippi, where the Klan was still active and had got into a heated argument with trumpet player Ken Laxton, with racial tension rearing its head. White demanded of Wexler that he be fired from the session.

Aretha Franklin with Jerry Wexler and his fellow producer Tom Dowd in New York, 1969 CREDIT: Getty

But there was already a problem between Wexler and studio manager Rick Hall about who was running the session. Later that night attempts to smooth over the row erupted into a fistfight between Hall and White back at their hotel. Wexler later suggested that gunshots had been involved. Franklin and White left the next day. And for a time it appeared that that might be it for Franklin and Atlantic Records. Aretha, though, came round, although Wexler had to fly the musicians out to New York to complete the recording. It turned out to be worth it.

Wexler would be credited as a producer on all nine of her consecutive run of hit singles, though he was not a musician. He would get a co-songwriting credit on Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, though he was not a songwriter. He had suggested the idea for the song. Filmmaker Tom Thurman, who made the documentary Immaculate Funk, told the New York Times, Wexler “was a bundle of contradictions… incredibly abrasive and incredibly generous, very abrupt and very, very patient, seemingly a pure, shark-like businessman and also a cerebral and creative genius”. He had crossed paths with Phil Spector, who was briefly employed as a house producer at Atlantic but was disliked by Wexler.

It’s not hard to imagine that the latter who had a reputation as an egotist with a fiery temper would have knocked heads with the younger man. Wexler certainly rubbed some of the artists he worked with up the wrong way. After Wexler’s death in 2008, aged 91, New Orleans’ musician Dr. John said of him: “On the business side of it, he was not a good guy.”

After the assassination of Martin Luther King touched off suspicion between black and white America, rumours circulated that Wexler had been ripping off Aretha’s royalties. He was told by saxophonist King Curtis, who had played on several of Franklin’s records, that “Someone's after you with a gun”. The threat felt real enough for Wexler to leave the music convention in Miami that he had been attending – guarded by singer Titus Turner, who was armed in case of trouble.

Yet the music business of the time was rough: in shark-infested waters, being shark-like was a survival strategy. There was reportedly long-standing tension between Ahmet Ertegun and Wexler because the former believed that Wexler had wanted to buy him out of his own company with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who’d written Stand by Me for Atlantic in 1961.

In the studio, though, Wexler was still the purist he had always been, even if his methods didn’t go down well with everyone. In an interview with Dusty Springfield in 2008, the singer, whose classic album Dusty in Memphis was made with Wexler, told journalist Paul du Noyer. “I hated it because I couldn’t be Aretha Franklin. If only people like Jerry Wexler could realize what a deflating thing it is to say, ‘Otis Redding stood there.’ Or, ‘that’s where Aretha sang.’ Whatever you do, it’s not going to be good enough… it was a paralyzing experience.” Wexler later described the recording sessions as very tense. Springfield couldn’t even bear to play the record for a year. But the results are there for everyone to hear.

Wexler would make other great records in his long career, and continue to have an astonishing influence on music: he and Ertegun signed Led Zeppelin in 1968, he co-produced Aretha’s return to gospel album and film Amazing Grace in 1972, and he also produced Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming album in 1979 at the height of Dylan's born-again phase. Wexler was not susceptible to evangelism, however. "I said, 'Bob, forget about me, you're talking to a confirmed, 62-year-old, card-carrying Jewish atheist,'" Wexler told the singer.

In the 1980s, he even recorded with George Michael prior to the WHAM star turning solo, although Wexler's recording of Careless Whisper is not the one that ended up in the charts. But he will always be remembered for helping a misunderstood artist to take her true place in the musical firmament. And for that, we shall always be grateful.

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