Tonight, the ATL Collective relives the soul of a Jewish American who helped to make some of the most well known musical acts of all time. It’s the tale of a man who because of his heritage understood discrimination, and wasn’t afraid to support artists who were considered underclass during his time. It’s the tale of a man who used his position of privilege to empower black artists and elevate black music to the mainstream. It’s the tale of a man who changed modern recording history.
Gerald “Jerry” Wexler was born in The Bronx, New York— the son of a German Jewish father and a Polish Jewish mother. Graduating from High School at the age of 15, he eventually enrolled in what is now Kansas State University. Studying on and off while serving in the Army, Wexler graduated in 1946 with a B.A. in journalism. His first real job was writing for Billboard, where he made his early impact on the industry by changing the name on the Billboard charts for records recorded by black artist from “Race Records” to “Rhythm and Blues.” “’Race Records’ didn’t sit well. Maybe ‘race’ was too close to ‘racist.’ In 1949, my suggestion for change was adopted by Billboard… [It] is a label more appropriate to more enlightened times. I liked the sound of ‘rhythm and blues’—it sung and swung like the music itself—and I was happy when it stuck; it defined a new genre of music,” said Wexler of this culture defining idea.
In 1953, Welxer was made a Partner at Atlantic Records after turning down the job to run their publishing company just two years earlier. “At work it was fear that fueled my engine— fear of being exposed as an amateur, fear of not selling records, fear that my co-workers would drop the ball, fear of failure in every form.” It was during his time at Atlantic, were he recorded with Ray Charles in Atlanta at WGST, the Georgia Tech radio station— Ray’s first smash hit “I Got A Women” was tracked during that session. At Atlantic, “we were trying to sell records we enjoyed making,” said Welxer. “Like the music we admired most, we were improvising the business as we went along.”
In the 1960, Wexler provided the start-up funding to launch Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Along with the four founders of the studio, who were some of the best-known session musicians of their time, Wexler developed and recorded Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Bob Dylan creating the sounds of their decade in Alabama. Wexler was also instrumental in developing the sound of other musical icons including the Allman Brothers, Chris Connor, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, and Dusty Springfield during his time at Atlantic.
The label’s reputation then and now was always “several cuts above the norm,” known for being honest and fair, but playing to win. Wexler was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 2017 to the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. “Music has brought me joy; it has given me a beat and a groove, sent me down the righteous roads.”
Being Jewish was a major influencer with Wexler’s work in the industry. “As a Jew, I didn’t think I identified with the underclass; I was the underclass. Additionally, the music I was helping produce reflected my own view of the politics of the time. It was a proud music, defiant, hopeful, demanding.”
So sit back as ATL Collective curates an evening with some of the best music ever recorded, a retrospective of music created or inspired by black artists empowered by a Jew. Listen as we share the story of black and Jewish communities working together to create a breadth of work that has impacted history— a story of cooperation and brotherhood that inspires us still today.+ More... - Less...
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