Friday, August 15, 2008

Jerry Wexler R.I.P.


Jerry Wexler January 10, 1917 - August 15, 2008

A friend was just telling me how the the energies of the world are changing, things are opening and shifting. I keep wondering if with these amazing creative talents passing on if we aren't being asked to lead ourselves into a different manner of being cultural producersto the world. Not that their was not powerful and meaningful, but we have to move on from looking to repetitions of what was.

The music industry has been undergoing major changes and continues to do so. Jerry Wexler, former executive at Atlantic Records (aka "the House that Ruth [Brown] Built"), and legendary music producer created the term "Rhythm & Blues" in 1949 while a cub reporter at Billboard Magazine. At the time an editor charged Wexler and his colleagues with finding, over a weekend, an alternative to "Race Records" then the name for Billboard's "black music" chart, due to the number of "people beginning to find it inappropriate."

But new folks coming up now hardly call themselves R&B artists anymore, ironically the term has become a stand-in for race. So the only people who can call themselves R&B singers musicians and still expect to have a career are white artists for whom the label confers or infers authenticity and/or the presumption of the black music historical knowledge of the singer said white musician. Irony upon irony, Wexler is often credited with having originated the form rhythm and blues, as opposed to having coming up with name "Rhythm & Blues" as an alternative name to "Race Records" the category in which all recordings by black artists were lumped. In other words, "rhythm & blues" was just another name, another box, actually a working euphemism. As such it wasn't really actually challenging the notion of what constituted "black music," instead it simultaneously obscured and reified the notion of race in relation to the recording industry. Check the Rolling Stone obituary which bears the title, "Jerry Wexler: The Man Who Invented Rhythm & Blues."(What?!) Wexler certainly was an innovator in the form as a producer, but often there's a too comfortable confusion conflation of that legacy with the mythos of his having originated the form itself. Wexler grew up a music lover, and obviously had an excellent ear for talent and was a uniquely gifted producer. He produced Aretha Franklin after she left Columbia for Atlantic Records, as well as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan, among others. However, he wasn't a musician, and he wasn't among the creative artists who originally developed and pioneered the early African American musics that often crossed and merged genres of blues, gospel, country, and provided the roots of both what came to be classified as R&B and rock 'n' roll.

Now black artists are neo-soul singers, or hip-hop/neo-soul singers, and R&B is an historical reference, and as such has become a fixed category with a specific legacy with requisite reference points. We should be able to honor what Wexler contributed to U.S. music as opposed to having to erase the history of the artists who proceeded him, in order to grant him a greater role than he actually had. It's a disservice to what Wexler did achieve to act as though it isn't enough to secure his place in music history.

Endnote:
Interviews and portraits of Wexler:
New York Times obituary.
New York Times review of Wexler's 1993 memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, written with David Ritz.
Salon.com's 2000 profile of Wexler the producer.
Rolling Stone obituary.

(revised 8/17/08)

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