A Man and a Half
Jerry Wexler, 'The Funky Jewish King of Black Music'
"This is Jerry Wexler."
It's unsettling getting a phone call from Jerry Wexler: Gerald Wexler, born 1917 in the Bronx to a Jewish Orthodox Polish immigrant turned window washer and a young German spitfire working in a bakery on Courtlandt Avenue near 161st Street. Gerald Wexler, running through the streets of Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn during the Depression, and getting an education watching Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mel Ott hit long balls; Grand Illusion and Un Chien Andalou at the Museum of Modern Art; Louis Armstrong at Jimmy Ryan's on 52nd Street. Jerry Wexler, who became a partner at Atlantic Records in 1953, and by the end of the decade was one of three owners with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun.
Umm ... How are you Mr. Wexler?
"Not too good," says the 83-year-old music industry legend. He sounds unhappy. "Call me Jerry."
Jerry Wexler, who in his 50-plus years in the music business signed, worked with, and/or produced LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, the Drifters, Champion Jack Dupree, Ivory Joe Hunter, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, Betty Carter, Patti LaBelle, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Dusty Springfield, Sam & Dave, Donny Hathaway, King Curtis, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, Allen Toussaint, Staple Singers, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana. Produced 14 albums by Aretha Franklin, plus all the great "Wicked" Pickett sides. Produced Dusty in Memphis, Shotgun Willie, and Slow Train Coming. Jerry Wexler.
"Did you get the letter?" he asks.
Yes, Mr. Wex- . Yes, Jerry. It runs next week.
"Good," he says, only half mollified.
Actually, no one is happy. Doug Sahm is dead.
Doug Sahm, State Musician of Texas, San Antonio son. Eastside. On the radio at age six, singing "Stars Over San Antonio," onstage with Hank Williams playing steel guitar by the time he's 11. Sir Doug of Huey P. Meaux's faux British Invasion group, the Sir Douglas Quintet, beginning in 1964: "She's About a Mover," "Mendocino," "Texas Me," "Nuevo Laredo." Doug Saldaña, Samm Dogg, Wayne Douglas. Texas Tornado. The Last Real Bluesman. Heart and soul of Austin's music scene for 30 years, beloved around the world. Dead of heart failure in a New Mexico motel, November 18, 1999. Fifty-eight years young.
"The greatest musician I ever worked with because of his incredible versatility and range," extols Wexler in the Chronicle's Doug Sahm memorial the following week. "Western swing, straight country, Norteño, even jazz, rock & roll, and blues. ... Of all the artists I've ever worked with, we have never been out of touch."
That part is fine. Uncontested. Instead, Wexler is upset about something veteran music critic Ed Ward has written for that same issue, something intimating that the producer, who cut two LPs with Sahm for Atlantic, Doug Sahm and Band and Texas Tornado, both 1973, didn't commit his label's full resources to the releases. Wexler is outraged, in fact. His son Paul has submitted a letter for publication.
"In the midst of many moving essays on the life and contributions of one of Texas' most important musical sons," writes the younger Wexler in the Chronicle's "Postmarks" section of Dec. 17, 1999, "a single jarring note arose from Ed Ward's otherwise well-written piece. I cannot speak to the veracity of the quote that Mr. Ward attributes to my father, Jerry Wexler. However, I can tell you that the truth about Jerry's relationship with Doug lies some 180° away from that quote. After recording Doug Sahm and Band in the early Seventies, Doug and Jerry remained as close as two brothers."
Doug Sahm was dead. Everyone had lost a brother. On The Return of Wayne Douglas, a down-home country album he was working on at the time of his death, Sahm opens with the lazy acoustic strum and bound-for-glory pedal steel of "Beautiful Texas Sunshine," which glistens with its author's boyish spirit like Town Lake on a summer's morning. "Well, I know the time has come, that I got to be moving on, but I'll always say, 'A beautiful day of beautiful Texas Sunshine.'" It's the antithesis of a dark, November night when word of Sahm's death spread through the Austin music community like a winter flood. As is the rest of the album.
Delayed by legal entanglements -- Sahm worked on handshake deals, his estate does not -- The Return of Wayne Douglas was finally released several weeks ago, the day after what would have been the musician's 59th birthday, November 6, and just two weeks shy of the year anniversary of his death. Sahm originals like the playful "Oh No! Not Another One," featuring lines like, "I just turned on my CMT today, man, my mind was blown away. There's a young dude walkin' across the stage like a gazelle. Hell, I bet he never even heard of Lefty Frizzell," somehow make his absence more pronounced.
"You Was for Real" offers another dose of posthumous-album irony ("This may be the last song I'll ever write for you"), while "Texas Me" closes the proceedings with what sounds like a scratch vocal that nevertheless adds a poignancy to the 30-year-old Sahm classic. A year later, it's still hard listening to a Doug Sahm album. A year later, the pain felt by his family, friends, and fans still weighs heavy on the local music community. A year later, talking with his friends helps.
Jerry Wexler wants to watch the World Series. Like his good friend Doug Sahm, he loves baseball. Our dinner reservation has been confirmed for weeks, Sunday night at the Wexlers' house in East Hampton, New York, 5:30pm, but now, even though the appointed time remains unchanged, Jerry suggests eating as soon as possible so we can watch Game 2 of the Yankees/Mets "Subway" Series.
Of course, New York is afire with Series fever, bipartisan T-shirt hawkers every three feet of sidewalk, impromptu park rallies, talk on the street ("If it was any uddah team, I'd be for da Mets!!"). The weather is perfect, ripe for any athlete, say a shortstop, to step up and become Mr. October. CMJ is also in full swing, but at the annual music conference's registration, and just down Madison Avenue at Sony headquarters, topic A is getting into a game, not a showcase. Watching the World Series at the Wexlers?
Absolutely, Jerry. That would be great.
"This is a pain," grouses my traveling companion as we burst into the second-floor apartment of our beach condo just down the road from East Hampton in Amagansett. "I don't know this guy! Why do we have to go?!"
We're already late. While our two-hour drive down the Long Island Expressway turns breathtaking 30 minutes outside the city, an open tunnel of tall, looming trees exploding with fall colors, getting off the congested island of Manhattan is no picnic; bad directions from Avis land us on the Jersey turnpike, and by the time we get back through the Lincoln Tunnel, Sunday morning has become Sunday afternoon. With a snarl. Now, at 10 till 5pm, at the Ocean Colony Beach and Tennis Club check-in desk, the question is obvious.
"Three calls," answers the snooty clerk. "From 'Jerry.'"
Naturally. We have not talked since firming up plans two weeks ago. That's when he gets exasperated with his young protégé. "Yes, the train goes to Long Island!! But how are you gonna get to my house from the motel?! Do you know how far East Hampton is from the city?! You need to rent a car!!!" This from a man who used to take twin-engine Convairs to New Orleans in the Fifties to seek out R&B legends like Professor Longhair. Okay, okay -- howse a country bumpkin supposed to know?
"Look, I don't wanna produce this trip," snaps Wexler.
But he's right, Ocean Colony is a prize at $110 a night. ("Get room 232, you're on the beach.") Wexler has scoped it out himself, and sent along a brochure and map. Turns out his daughter stayed there once, the same Lisa Wexler whose band Big Sister on Capricorn, a label started in part with the elder Wexler's funding, prompts the lifelong record man to send a review copy and note ("... until now I've suppressed any nepotistic compulsions to laud my offspring's output -- but ..."). Receiving a less-than-favorable response back, Wexler sends a copy of Rolling Stone's three-and-a-half star review of So Hi How Are You.
"Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-yah," he scrawls at the bottom of the Xerox.
Darling, hurry. No mention has been made of watching the World Series. We're gonna be late.
And we are. By 30 minutes.
"You're not late," snorts Wexler at the door of his modest-looking abode (two stories, five bathrooms, we're informed later), tucked just off the main drag in the Kennedyesque little town of East Hampton. "Welcome."
"Is there anything I shouldn't ask?" whispers my companion as we shed our coats in the hall.
Anything having to do with Austin. Tonight it's just a social call, no business. Monday and Tuesday are the interviews. Small talk only. And yet, with a historical figure like Jerry Wexler, even throwaway anecdotes are jaw-dropping. He's delighted to learn that my date hails from New Orleans, and as we settle into Wexler's unassuming living room, talk of Crescent City cuisine whets the appetite. One of Wexler's consuming passions is food, his live-in cook bringing out two small bowls of dip to go with the French wine, which Wexler insists on getting himself.
"Red? Good choice," he says with an appraising twinkle in his eye. Once robust, bearish, he is now thin and slightly hunched thanks to a back operation that contributes to his slowly deteriorating health. Yet his gaze is sharp; this is a man used to summing people up in a glance.
Left alone in the room, we gravitate to the CD bookcase, which is halved by a set of shelves upon which sit both of Wexler's Grammys, one for Bob Dylan's born-again declaration, Slow Train Coming, and another for the soundtrack to The Wiz. Underneath is a statuette commemorating his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and next to it, the Blues Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award. When Wexler returns, he motions us toward the couch across from him, pictures of Dylan and a very young Jerry Lee Lewis, accompanied by an equally young Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, and Sam Phillips, staring up at us. We pitch questions, he takes batting practice.
He regales us with stories about his friend "Fess" (Longhair) and one of the piano king's inheritors, James Booker, who Wexler used on many sessions. He delights in recounting Booker's gleeful nonchalance in coming out of Angola prison "one eye later," and about a time the so-called spider of the keys jumped on his back while he was strolling down the street. He calls Dr. John's Atlantic Records masterpiece, 1972's Gumbo, one of his favorite productions, if not the favorite. Longtime soul brothers that had a bitter falling-out when Wexler's elder daughter Anita, who died of AIDS in 1989, blamed her heroin addiction on the New Orleans gris-gris monarch, the two have long since mended their fences.
"Mac lives just down the road," says Wexler. "I haven't seen him all summer."
Offered a tour of the downstairs, we don't need to be asked twice. Pictures and posters adorn the walls of the ground floor, Miles Davis on the stairs, Duane Allman outside the bathroom, Cher and Wexler inside the bathroom. The guest room is the most impressive, dozens of gold and platinum albums taking up almost all of the wall space. Here, a certification for one million copies of "Dock of the Bay" sold, there a cluster of platinum awards for Dire Straits, Average White Band, and Donny Hathaway. A framed caricature of Wexler and the two Ertegun brothers riding a camel attracts particular attention.
On the opposite wall, Aretha Franklin dominates, awards for such LPs as Live at the Fillmore, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), Lady Soul, and singles like "Chain of Fools," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Rock Steady."
"Did you know I signed Led Zeppelin?" asks our host as we exit the room.
Having read Wexler's 1993, mince-no-words autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, written with the premier biographer of all things soul-related, David Ritz, the answer is yes. It's the story of a window washer's son whose "early life was a series of aimless meanderings" until music sent him down "righteous roads." A product of the swing era and later bop, Wexler was an avid record collector who discovered Western swing innovators like Adolf Hofner and Bob Wills in the jukeboxes of Kansas City, where he went to study journalism.
Drafted in '41, Wexler emerged from the Army four years later with a previously absent sense of ambition, and in quick succession found himself collecting fees for song publisher BMI, coining the phrase "Rhythm & Blues" for Billboard as a cub reporter, and finally working with one of the music industry's first A&R men, Mitch Miller. Ahmet Ertegun offered Wexler a job at his fledgling indie label in 1952, and after the latter's asking for a partnership, he was offered a 13% stake in Atlantic for $2,063 the following year.
"Back then we were jazz buffs and record collectors," Wexler eulogized his dear friend and partner Nesuhi Ertegun upon his death in 1989. "A compact, delirious group, and we all knew each other. We were generally unemployed -- and basically unemployable -- which is why, I suppose, we eventually all wound up in the record business ... John Hammond, Milt Gabler, Dan Qualey, Al Lion, Herb Abramson, Bob Thiele, Ralph Gleason, George Avakian, Russ Sanjek, and Nesuhi Ertegun and his kid brother."
And so it is with one of these pillars of industry, along with his wife (third) of nearly 16 years, Jean, that we feast on beef as tender as veal and then watch Game 2 of the 2000 World Series. When Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens throws a broken bat in the direction of Mets catcher Mike Piazza on a foul ball that will go down in Series infamy, Wexler declares the Series "ruined." Maybe a guy who saw Yogi Berra play in his first season would know.
It isn't, of course, and neither is the evening, which proceeds with dessert, cognac, and discussions on jazz ("I did meet Ellington -- once, as a teenager up in his apartment. It was his birthday") and French film, another Wexler love. Louis Malle, François Truffaut, Isabelle Huppert, Lovers on the Bridge, all good. Yank filmmaker Cameron Crowe and Almost Famous, clichéd. When we leave during the sixth inning, tomorrow's interview seems trivial. Who needs an interview when you've been wined and dined by Jerry Wexler?
Monday morning, October 22. Catherine Deneuve's birthday. 9am. On the beach, the push and pull of the water lull one into introspection, meditation. The wind is cold, but the sky is blue save for a few receding clouds on the horizon. Walking across the tracks of some four-wheel noise pollutant, among the shiny rocks polished by thousands of years of tide, over gelatinous creatures washed high on the sand to dry and die, around the dismembered crab parts, a person leaves all worries behind. A fishing boat trawls slowly up the coast, a flock of seagulls orbiting the vessel in a perfect oval, swooping low across the bow for fish, then flying high over the stern with their catch.
It's easy to understand why Wexler has retired here. Even in the heyday of his Atlantic years, Wexler and his family lived out on Long Island. The studio may have been his home, from the label's first office at 234 West 56th St., where Jerry and Ahmet used to push furniture into the hall so their 20-year-old engineer Tom Dowd could use the one-room office as a recording studio, to Stax studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals in Alabama, where "Wex" produced and oversaw part and parcel of America's R&B legacy. But his boats were never far from his wired, restless mind; later, Wexler established Miami's Criteria Studios as "Atlantic South," where Dowd recorded Layla and much of the Allman Brothers' best work. Today, the Wexlers split their year evenly between East Hampton and Sarasota, Florida.
"Jerry was a tiger and a terror," says Dowd, recalling the early days of Atlantic in Wexler's Rhythm and the Blues, now out of print. "Jerry arrived in the morning and hit the phones. He'd stay on the phone so long and hard it seemed the instrument was growing out of his ear. He'd run down bills, chase after distributors, promoters, disc jockeys, managers."
"Having scored a string of hits on Mercury as the Sir Douglas Quintet in the late Sixties, by the early Seventies my relationship with that label had become somewhat stale," writes Doug Sahm in the liner notes to Doug Sahm & Friends: The Best of Doug Sahm's Atlantic Sessions. "Out of the blue, Jerry Wexler, the funky Jewish king of black music (the man behind Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Willis, the Drifters and many others) called me one day and said, 'T-Bone, you're playing on my team now.'
"Turns out he'd bought my contract from Mercury," continues Sahm. "In the process, Wexler changed my life. He made it possible for me to assemble one of the most amazing all-star groups of musicians I could ever dream of; he was kind enough to make us feel at home in this big New York City of his; and he was strong enough to push us whenever the music didn't meet his usual standards of excellence."
Musicians like George Rains, Jack Barber, Augie Meyers, Bob Dylan, Mac Rebennack, David Bromberg, David "Fathead" Newman, Wayne Jackson, Willie Bridges, Rocky Morales, Flaco Jimenez, Ken Kosek, Charlie Owens, Martin Fierro, and a dozen others. Musicians that make up the glorious Texas soul of Doug Sahm and Band and its follow-up, Texas Tornado, both long out of print, but combined, edited, and bonus-tracked by Doug Sahm himself on the Best of the Atlantic Sessions CD. "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone," "Poison Love," "Wallflower," "Faded Love," "San Francisco FM Blues," "Tennessee Blues," "Texas Tornado," "Juan Mendoza," "Nitty Gritty." The really good shit. Purest of the pure.
"It's tough to say when Doug and I first met," says Wexler. "I can't give you an exact year, but it must have been in the early Seventies, and it was through the intercession of Atlantic's promo man, Dickie Klein, who used to work South, Southwest."
Settled comfortably in his living room same as the night before, producer in the commander's chair, journalist on the other side of the glass (coffee table), Wexler accesses the Doug Sahm files from his memory banks. He thinks for a moment. The day outside is gorgeous. It's 1pm, the best of Wexler's day in terms of his energy ("I don't 'hang' anymore"). He mentions that tomorrow's interview session may need to be rescheduled because of a doctor's appointment he's forgotten. His audience wonders whether he happens to have any extra Doug Sahm and Band and/or Texas Tornado LPs laying around. They're hard to find since his death. We'll look later, nods Wexler.
"When Doug Sahm first came to New York to do Doug Sahm and Band, I put him in the Mayflower Hotel," begins Wexler. "There he had Jack Barber, Rocky Morales -- the usual crew. And he also had J.R. [Chatwell], the legendary fiddle player, who was a fantastic Western swing player going back to the early Thirties, and maybe the best fiddle player ever.
"There we are in the Mayflower Hotel, I'm just welcoming them, and Doug has this big gallon jar with a big, wide lid. He opens it up, and starts testifying about the buds he's got in there. Now people who didn't know Doug figured he was on speed, but that was wrong. He was just on a natural high all the time. He had to have a couple of joints in the morning just to get down to equilibrium. After that, we became real tight. There was just a terrific affinity. He'd always be calling me from the road. He'd come and visit me, stay with me."
Doug was like an airplane turbine, spinning so fast. From your book, you seem the same. Driven. Is this what bonded the two of you?
"Well, I don't know if I quite resonate to the metaphor, but I was obsessed with trying to make the best music I could make and to improve the fortunes of my record company. Anybody that got between me and Atlantic Records was like getting between a tiger and her cubs. Don't fuck around with my bread and butter, Jack. I wasn't hyper in my personality the way Doug was -- always up -- but I was driven. Absolutely, I was driven. We just naturally seemed to resonate. We were on the same wavelength, because he knew I was very attuned to root American music. And I wasn't the usual guy behind a desk with a vest. He knew I loved the music to distraction. We had a lot of fun.
"The Western swing thing was pretty big link between us, as well. Another thing that we had in common, we both loved Duke and Peacock Records -- Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, the Joe Scott Orchestra, which was the backup band for all these great people. Also, what's his name? 'Treat Her Right'? He's still around. Roy Head. Doug idolized him, Roy Head. He's still playing music from what I understand. Doug had the whole repertoire."
Is that what Doug Sahm was musically, the collision of Western swing and R&B?
"Yeah, but you gotta add some more ingredients. You have to add jazz, because he loved Wes Montgomery. You also have to add pure country, and Norteño. You have to add Norteño. You have to have the Tex-Mex. He loved an instrument called the 'bajo sexto,' which other people call the 'guitarron' -- this huge guitar. The bass string was about the pitch-level of a string on the bass, but he would pluck the bass string on one and three and simulate a bass. Of course, he did a lot of polka, because that was a very good instrument to do it on. He could play the shit out of it.
"I once made the analogy that Doug was like St. Sebastian -- pierced by 1,000 arrows. But instead of blood, talent coming out of every wound. I really regard him as the best musician I ever knew, because of his versatility, and the range of his information and taste. Remember, he started as a child virtuoso on the pedal steel.
"Oh, and let's talk about the blues. Could he play some blues! He also loved New Orleans music -- Bobby Charles was a favorite of his. Bobby Charles was tremendous. People only remember him for 'See You Later, Alligator,' but he wrote a lot of great songs. The one we did was called 'Tennessee Blues,' which is an absolutely beautiful song.
"So Doug covered all these different bases, straight-ahead country, Western swing, polka -- that was all there. Don't forget, he came from San Antonio, so there's a lot of Latino in him. Then there was border music, the Norteño music. That's why he loved Flaco so much."
Given all these myriad influences, was it hard to rein him in musically?
"Terribly," chuckles Wexler. "We'd start out on one song, make a plan ... I remember we were set to do one tune, and I was sitting at the talk-back, and inadvertently, as Doug was counting something off, I hit the talk-back and said something out of turn.
"Well, Doug turns around and says, 'The bird has flown! Blues in B-flat.'
"He changed the whole thing, and off he went on something else," says Wexler laughing. "The problem with Doug was you had this river. What were you gonna bottle and sell?"
Turns out, that's also an apt analogy for Willie Nelson, who Wexler signed to Atlantic in the mid-Seventies in order to establish a Nashville-based country arm for the label. Like the back-to-back LPs Doug Sahm and Band and Texas Tornado, Nelson's Atlantic twofer, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages (both 1974) are high points in a career mountainous with peaks -- even if, like Sahm's albums, they were invisible to the record-buying public. As the conversation segues from Sahm to Nelson, and the fact that Wexler was "terminal" at Atlantic by 1975 -- he and the Erteguns had sold the king of indie labels to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1967 for $17.5 million -- Wexler starts to flag visibly.
"Do you have enough?" he asks, concerned.
There will be no interview Tuesday; the doctor's appointment takes precedence and will probably take up most of the afternoon.
"I can give you a little more time," he says looking at his watch.
Just a few more questions.
Wexler on Ray Benson
Phases and Stages
"Western swing? Nobody knows it. I mean, God bless Ray Benson, because he's the man. I had a fabulous collection of Western swing, which I turned over to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel a year or two ago. Ray and I are very good friends. When he came out with this recent record and video, for which he won a couple of Grammys, Ride With Bob, I sent him a note telling him how knocked out I was. He said, 'Those few words from you mean more to me than a rave review in Rolling Stone.'"
Ray Benson on Wexler
"Yeah, he was being disturbed by dust mites and couldn't have all that cardboard around. I'd say it was about two yards of LPs. The interesting thing about the whole thing was, on the albums, every so often next to a title there's 'W.N.' I asked him what it was and he said, 'Well, I was choosing songs for Willie Nelson to do a Bob Wills tribute album in 1974.'"
Wexler on Marcia Ball
"It was Marcia's fault that Freda & the Firedog's stuff [produced by Wexler in Tyler, Texas, 1972], never came out, because at a certain time in rock history, pop history, people that were not in the main centers of the business had been instructed by other people, who presented themselves as knowledgeable to, 'Be real careful, because those sharpies from New York are going to fuck you, they're going to suck your life's blood.' There was paranoia running throughout the country. So Marcia, or whoever was advising her, they got to where they never would sign the contract. Never signed the contract ... "
Marcia Ball on Wexler
"The contract wasn't great, and we couldn't find a lawyer who could give us any more advice than, 'Sign it -- it's Jerry Wexler.' They may've been right, though; the label was doing that Austin-Atlantic country thing, and Jerry was sticking his neck out, basically. He had Doug, and Tony Joe White, and Willie all involved, but he was still sticking his neck out. He wasn't in the best position with Atlantic at the time. It was probably my fault that we drug our feet long enough that he just said, 'Well, I can't work under these circumstances.'"
Wexler on Ray Wylie Hubbard
"We agreed that I'd sign him to Atlantic. I was not in a position to produce him at that time, but we agreed that he'd go to Muscle Shoals to cut the album. So, he went to Muscle Shoals -- arrived on a Friday, left on a Saturday, and was out of there. That was the last I ever heard of him."
Ray Wylie Hubbard on Wexler
"I called up Mr. Wexler at his house that night and said, 'Mr. Wexler, I feel uncomfortable down here at this studio,' and I think the way I remember it, I think he was having dinner with Bette Midler. He says, 'Well, I'm having dinner with Bette Midler right now.' I said, 'Well, Mr. Wexler if I could just have a minute, I do not think Bob Johnson is the fellow to produce my record, and I just feel awful. I don't know what to do. I know I can make a great record.' The way I remember it, he said, 'Well, maybe you're not ready to record,' and I said, 'You're probably right. I really am not ready to record right now. I honestly believe that may be part of it.' So we flew out the next day."
Wexler on Lou Ann Barton
"In the end, I wasn't too happy with the mix [on Old Enough, 1982], but otherwise it was pretty good."
Lou Ann Barton on Wexler
"It wasn't lowdown enough."
Wexler on the Fabulous Thunderbirds
"Carlos wanted them [for Santana's Havana Moon, 1983]. I hadn't known the Thunderbirds before, but we got real tight, especially Kim Wilson and I. We went out for supper one night, and got a load on. Kim says, 'I don't know where you think you're going, but you're coming on the road with us. Play tambourine, do something, but you're coming out with us.'"
Kim Wilson on Wexler
"Oh yeah [laughing], I wish I could take him out on the road right now! That was a really nice experience, that session. My only regret about Jerry Wexler is that I haven't had enough experiences with him. You gotta put a guy like Wexler up with people like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. He's one of those people. Just a fine individual, who's helped out a lot of people in this world."
Wexler on Stevie Ray Vaughan
"Seeing him that one time at the Continental Club was almost an out-of-body experience, I couldn't believe it. I called Claude Nobs at [the] Montreux [Jazz Festival] the next morning. I said, 'You gotta book this musician I'm telling you about. There's no time, I have no tapes, no videos, no nothing -- just book him.' And he did, on my say-so. And that's where he met Jackson Browne and David Bowie. David Bowie took him out on the road, and Jackson Browne was so taken with him that he gave him free studio time to cut his first album, which John Hammond took over and released on Columbia."
Wexler On Clifford Antone
"Doug also introduced me to Clifford, and that was a gift getting to meet Clifford Antone and becoming friends with him. There's a man that I really value and respect, because of his unbelievable dedication to the righteous music. There's only one Clifford Antone. All by himself. He had his club, he had his label, he looked after his singers. I talked to Clifford just before he went away."
Home in Your Heart
"Have you got enough now?"
It's just after 3pm, and Wexler is obviously fatigued. Rather than run the errand on his agenda, he decides he's going to lay down instead. Off in the kitchen, the cook is talking to his wife in some foreign tongue -- above the sound of whatever it is he's chopping up.
One last thing. You don't have those records?
"Let's look," he says, starting toward the back of the house.
You must have a lot of records ...
"Oh, I don't have any records."
No records? Then ...
Leading me back past the downstairs guest bedrooms and into an office, Wexler makes a sharp U-turn just through the doorway and stops, facing a bookcase unseen to his guest.
"Do you have this?" he asks pulling down the 8-CD Atlantic Rhythm & Blues, 1947-1974 box set and handing it to me.
"Take it," he says, not looking up. He pulls down Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding -- 4 CDs. "What about this?"
"Take it," he says. He's on a roll now. Once a promo man, always a promo man. "What about this?"
Aretha Franklin's Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings, 4 CDs.
He crosses over to the bookcase on the other side of the doorway, squeezing past the chair that faces a TV/VCR combo built into the wall. Bet Catherine Deneuve's been here. Big, Bad & Blue, the Big Joe Turner Anthology, Solomon Burke's Home in Your Heart, and A Man and a Half, Wilson Pickett, all 2-CD sets, are handed to me. All of them with a credit somewhere on the back that reads, in part, "Produced by Jerry Wexler." What does one say in a situation like this?
So, you don't have those records, huh? No vinyl.
"Oh right," he says pulling out one last CD -- Doug Sahm & Friends: The Best of Doug Sahm's Atlantic Sessions. "This is my last one. I better write that down."
He sits down at his desk to note what he needs to reorder from his alma mater. Doug Sahm grins up at me from the CD -- like this was his joke. Shoulda known.
Returning to the living room, briefly, a few last-second questions suddenly spring to mind. Wexler, a mellower tiger now, obliges with a tired smile. Mellow being a relative term.
In his piece, Ed Ward says you swore you'd never make another album with Sahm after Doug Sahm and Band.
"He was so full of shit," says Wexler vehemently. "So full of shit. That really got me mad. I was such a Doug Sahm apostle. No way that could have happened. But Ed Ward is some kind of eccentric. Isn't he living Germany now? I wouldn't give the bum house room."
You worked the album?
"I worked it to death," he says seriously.
Did you like that first album?
"Yeah, I liked it a lot."
Was there ever any question about whether a second album would be made after Doug Sahm and Band?
"Oh, no. There was no question about that."
What do you remember of the sessions for Texas Tornado?
"I don't have too much memory of that. Just the first album. I don't remember too much of the second one. I think Doug cut some of those sides in San Francisco without my presence. "
When the second album didn't sell what happened?
"I don't remember," says Wexler, still gracious in face of the fact that a lesser man would've seen his inquisitor to the door by this point. "But the personal closeness never diminished. Whether he went somewhere else for a good deal, or whether we cut him loose, or the contract was over, I really don't remember. You have to remember, I left the company in 1975. So anything might have happened."
Which, when all is said and done, is almost exactly what Ed Ward says.
"In the end?" he writes via e-mail from Berlin, "You have two old men with faulty memories. I'm certainly willing to defer to Wexler, especially if the chronology doesn't work out. One thing for sure: I don't want to antagonize him or piss him off, because I respect him too much and think this is way too small an issue to annoy him with."
He's right. And yet this same triviality has afforded me the opportunity -- to paraphrase Doug Sahm -- to have Wexler make me feel at home in his small New York town. Doug Sahm has afforded me this opportunity. And that, after all, that was Doug Sahm's gift -- bringing together friends.