MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, we're going to remember a man who produced some of the most groundbreaking rock and soul music of the 20th century, for example this song of Aretha Franklin's.
(Soundbite of song "You're All I Need to Get By")
Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) As long as you got me then baby you know that you got me. You're all I need - (unintelligible) - to get by.
Are you taping this, Jerry? Oh, okay. Give me one more try.
SIEGEL: Jerry is Jerry Wexler. Wexler died early today at the age of 91. Ashley Kahn has this appreciation of the record producer's life and work.
(Soundbite of song "You're All I Need to Get By")
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) You're all I need to get by. As long as you got me then baby you know that you got me.
ASHLEY KAHN: Jerry Wexler was a man whose personal taste predicted the path of popular music for more than 30 years. He was one of the last links to the roots of the modern music business — a time when legends were being born.
(Soundbite of song "Don't You Know")
Mr. RAY CHARLES (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Wooh, well, don't you know baby? Child, don't you know baby?
KAHN: This was Wexler's specialty: rhythm and blues. Even the term was his; in 1949, he invented it as a reporter for Billboard magazine.
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Say, have you heard me? Ray Charles is in town. Let's mess around 'til the midnight hour. See what he's putting down. Come on.
KAHN: In 1953, Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, asked Wexler to join the company.
Mr. JERRY WEXLER (Record Producer): When I came into the company in 1953, it was already a fairly successful enterprise. Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, Ray Charles were already there. The only music we recorded was the music that we liked and had sales possibilities.
KAHN: The independent label grew in strength, releasing a steady stream of R&B hits produced or promoted by Wexler - Chuck Willis, The Drifters, The Coasters.
(Soundbite of song "Young Blood")
THE COASTERS: (Singing) Look-a there. Yeah, look-a there. Look a-there. Young blood, young blood…
KAHN: Most of mainstream America dismissed this music as uncultured — too raw, too black. Wexler produced what looked to be a crossover hit for Lavern Baker…
(Soundbite of song "Tweedle Dee")
Ms. LAVERN BAKER (Singer): (Singing) Mercy mercy pudding pie. You've got something that money can't buy.
KAHN: But it was Georgia Gibbs' white cover version that made it to the top of the pop chart.
Ms. GEORGIA GIBBS (Singer): (Singing) Mercy mercy pudding pie. You've got something that money can't buy. Tweedle dee, tweedle dee, tweedle dee dum.
(Soundbite of song "In the Midnight Hour")
KAHN: Jerry Wexler was a force of nature — shrewd, determined — and he had a knack for matching singer and songs and finding the right recording studio.
Mr. WILSON PICKETT (Singer): (Singing) I'm gonna wait 'til the midnight hour. That's when my love comes tumbling down.
KAHN: As rhythm and blues evolved into rock and soul in the '60s, Wexler kept up with the changes. He grew Atlantic into a major record company and fashioned distribution deals with other labels like Stax Records.
(Soundbite of song "Respect")
Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) What you want, honey you got it. And what you need, baby you've got it. All I'm asking is for a little respect when I come home. Hey now.
KAHN: He hit a gold mine when he brought rock groups like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers into the Atlantic family.
(Soundbite of music)
KAHN: Wexler's greatest year was 1967, when he signed a singer who he felt had not yet reached her potential.
(Soundbite of song "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey?")
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Won't you come home, Bill Bailey? Come on home. I know that I've done you wrong.
KAHN: He asked Aretha Franklin to drop her cabaret style and sing the way she had learned in her father's church. Here they are working together in the studio.
(Soundbite of song "I Never Loved A Man")
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) I ain't never loved a man the way that I loved you.
Mr. WEXLER: Hey, it's starting to get good in there.
Ms. FRANKLIN: Yes it did.
Mr. WEXLER: Just did.
Ms. FRANKLIN: We had that rocking thing.
KAHN: Aretha Franklin's arrival was a high point for soul music. It also signified a major shift in popular culture: For the first time, authentic, unbleached black music became mainstream American music.
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) I ain't never loved a man the way that I love you.
KAHN: Wexler left the Atlantic label in 1975 but kept producing for many groups and won a Grammy for Bob Dylan.
(Soundbite of song "Gotta Serve Somebody")
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer, Songwriter): You may call me anything, but no matter what you say you're still gonna have to serve somebody.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Serve somebody.
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Yes, you're gonna have to serve somebody.
Mr. WEXLER: People have asked me, what are the qualifications to be a successful record producer? A good ear for intonation, a feel for rhythm and, third, information.
KAHN: Wexler's musical knowledge was vast. He could recall details at will: a record label, a lyric, the name of a sideman.
(Soundbite of saxophone music)
KAHN: His education began when he first heard jazz growing up in New York City. It was the height of the Depression, and he was one of an informal, fanatical group of record collectors. A few of them, like Wexler, became captains of the music industry.
Jerry Wexler outlived all of his Atlantic colleagues and almost all of his record-collecting buddies.
Mr. WEXLER: Back in the '50s and '60s, we had a special aura. We were regarded as the little Tiffany record company. Somebody asked me, to what do you ascribe the success of Atlantic? And, very vaingloriously, I said three things: taste, probity and intelligence.
KAHN: And humility.
Mr. WEXLER: Yeah, and humility.
KAHN: The last time I saw Jerry, he was surrounded by photos of himself with his legendary friends Aretha, Willie, Brother Ray, Dr. John - a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his own living room.
Mr. WEXLER: I'm rusticating and unemployed, but Jerry (bleep) Wexler's 90 years old. Give me a break. A tree in the forest gets a ring every year. They don't hold a reception or give it a medal.
KAHN: He was still erudite, funny, and ornery as ever.
SIEGEL: That's Ashley Kahn, a music journalist who spoke last year with Jerry Wexler. Wexler died early this morning at his home in Sarasota, Florida of congestive heart failure. His son says his tombstone will read: He changed the world.