Rhythm and blues pioneer Jerry Wexler dead at 91

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Pioneering music executive Jerry Wexler, who helped build Atlantic Records into a rhythm and blues powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s with artists like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, died in Florida on Friday at age 91, Atlantic Records said.

Former music producer and Atlantic records executive Jerry Wexler in shown in this 1972 publicity photo released to Reuters August 15, 2008. REUTERS/Atlantic Records/Handout

Along with the late Ahmet Ertegun, co-head of Atlantic, Wexler revolutionized R&B music as the consummate businessman behind an independent label that had few rivals in its day, spearheading Atlantic’s move into “Southern soul” music.

In addition to Charles and Franklin, Wexler helped develop such acts as Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Roberta Flack, often finding talent in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Miami.

But his influence was not limited to R&B. He helped guide the careers of many artists, including rockers Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits and the B-52’s, as well as Bob Dylan and country star Willie Nelson.

“Jerry brought a rare combination of creativity, intelligence, wit, artistic sensibility and business savvy to the evolution of Atlantic from a small independent label into a major industry force,” Atlantic said in a statement.

Neil Portnow, president of the Grammy-sponsoring National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, saluted Wexler as a “true music-making pioneer” whose work “created an amazing legacy of R&B, pop and rock.”

Wexler was born in New York City, in January 1917, to a family of Jewish immigrants. He worked as a window washer with his father before serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he worked for music publication Billboard magazine as a journalist, where he coined the term “rhythm and blues.”

A passionate jazz fan, Wexler joined Atlantic in 1953, working alongside Ertegun, who died in 2006, to compile a roster of talent that ranged from R&B acts like the Drifters, Solomon Burke, and LaVern Baker to the Rolling Stones.

Wexler was especially known for bringing his business acumen to bear in helping Atlantic forge a partnership with the Memphis-based Stax Records -- the home of Otis Redding and Booker T. & The MG’s. -- and later with FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and Criteria Studios in Miami.

David Ritz, co-author of Wexler’s autobiography “Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music,” remembered him as “the last of the old school record business guys who had to kick and scream and fight to get his records made, but a New York intellectual as well.”

He was named Record Executive of the Year in 1967 for his work with Aretha Franklin, including the session that produced the smash hit “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I That I Love You),” and aided the career of the Allman Brothers by helping their manager, Phil Walden, set up Capricorn Records.

He was instrumental in signing Led Zeppelin to Atlantic in the 1970s, but as the label increasingly embraced rock music Wexler tended to prefer working with Southern blues artists, and his relationship with Ertegun soured.

He resigned from Atlantic in 1975 and moved to Warner Records, where he helped bring Dire Straits and B-52’s to that label. He also went on to produce albums for the likes of Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana and Willie Nelson.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Martinez and Steve Gorman