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Record producer Wexler dies at 91

Wexler (Wyatt Counts / The Spokesman-Review)
Wexler (Wyatt Counts / The Spokesman-Review)

Jerry Wexler, the influential Atlantic Records producer who coined the term “rhythm and blues” before helping shape that sound into one of the most powerful musical forces of the 1950s and ’60s, died Friday at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 91.

Wexler had suffered in recent years from congenital heart disease.

As Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun’s partner during that label’s vital years from the ’50s to the ’70s, Wexler co-piloted one of the most successful and influential independent record companies in history.

Wexler provided the New York streetwise yang to the yin of Ahmet Ertegun’s internationally cultivated sophistication.

“Wexler’s efforts at Atlantic helped bring black music to the masses, and in so doing built a significant and lasting bridge between the races,” according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Wexler as a non-performer in 1987.

In the early 1960s, Wexler signed a gospel singer whose career had been languishing at another record label and unleashed her vocal talent, helping turn Aretha Franklin into “the Queen of Soul.”

“He made a huge contribution to my career,” Franklin told the Los Angeles Times on Friday, “one I’m most thankful for, one I’ll always remember. Jerry was truly one of the great record men of all time.”

He produced numerous hits for Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters, the Coasters and Big Joe Turner among dozens of others. He signed Led Zeppelin to the label and worked with other rock performers including Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Dire Straits, and the B-52’s, as well as producing recordings that salvaged Willie Nelson’s career in the mid-’70s after he turned his back on Nashville.

Although Wexler’s signing of Led Zeppelin spearheaded a new era for Atlantic in which it grew further with white rock acts including the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills & Nash and others, Wexler’s heart remained in the music created by blacks.