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Guest Blog by Dick Cooper: Remembering Jerry Wexler

by Dick Cooper

This has been a hard time for me. Jerry Wexler was more than a mentor; he altered the forces of nature and changed the world for me.

I was never sure why he befriended me. I wrote a gossip column for a small town newspaper, and he was one of the most powerful men in the music industry.

He would call me when he was in town and invite me to breakfast at Carl’s restaurant in Tuscumbia. Although Jewish, Jerry loved to eat breakfast at Carl’s because they serve great sugar cured ham and biscuits.

His breakfast always coincided with my lunch, and we would discuss religion, politics, books we’d read, movies and the general state of world affairs. And I would usually follow him back to the studio and “work on my column.”

This all began in July 1973, when Jerry and Bob Dylan brought Barry Goldberg to Muscle Shoals Sound to record a solo album for the Atlantic subsidiary ATCO.

Goldberg had shared the stage numerous times in the 60’s with Dylan, while he had been a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and they had remained friends. Goldberg and Jerry Goffin had recorded demos at MSS the previous winter, and Dylan knew Barry wanted desperately to record a solo album at the studio, and had helped Barry convince Wex to record the album.

Wexler described the music as, “earthy…reality with a country connection that was non-Nashville.

Dylan wouldn’t label it, and merely commented that he liked it.

They came to Muscle Shoals Sound in the middle of summer, with Dylan driving from California with his wife and son in a plain panel van.


MUSCLE SHOALS MAGIC- Steve Melton, engineer, Jay Johnson, assistant engineer, Jerry Wexler, producer, Dick Cooper, project manager, and Clayton Ivey, music director on the Etta James Right Time project. (Photo by Dick Cooper)

Dylan would meditate for hours in the van each day in the hot Alabama sun and late in the evening would sit on the back porch of Muscle Shoals Sound trading guitar licks with the enigmatic Eddie Hinton.

On the third day of the session, I organized a group photo in front of the studio, but Dylan wouldn’t join in, so the next day, Wex asked me to hide in the vocal booth, and shoot through a window to get a picture of Bob in the session.

I felt like an idiot, but tried anyway. Unfortunately I didn’t have a great deal of success, but Wexler said he wasn’t upset by my failure. It was the beginning of the best years of my life.

Wexler came back the following summer to produce an album on Donnie Fritts with Kris Kristofferson. Fritts had played in Kristofferson’s band for three years, and would go on to log a total of 22 years with Kris.

Gathering an all star cast that included the Muscle Shoals Sound rhythm section, and luminaries such as Tony Joe White, John Prine, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Sammy Creason, Mike Utley, and a host of others, Wexler and Kristofferson crafted an endearing album highlighting Fritts’ songs.

Jerry was instrumental in my transition from journalism to music. I quit the newspaper to get into the music, and had been hanging around the studio, going to the state line to get beer, writing promotional copy and taking photographs, of artists like Lenny LeBlanc and Pete Carr, who had recorded as LeBlanc-Carr.

Pete and Lenny were signed to Big Tree, a subsidiary of Atlantic, and while in New York working on the release of their album, they visited Wexler, and ask if he would recommend some one to hire as road manager for their upcoming tour.

Wexler told them to go back to Alabama and hire me, and they did.
I saw many things in Jerry. He was the best people person I ever knew. I picked Wexler up at the Huntsville Airport when he came to record the Ronee Blakely album Welcome, and he stopped before leaving the terminal to get a shoe shine.

The shoe shiner was a middle aged black man dressed in a smock, but he and Jerry had a spirited discussion on music, and Wex was really enjoying the repartee. Three days later, Jerry and I are about to enter a restaurant in Sheffield when he sees a middle age Black man in a suit and tie leaving, and suddenly starts a conservation.

It was 10 or 15 minutes before I realized he was the same guy, but Wexler had instantly recognized him, even though he had met him only briefly, dressed much differently in a city 75 miles away.

Wexler had a reputation as a task master who took no prisoners, but he always proved to be kind and generous with me. At the conclusion of the recording of Dire Straits’ Communiqué album, I took Wex to the Huntsville Airport to catch a flight back to New York.

When I left one of the engineers, Bob Kinney, was making cassette copies of the two-track master. During the process, the brake on the recorder failed and tape began spilling on the floor.

Kinney panicked and hit the stop button, which stretched the tape making the master useless. Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and David Hood were in a protracted meeting over the formation of the MSS/Capitol label, and were unaware of the accident, and Kinney wasn’t interested in letting them know.

When I returned from the airport, he was pacing back and forth in the control room unsure of what to do. I called Wexler, who had reached his home in New York, told him of the problem, and he told me to come to New York the next morning and hand carry the safety copy back to Sheffield.

When Barry finally got out of the meeting, I told him about the problem, and his initial reaction was fear at the thought of calling Wexler and explaining.

He was very relieved,  when I told him of the resolution,  that he didn’t have to face the wrath of Wexler, but to be honest I was never concerned, because I knew he wouldn’t be upset with the outcome of an honest mistake that could be remedied.

I did witness one outburst at the ticket counter at the Huntsville Airport, when his eloquence and anger caused an inept clerk at the airline ticket desk to give him a free ticket just to shut him up.

RARE BYRDS - Roger McGuinn, Wexler and Chris Hillman in front of Muscle Shoals Sound studios. (Photo by Dick Cooper)

His sharp wit was always present and he enjoyed nothing better than showing his northern friends that Muscle Shoals musicians were the equal of any in the world.

After I began working for Beckett Productions, Barry Beckett’s company, I became much closer to Jerry, because of the co-productions he and Barry did with Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Carlos Santana, McGuinn Hillman, and Steve Bassett.,

In the documentary film Immaculate Funk Jerry concedes that Muscle Shoals changed his life.

He had molded a generation of musicians in the small Southern town, but they had given him new insight into the recording process. They were members of the union, but they were much more concerned with cutting a hit record than they were in quitting when the three hour union session was up.

He was use to the New York musicians who worked strictly by the clock, from written arrangements, while the Muscle Shoals cats improvised over “head” arrangements, and followed number charts rather than sheet music.

In Muscle Shoals Wexler discovered extraordinary musicians like Duane Allman, songwriters like Dan Penn, and co-producers like Beckett and Johnson.

They learned from the best, and when Wex felt they were ready he brought them on board to co-produce acts like the Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, McGuinn-Hillman, Mavis Staples, Dire Straits, and Billy Vera.

He worked with Glen Frey to co-produce an album on Lou Ann Barton, and he brought Willie Nelson, George Michael and Etta James to Muscle Shoals Sound for projects that he produced on his own. I was fortunate enough to be project manager on the Etta James sessions Right Time in 1992, which earned Etta a Grammy nomination.

And Wex gave me one of my greatest compliments when he exercised his vast knowledge of the English language, and mentioned my “indefatigable efforts” in the liner notes.

The Etta James album was Wexler’s final production in Muscle Shoals, although he did return in 1997, in order to deliver the speech inducting the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

He stayed a few days in Muscle Shoals before traveling to Birmingham for the Induction Banquet, and during that time I had the pleasure of being a fly on the wall when Jerry and Rick Hall reconciled their differences over the events surrounding the Aretha Franklin songs recorded at FAME Studios.

There will never be another like him.

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