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Jerry Wexler and Muscle Shoals Music

by Dick Cooper

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the death of Jerry Wexler it becomes more evident to the extent of his contribution to Muscle Shoals Music. He died August 15, 2008 at his home in Sarasota, FL of congestive heart failure.

No one person deserves all the credit for the success of Muscle Shoals music. There were too many natives working at it on a daily basis, but Wexler was a catalyst that sparked the world’s imagination. He changed Muscle Shoals from the Home of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to the Home of the Muscle Shoals Sound.

Wexler’s impact on music in general was tremendous. 

He coined the term Rhythm and Blues in the late 1940s, during a stint with Billboard magazine.

Wexler joined Atlantic Records as a senior partner in 1953, and his early work with artists such as, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, and Champion Jack Dupree, contributed to the definition of the role of record producer.

His first visit to Muscle Shoals in 1967 resulted in the double sided hit by Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”/”Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” despite circumstances that would have derailed the project for a less determined producer. He later brought the members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to New York and to Miami to record with Franklin.

His mere presence brought Muscle Shoals to the attention of the music press and caught the imagination of independent producers such as Brad Shapiro, who later brought their productions to Muscle Shoals.

And his later co-productions with Barry Beckett, pianist with the section, were pivotal projects for the facility.

Recording more than 20 albums in Muscle Shoals over almost three decades, Wexler created classic albums like Tony Joe White’s “The Train I’m On,” and Etta James’ “The Right Time,” which earned a Grammy nomination. There were also hit singles like Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning.”

When co-producing with Barry Beckett, they created Bob Dylan’s Grammy winning “Gotta Serve Somebody,” The Staple Singers’ “Unlock Your Mind,”  and Sanford/Townsend Band’s “Smoke From a Distant Fire,”

Hit songs in a variety of styles which showed not only the versatility of Muscle Shoals musicians, but also the depth of Wexler’s musical knowledge, and musical genius of Beckett’s playing and arranging.

He also came to the Shoals to produced records by Jose Feliciano, Steve Bassett, Ronee Blakely, Lou Ann Barton, Donnie Fritts, Lulu, Barry Goldberg, Dire Straits, McGuinn-Hillman, Mike Finnigan, and Billy Vera

He once commented that, “if you can’t influence the music, you are just a bystander to an event.” Wexler was hardly a bystander. Despite his inability to play an instrument, he wasn’t above scat singing a line to a guitarist or vocalist, or dancing a rhythm pattern to get his point across.

His focus was intense. His ability to communicate to artists, technicians, musicians and music lovers was undisputed.

Atlantic Records provided the early commitment necessary to launch the fledgling Muscle Shoals Sound in 1969. In addition to the coaching and financial assistance, Wexler brought in Cher for the studio’s first session. While partner Ahmet Ertegun, and Engineer Tom Dowd produced the first hit recorded at the studio, R.B. Greaves’ classic, “Take A Letter Maria,” the next year.

Wexler has been recognized for his achievements. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1995, he received the first Lifetime Achievement award from The Blues Foundation.

In further recognition of his amazing career, his son, Paul, and daughter, Lisa are currently negotiating with a label for the release of a boxed set of Wexler’s productions. Although in its initial stages, the set is expected to contain recordings from each of the five decades of his career.



Wex and Willie photo by Dick Cooper

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