Jerry Wexler
" Interview "
Part 1 Aretha's Rare and Unreleased (and other Atlantic Records tales)

In 1967 Aretha Franklin was signed to Atlantic Records, her first single, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You)" with the flipside of "Do Right Woman," was a huge hit. After an argument between Rick Hall and Aretha's then husband Ted White, Jerry Wexler and Aretha left FAME studios forever, but not before Wexler called Rich Hall for permission to use Hall's musicians for a King Curtis session. Hall relented and Wexler used the outstanding FAME rhythm section to finish the Aretha Franklin album in New York City.

1967 was a huge year for Wexler, as he was honored as Recording Executive of the Year for turning Aretha's career around, plus Ahmet Ertegun sold Atlantic Records for $17.5 million. Both execs stayed on with Atlantic Records, but the ownership was in someone else's hands. Wexler began to work less and moved to Miami Beach where he built an infamous house band, the Dixie Flyers (with the help of the great Tom Dowd), at Criteria Studios, and Wexler went on to produce Aretha, Donny Hathaway, and Roberta Flack.

By the mid 1970s Wexler was no longer the head of Atlantic Records, Ertegun and the rest of Atlantic company moved into Rock, but Wexler preferred working with Southern Roots musicians like Duane Allman, Delaney & Bonnie, and Dr. John. By 1975 Wexler resigned from Atlantic Records and moved on to Warner Brothers, where he worked with more modern acts like the B-52's, Dire Straits, and Gang of Four. By the 1980s, he was working with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Wexler describes himself as a total workaholic and successfully cloned his outstanding production and record-making qualities to rural areas like Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Miami, thus providing music fans with some of the greatest R&B ever waxed.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with the legendary Roll and Roll Hall of Fame great; Jerry Wexler, just as his self-produced Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul (Aretha Franklin) double-CD was released on the Atlantic division of Rhino Records. I would be remiss if I didn't add that Mr. Wexler not only went through the vaults of Atlantic to sift through Aretha's unreleased gems, but he also beautifully authored eighteen pages of heartfelt liner notes for the dual disc. Additionally, the track-by-track documentation of almost all of the tracks, including most of the backing musicians (which reads like a who's who of American music) utilized for Aretha's greatest body of work, are impeccably detailed on the final two pages of this remarkable release.

Ever the perfectionist, just when we were about to get started with the recording of the interview, Wexler insisted on knowing if the quality of the recording would be appropriate for radio airplay. I had to assure him that all would be.

Jerry Wexler: Fire away!

Bob Putignano for BluesWax: Hi Jerry, first I have to ask, how are you doing?

JW: I'm surviving at the age of ninety.

BW: Jerry, at whatever age, reading through your liner notes of your newly produced Rare & Unreleased CD on Aretha is just magnificent.

JW: Thank you.

"...Aretha's secondary tracks are better than most artist's first-choice releases."

BP: How did this project all come together?

JW: Through Rhino, which is now owned by the Warner Elektra Group, which includes Atlantic. And, incidentally, the Warner Elektra Group, which comprises of Atlantic, Elektra, and Warner, is the only freestanding record unit in the world. All the rest are owned by conglomerates, plus they shed all their relationships with AOL and Time, so they are the last of the old-school breed record label that's truly independent. I just had to say that. Back to your question about how this Aretha project came about.

An old friend of mine, James Austin, who is one of the big A&R guys, approached me about doing the CD and I said, "Sounds good to me." You have to know what a massive job it is to have someone find all of these old tapes and masters, so Rhino assigned a very enterprising fellow who did all the preliminary work and all the heavy lifting to filter through all of Aretha's unreleased material. So they presented me and David Ritz with reference records and we were both amazed with the quality. So, bottom line, this entire project was inspired by Rhino records plus, by the way, Aretha's secondary tracks are better than most artist's first-choice releases.

BP: Rhino is one of my most favorite labels for sure.

JW: A great reissue label.

BP: What I love most about what Rhino does, especially on your Aretha set, is that they always dig up so many rare gems that we've never heard before, which is truly fascinating and offers another glimpse about what else was taking place when the original recordings were being made.

JW: You are right, but one thing that is unfortunate is that they don't promote. Imagine if Aretha went on all of the talk shows like Oprah and others and talked about this record? For example, when New Yorker magazine reviewed this Aretha CD they deplored the fact that it was a low-profile release. They went on to say that if this was Dylan or Springsteen they would be dancing in the streets. But so be it, this is what it is. Whether it sells big or not, it's of no real concern to me because I won't profit either way. Come to think of it, when I produced these records I was one of the owners of Atlantic Records, and neither Ahmet Ertegun nor myself took royalties from the records we produced. We both said, "So what, we are the owners and we profit that way." It was an unfortunate era, without provisioning CDs and all the breakout records, sampling, and God knows what else, we did ourselves out of a lot of money, but so be it.

BP: But it was a glorious time for making records and the way you and Atlantic made records at that time was spectacular. Looking through these liner notes blew my mind with the all of the assembly of great musicians, recording engineers, and producers involved. It reads like a who's who of American music.

JW: I wrote my memoirs and talked a lot about this and we were very innovative of course, going south and finding those great rhythm sections, too.

BP: Muscle Shoals.

JW: Yes, plus the Stax guys with Booker T. & the MG's.

BP: Duane Allman, too.

JW: Oh yes, Duane Allman, who I was fortunate enough to be in on with at the beginning and actually helped put the Allman Brothers together, in association with Phil Walden, the manager. You see, Duane was under contract to a record producer named Rick Hall at Muscle Shoals. Rick had a great track record and did a hell of job, but I went to Rick and bought out Duane's contract for fifteen thousand dollars, to free him up so that he could become one of the integers in the Allman Brothers Band. Plus, before the band was formed, Duane played on a lot of my records as a sideman and he was just superb.

To be continued...

Bob Putignano: