HONORING JERRY WEXLER
Ordinarily, I never pay to get into entertainment benefits. In the old days, when I was writing my POP SCENE column in the New York Post, if anyone wanted me to attend a benefit show, I'd expect him to invite me with a free ticket plus an offer to send a limousine to pick me up if I needed a ride. Today, it's not so much that I'm spoiled as much as that I'm broke. I need someone to throw a benefit for me, at least to help me pay this column's rent on the web. But when the Blues Foundation invited me to attend a benefit at which the Foundation was honoring Jerry Wexler with its first Lifetime Achievement Award, I wore my fingerprints off my fingertips scraping the bottom of the barrel, but I came up with the $150 tariff. Jerry Wexler means that much to me.
I forget how long I've known Jerry but I feel like I've known him all my life. Jerry has that kind if charm. I call him Jerry but others of his friends call him Wex. Tim White, editor of Billboard calls him the Godfather of Rhythm and Blues. When Jerry, a lifelong writers' groupie, was himself a writer, working on the staff of Billboard in the early '50s, the music business identified black music as "race music," a misnomer Jerry thought highly inappropriate. He was instrumental in getting black music renamed on the Billboard charts as R&B, Rhythm and Blues.
Atlantic Records, a label that has always signified great quality in recorded music, was founded in 1947 by Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun, hip, pot-smoking jazz freak sons of the then-Turkish ambassador in Washington. Jerry, Ahmet and Neshui loved black music and they were all graduates of that same hip, marijuana-scented jazz club scene which was the underground in which the Beat Generation, all cultural cousins of Ahmet, Neshui and Jerry, was simultaneously evolving. With a set of ears as golden as Ahmet's and Neshui's, Jerry joined Atlantic in 1953 as senior partner, promotion man and A&R man. He has learned every trick in the book just as well as the next music business crook and he takes no prisoners. He knows how to shave points off a beginner artist's royalties and he knows when to steal a piece of the songwriter's end. Still, he has emerged as a recording industry holy man, with a discography of hits big enough to keep the world listening for eons. Jerry's immortality is ensured by the immortality of the immortals he has enshrined in vinyl. A CD collection of only a representative handful of smashes produced by Jerry was in a big black bag of goodies handed out to ticket-buyers at Jerry's award dinner and, for at least a tiny taste of that CD and of Jerry's immeasurable contribution to contemporary music, you can click your mouse on each of the following names to hear what I'm talking about: Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Dr. John, Doug Sahm, Willie Nelson, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan and Etta James, which are only few of the names on the souvenir CD, entitled Wex on Wax and compiled by Gregg Geller, an old music business friend of Jerry and of mine. You can assay the gold in Jerry's golden ears by the great success of the artists he has signed and the records he has produced.
Jerry was into black music when he got out of high school at the whiz-kid age of 15. Jerry's one of the most quick-witted men I know. Born in Brooklyn, he inevitably gravitated toward the after-hours clubs in Harlem and the jazz dives on 52d Street. As an
Jerry is one
of my favorite
industrial journalism major at Kansas State following hitches at CCNY, at NYU, and in the Army, he caught jazz and blues stars in their show business infancy on KC's storied 12th Street. Kansas City was wide open in those days, and Jerry reminisces about going to clubs that had plenty of reefer and totally nude waitresses.
Neshui died a few years ago, but I knew Ahmet was going to be at Jerry's dinner. Ahmet was another reason for me to go. Like Jerry, Ahmet is a spellbinder. That's what I like most about Jerry. He's one of my favorite raconteurs. I've written many a story based on Jerry's raconteurship and now, in fact, along with collaborator David Ritz, he has written a book himself, Rhythm and the Blues, telling some choice stories about his 50-year career. [Read an excerpt from the book.] Now he was pushing 80 and of course I wanted to go to his dinner. Practically the whole recording industry was going to be there. People I hadn't seen in years. I thought it'd be a good idea for me to show up just to remind everybody I'm still alive. And also to spread the news that I'm writing this column. I rushed out to get business cards printed up.
Naturally, they were holding the dinner in Hollywood's House of Blues, that movieland version of a New Orleans honkytonk overlooking the Sunset Strip near Doheny, except New Orleans never had a honkytonk this plush or with this kind of space ship technology. When the show starts, the bar on the second floor swings away and folds out of sight to let those at the second-floor tables look down at the stage. More like a Disneyish Creole castle, the House of Blues employs a staff in excess of 400 to keep its well-heeled patrons coddled. That's what the bartender told me when I paid $10 for a tequila at the downstairs bar. I wanted another but I already had splurged too much. Not only did I buy a $150 ticket for myself for the dinner, but I also paid $150 for a second ticket for Lillian Davis, who made a name for herself as a recording engineer at New York's Record Plant during those sizzling '60s. She also once was my baby-sitter and I hope to turn her into my reporter on the L.A. scene. Besides, she's very good-looking and I needed a ride.
Bob Crewe, who also always seems to keep looking younger, was the first old music business pro Lillian and I bumped into once we were inside this new Hollywood confection of a club. Bob, forever the model of a casual California beach bum, eternally slender and healthy-looking, with his tanned altar boy face lit up by his crown of shining golden hair, was waiting at the elevator for his companion, LuAnne Simms, once a member of Arthur Godfrey's gang during the days of prehistoric TV. She also is an old friend of Jerry, our honoree of the evening, who, now old enough to be everybody's father, certainly goes back that far.
The multi-talented Bob has known Jerry at least since 1953, when Jerry was a Billboard reporter. At first glance, they seem to make something of an odd couple, but when I think of the diversity of all the characters I've hung out with since the beginning of time, I count Bob as a measure of how far Jerry's charm can reach. In 1976, Bob and Jerry even got together in the studio to give birth to Motivation an album of Bob singing his own songs, with Jerry producing. Bob's a singer and a songwriter, too, you see.
"Jerry was my mentor in the very early stages of my career," Bob told me. "He really guided me in many many ways."
When Bob talks about Jerry, I find him saying exactly what I think. "This dinner and this award is something he so deserves," Bob said, explaining why he was there at the House of Blues. "Knowing Jerry's devotion and dedication to purity and sincerity---having worked with Jerry and seeing and feeling the way he worked, and knowing how much is behind all of that action that you see on the outside---there's a heartfelt drive! I mean the man is brilliant beyond belief. He's one of the most brilliant people I've ever met in my life, and he can size up a situation very quickly, whether it's in music or politics. He's really hot stuff! I love him! I'm glad to be part of this!"
As I said, what Bob said about Wex reflects my own thoughts to a T. Bob and I had never been exactly what you might call asshole buddies, but the presence of both of us at this
Fifth Avenue pad
party to honor Jerry gave us a certain kinship. I hadn't seen Bob in I forget how long and I told him that what I remembered most about him was a fabulous party I once attended in his fabulous Fifth Avenue apartment, a pad that took up the top three floors of a buildinoverlooking Central Park at 67th Street.
"It was quite a place," he remembered, laughing. "I architecturally designed it. It was extremely comfortable, done in a minimalistic modern way. I avoided any frills and kept it very, very practical in its usability."
As I remembered, the centerpiece of the pad was a spectacular water fountain. Wasn't that a "frill?" No, it was no big deal, he insisted.
"The staircase that came from the second floor was on a stringer that went up over a pond that had rotating water in it," he said. "Everybody over the years has exaggerated it so that one would think I had Niagara Falls, but actually it was just a bubbling foot and a half of water in a big bowl. We also had terraces that went on forever outside."
Formerly a heavyweight producer of such hit recording artists as the Four Seasons and Mitch Ryder, Bob, according to Lillian (who knows all about the L.A. art scene) "is now a fine artist, whose canvases are large, textural paintings in earth tones which sell in Hollywood. He shows in prestigious galleries."
When LuAnne returned from the powder room, she joined Bob in disappearing behind the closing elevator doors, but not too long afterwards, Bob came back downstairs to make my day by telling me that Jerry had sent him to get me. Jerry was holding court upstairs on the third floor in the super-exclusive Founders' Room and when Bob told Jerry he had seen me on his way in, Jerry asked Bob to go back down and bring me up. That's why I was so willing to shell out $300 to be there. I had come to honor Jerry, but now he was honoring me!
Let me explain. For more than two decades, I've been forgotten, dumped on, written off, totally invisible, lost in the Sea of Oblivion. But Jerry treats me as the powerful pop journalist I once was. The secret of Jerry's charm is that he instinctively knows how to make you feel good. One reason I had come to Jerry's party was to see if the music business remembered me and Jerry made sure that it did. He was holding court on a couch at the end of the room while his pretty blonde wife, novelist Jean Arnold, hovered nearby. He kept inviting his favorites, one at a time, to come sit on the couch next to him so he could spin stories about them to an audience of adoring guests milling in a semicircle in front of the couch. When he saw me enter, he kicked I forget whom off the seat of honor on the couch next to him and called me to come sit in that spot, making an overwhelmed me feel like I was Churchill next to FDR at Yalta. He lionized me there for maybe 15 minutes before he kicked me off the couch to make way for the next VIP he wanted to stroke. Yeah, he made my day, my night, my week, my month, my year! Like I say, Jerry knows how to make people feel good.
When we first stepped into the Founders' Room, Lillian, who knew all these people from her days as a recording engineer at the Record plant, gasped:
"My God! The whole recording industry is here!"
Maybe not the whole recording industry, but a good dollop of its creme de la creme. Lillian had gotten a buzz just riding up in the elevator with Bonnie Bramlett, Mrs. Danny Sheridan now, whom Lillian described as looking better than in all the years Lillian had known her. Lillian notices all those little things that I never pay attention to, such as the fact that Bonnie's ex-old man and recording partner, Delaney Bramlett, was another guest in the Founders' Room, but Delaney and Bonnie seemed to keep a respectable distance from each other while there.
On display in the Founders' Room was a collection of friends Jerry has rounded up through
Jerry had a
the years, of which I was proud to be one. There was Roy Thomas Baker, the record producer; J. W. Alexander, who used to be Sam Cooke's manager; Al Bell, who used to be the CEO of Stax but now has his own label, Bellmark; and Spooner Oldham, the Muscle Shoals musician. Koko Taylor fit her voluptuous body into a turquoise beaded dress. Lorraine Rebennack, Dr. John's wife, was there with one of their beautiful twin daughters, Jennifer. You certainly couldn't miss Doug Sahm, very distinctive in fringes and his Stetson. There was Jerry Moss of A&M, described by Wexler as "one of the great record men"; Jerry's "old pal," music business perennial Alan Pariser, who thought up the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival; Pete Kameron, who used to manage the Weavers and Woody Guthrie; and Joe Smith, who used to run Warner-Elektra and who acted as MC for the night. There was archivist Michael Ochs and legendary entertainers Billy Vera, Tony Joe White, Etta James and Solomon Burke, to name only a few. Even the reclusive Phil Spector, the Howard Hughes of the music business, was there. "A Who's Who of the music business!" Lillian commented.
"I'm still decompressing," Jerry told me a month or so after the dinner, which was held December 5, 1995. "To me it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Almost everybody there had the same response. They'd never seen anything quite like it because there was such an outpouring of affection and emotion. As I mentioned to my ex-partner, Ahmet Ertegun, who made such a witty and such a warm and beautiful speech, I said, 'This thing didn't have the heavy auspices of other music industry benefits because it was not either about Israel or a disease.'
"I didn't know what to expect. I was always apprehensive about the turnout. It wasn't like the heads of the record companies each bought 25-thousand-dollar tables and they filled the Grand Ballroom. The benefit people always used to get record executives to be 'Man of the Year' because they knew they'd draw a crowd. They used to come after me to be a 'Man of the Year' and I always refused. When friends asked me how come I never did it, I told them I couldn't feature myself in the Grand Ballroom of the Century Plaza in front of a roomful of rack jobbers in tuxedos while a rabbi told lies about me."
In his own speech before the House of Blues audience, Jerry paid special tribute to those he knew had made sacrifices to come to his dinner because they were just too broke and I knew he was speaking about me. Lillian and I had a great view of the stage, scoring a convenient table on the ground floor near the power seats after others had usurped the seats assigned to us.
The show would have been anti-climactic if it weren't so dynamite. "It's the record industry entertaining the record industry," said Lillian in her own way of summing things up. As musical director for the show, Billy Vera, in addition to singing a couple of numbers, led his band, the Beaters, in backing up Etta James, Koko Taylor and Doug Sahm, all of whom gave highly charged performances. Inspired because this dinner succeeded in showing him how high he ranked in the R&B pantheon, Solomon Burke joined his 13-piece orchestra and his son and daughters in practically stealing the evening with their show. But my own plaudits went to Bonnie Bramlett, who, though unscheduled on the bill, got up with the Billy Vera band to jam as an extra added attraction, transfiguring me and the rest of the audience with her really thumping rendition of I Just Can't Help Myself, a rocker she and Delaney wrote for Janis Joplin, who died before she could record it. I doubt Janis could have done a better job with it than Bonnie did that night. It got the crowd on its feet and I soon found myself swirling in a dance with Lorraine Rebennack.
Neither Lorraine nor Wex let me leave that night without promising to send them reprints of a nine-part series I once wrote for my New York Post POP SCENE column called Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote, all legendary figures of the '60s. As part of this BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST Column Eight, I offer an updated version of Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote rewritten from my original unedited manuscript. It is a saga about Jerry; '60s Counterculture hero Emmett Grogan; Lorraine's husband, Dr. John; plus Peter Coyote, the actor who carries the keys in Steven Spielberg's E.T. Read about Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote.
Chairman of the event was Warner's publicity chief Bob Merlis, who wondered how on earth the Blues Foundation was going to follow this act with a second annual Lifetime Achievement Award, whomever the Foundation might decide to give it to.
"Jerry Wexler is an impossible act to follow," Merlis said.##
Other Articles this Month
RetroPop Scene: Emmett, Mac and Peter Coyote
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN NINE
INDEX OF COLUMNS
The Blacklisted Journalist can be
contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ