Music industry legend Jerry Wexler, who started his career as a Billboard journalist in the late ‘40s and went on to cultivate the careers of Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin while a partner at Atlantic Records, has died at the age of 91 at his home in Florida.
Wexler coined the term "Rhythm & Blues", and was integral in signing and/or producing many of the biggest acts of the last 50 years, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, and Bob Dylan.
Wexler was born on Jan. 10, 1917, into a Jewish family in the Bronx. After graduating from the school now known as Kansas State University and spending a stint in the Army, he was hired in 1947 at BMI, writing continuity copy for radio stations and plugging the organization's songs.
He stayed at Billboard until 1951, when he went to work for Big Three, the music publishing arm of MGM Records. The following year, Atlantic Records tried to recruit him, but Wexler said he would only join if he was made a partner, and nothing happened. A year later, when co-founder Herb Abramson joined the Army, Atlantic came back with another offer and this time agreed to take him in as a partner.
Atlantic had already established itself as an up-and-coming R&B label thanks to hits from artists like Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, Stick McGhee and the Clovers, with the just-signed Ray Charles waiting in the wings. If Atlantic founders Abramson and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun led the way into exploring rhythm and blues, it would be Wexler who ultimately led the label deep into Southern soul.
In 1965, he signed a distribution deal for Memphis-based Satellite Records, which was putting out songs by Carla Thomas. That label would later become known as Stax. Before long, Stax began a golden era of hits from Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and William Bell, among others.
As the '60s wore on, Wexler grew more involved with producing and much less with running Atlantic, although he was still closely involved in signing Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band and Donnie Hathaway. He left Atlantic for good in 1975, but resurfaced two years later returned as VP of A&R for Warner Bros. Records.