Music: Remembering Jerry Wexler

I met Jerry Wexler in New York City on Dec. 11, 1967, the day after Otis Redding had died. A self-described "vehement Jewish atheist," he might have called our encounter a mitzvah. For me, plunged into despair and confusion, after being in the studio with Otis all the previous week, at Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn., as he recorded "Dock of the Bay," it was nothing short of a miracle. Indeed, our meeting saved my life, as Jerry was to do, over and over, in the 40-plus years of our friendship.

Yet on introduction, I had no idea who he was, though I certainly knew of his partners at Atlantic Records, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. I had been listening to the company's artists since I was 12, thus I also knew its catalog—almost by heart.

That day in the studio in New York, Ahmet, wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, leaned over the console with a man dressed in a casual blue jacket, as Vanilla Fudge's plaint "And you don't really love me, you just keep me hangin' on" filled the air. "I like that record a lot," I said, gladder than I could express to have something else to think about. "It's got that heavy bass sound, but it's a cute little pop number." Noticing for the first time that I was in the room, the man in the blue jacket turned to me and then said to Ahmet, "Hey. He understands." That was Jerry. The next thing I knew, we were talking about Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, two of my literary heroes. He understood.

We got to know each other quickly and well. He seemed— though he would have scoffed at the notion—sent from God to be my guide through dark times; my mentor, my teacher, my rebbe.

In 1969, during a deranged Thanksgiving weekend in New York City, while I was on tour with the Rolling Stones—a tour that would end with the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter, at the hands of the Hell's Angels at The Altamont Festival, less than two weeks later—Jerry invited me to his house in East Hampton for their holiday dinner. His wife, Shirley, served an elegantly cooked goose. His mother and his children, Lisa, Paul and Anita, were there. Horribly sleep-deprived and underfed—and only slightly stoned—I feasted, and fell in love with his family. Magritte paintings floated on the walls. By dessert, I thought I was in heaven.

Hell followed, and continued, long after Altamont. Under contract to write a biography of the Stones, I worked with painful slowness back home in Memphis, and then got the idea that I could work better in Miami, where Jerry had a second house. On the verge of a break with Atlantic Records, he had moved there to set up Criteria Studios, thinking he could create a more leisurely existence; one that combined making records with playing golf. It was a disaster. The house band, the Dixie Flyers—mostly transplanted Memphians—was at one point reduced to digging up Sam the Sham's backyard by car headlights, trying to figure out where they had hidden their drugs. Jerry eventually threw up his hands, as if hearing Bob Dylan's "I'm goin' back to New York City, I do believe I have had enough" running through his head. I retreated back to Memphis.

In the summer of 1972, Jerry and I went to the Newport-New York Jazz Festival, where we heard Duke Ellington, Roland Kirk and other great players. It was a high point of our friendship. Then we joined the Stones, who were by this time signed with Atlantic, on tour, taking an ounce of cocaine along for the ride. Which was, considering the delay in writing my book, and my other problems, way too much. I fled.

1975 was better. Jerry introduced me to Etta James. Shortly thereafter, he broke with Atlantic for good, and began a career as an independent producer with the likes of Dire Straits, George Michael, Carlos Santana, Linda Ronstadt, and most famously, Dylan. As many have pointed out, when Dylan received his first Grammy for best male rock performance in 1979, he thanked God, then Jerry, in that order.

I, on the other hand, was in no mood for thanksgiving yet. In fact, I entered into a deeper period of freefall with the publication of "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones" in 1984—a critical success and resounding popular failure—followed by "Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South" in 1991. Drugs were only part of my near-lethal lifestyle: I married and divorced three (or was it four?) times—the last, to a woman who tried to kill me. The marriage ended when I set her car on fire.

I was too ashamed to ever tell Jerry of her existence, even though we spoke on the phone at least every couple of weeks. He always had jokes to relay. I cannot remember a single one that is printable in this publication. What I can remember, are the conversations we began to have about new American films noirs. I hadn't had a TV in years, but bought one—and a VCR—when Jerry began to send me tapes of movies, including: Carl Franklin's "One False Move" and Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." Such gestures may seem small, but they're exactly the kind of thing I mean, when I say Jerry saved my life again and again.

In 1993, I began to climb out of this depressed and beastly—I use the word literally—mode of existence when, I joined the Roman Catholic Church. Jerry, who had split from Shirley and then wed a Greek woman—a relationship that also ended in divorce—was on his own path toward a happier and more stable existence. He married the novelist Jean Arnold. He continued doing a little producing: the B-52s, for example, of my home state of Georgia, to which I had relocated. My favorite phone call to Jerry was an annual one, made at an ungodly hour on Easter morning after my return from Mass: "Christ is risen!" I would shout gleefully into the phone. His favorite, and considering the circumstances, kindly rejoinder, was to turn on at full blast, Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," which he of course had produced and always seemed to have ready for my call.

The last time I spoke with Jerry, he seemed in bitingly good-humored remission from his final illness. I was in bed, nursing bruises from a recent tumble I'd taken—the indignities of aging!—and he asked me how I was. "Fine," I answered quickly, knowing the mortal seriousness of his own condition. "'Fine,'" he said, after discovering why I sounded a little the worse for wear. "You goyim are all alike."

Certain obituaries about Jerry have already made much, perhaps too much, of his failures as a family man during his most active years in the music industry, something over which he suffered extensive guilt. Jerry's daughter Anita, for example, had gone on the road with Doctor John, become addicted to heroin, and died of AIDS. What none of these written memorials has underscored, so to speak, is his profound generosity toward those he came to love. Like so many of us who have felt sharply our shortcomings as fathers and sons, he set about to create a family of friends, which he did primarily by telephone, as he advanced in years, and travel became difficult for him.

It was second … no, first … nature for him to love the people I loved. Indeed, Jerry was instrumental—again, so to speak—in the courtship of my ultimate wife, the poet Diann Blakely. Almost immediately upon hearing that we were corresponding—if only as fellow writers—with increasing intensity, he began to shower her with gifts. These included: immaculately typed weekly postcards featuring heroes like Furry Lewis; packets of articles written by, or about, him; adoringly autographed photographs of himself, alone or with friends; a lavishly inscribed copy of his life story; and boxed sets of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and other members of his pantheon. On learning that Diann was from Alabama, he confided to her that he considered his induction into her native state's Music Hall of Fame, one of the great honors of his life; and immediately sent her a videotape of the ceremonies. After months of such attentions, she was, predictably, smitten—with him, and, eventually, much to my great good fortune, with me.

"More Bass," said Jerry, when asked what he wanted written on his tombstone. No sound more closely approximates the rhythm of the human heart, especially in the Southern style he loved, with its one-TWO-three-FOUR backbeat.

Music: Remembering Jerry Wexler | Culture