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RIP: Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, Ruth Brown & James Brown
Updated Sep. 15, 2008

This page was originally posted in 2006 to mark the deaths of Ertegun, and the two Browns, but was subsequently updated on the death of Ertegun's former partner in Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler in August of 2008.

Three giants, three originals, three who helped create American R&B, soul and more. Includes Ruth Brown's long legal fight for her back royalties, stories about James Brown's 2 most famous concerts -- plus his Grand Ole Opry appearance! -- and photo, audio and video links.


Jerry Wexler (updated Sep. 15, 2008)

A giant figure in popular music, he passed away at the age of 91 on Aug. 15. Since then, here have been numerous articles written about him, including this one on the Rolling Stone website. That page also includes a link to 20 songs Wexler produced: it's supposed to be from a CD he once burned for friends of the songs he was most proud of. It's quite a list, but then, the man had quite a career, and quite the talent. Those songs range from Professor Longhair and Ray Charles through The Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Etta James and Bob Dylan.

A few years ago I saw a documentary on Wexler, entitled Immaculate Funk. Even though I was aware of most of the artists' work that he had produced it still struck me forcefully how influential and skilled his work was, seen in the quality and importance of his work in the extensive body of many major artists.

In many cases, the music he produced was the best of artists' careers; in others, he helped them turn careers around, or to take a new bold turn that often re-defined, or re-charged their careers. Among the best known of those cases were Aretha Franklin who to that time had a been a not-very successful pop singer, and Bob Dylan's gospel album Slow Train Coming. He captured Dusty Springfield's soulful voice as no-one else did in Dusty in Memphis, and produced Willie Nelson's Phases and Stages, a brilliant concept album that helped him escape forever the Nashville deadend he had been stuck in. The list can go on and on.

You can see a video of Wexler being interviewed about his work on Slow Train Coming, and how the album came about here: Part 1, 2 & 3

Now that he is gone, and being remembered and honoured by people from all aspects of popular music, I remember a comment he made in Immaculate Funk. Wexler, a committed atheist was asked how he wanted to be remembered.

"I don't give a fuck", he said, "I'll be dead".

There are no doubts however how well and how long the man who invented the term Rhythm & Blues will be remembered.

(His autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues is highly recommended).


Ahmet Ertegun (Dec. 14, 2006)

It's hard, 60 years later to picture what the non-jazz popular American music scene was like at the end of World War II. Compartmentalized into rigid categories of pop (in its pure "white bread" form), country ("hillbilly"), and blues ("race music"), it, like the broader Amercian society, was more than ready for a "whole new world".

It took the dozens of small, independent, mostly regional independent recording companies who were tuned into the new, boundary crossing (and race-crossing) music to reflect what would soon happen in all aspects of American life.

One of the most successful, and the longest-lasting of these new companies was Atlantic Records, founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and a partner. Ertegun, the son of a former Turkish ambassador to the U.S. passed away at the age of 83. It's hard to imagine what popular American music would be today without his involvement.

The company started with jazz, but soon became one of the giants of early R&B and rock & roll, recording Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, The Drifters, Joe Turner, Professor Longhair, and many more R&B artists; later moving into soul (Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and others), rock (Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Yes, Rolling Stones, etc.), and country and other American roots music (Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Dr. John, etc.) It's no wonder he's not only in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (which he founded), but has also been named a "Living Legend" by the U.S. Library of Congress.

In 1967, Atlantic was purchased by Warner Brothers; no longer independent, it became a part of a huge media empire, but the brand/label survived, as did Ahmet, still directing its operations.

It was at a Rolling Stones concert on Oct. 29 (for Bill Clinton's 60th birthday celebration) that Ahmet (called "Omelet" by Otis Redding) fell, sustaining a serious brain injury. He went into a coma, eventually being put on life support.

At the time he started Atlantic, he had no knowledge about making or selling records, but as Charlie Gillett quoted him in his 1974 history of Atlantic Records, Making Tracks, Ahmet had two principles for his future: "I didn't want to go in the army, and I didn't want to work". Instead of "working", he helped create R & B, rock & roll and soul music.

In the "obituary" section of his discussion forum, Charlie Gillett recalls some memories of Ahmet, and ends with this Ertegun quote that may explain concisely (if not completely) why Atlantic was so successful:

At Atlantic, about half the artists we signed were business decisions, based on what was selling at the time. The other half were people we signed just because we liked what they were doing, knowing we'd probably lose money. And all of our biggest successes came from the second category.'

Thank you Ahmet for the joy you gave us, and the legacy you left us.


Visit Atlantic Records website for a nice tribute page. You can scroll the timeline of his life, and watch a video profile, but don't miss the audio link in the top right of Ahmet teaching Ray Charles (on piano) how he (Ray) should sing "Mess Around", one of several R&B songs Ertegun wrote.

As a small video tribute, here's Ben E. King doing his Atlantic hit, Stand By Me (You Tube).


Update, Jan. 8, 2007:

On Dec. 15, 2006 CBC Radio's As It Happens had three items dealing with Ertegun's death. The first was a replay of an interview with Ertegun following Ray Charles' death. The next two are interviews about Ertegun's passing with Jerry Wexler and Solomon Burke. They are all available on the As It Happens website. Click the "Part 1" link. The first interview occurs at the 9:00 mark. (Note: because music portions of the show are not archived, there are brief silent portions between segments).

Atlantic, its artists and their money:

But there is another side to the music world created by Ertegun, Atlantic and the other record companies of its era. This blog contains a humorous, but bitter story (written by Dave Marsh) contains some appreciation of Ertegun. Then scroll down to the comments by Fred Wilhelms, for a humorous, but bitter story illustrating the other side of the "coin" -- the financial exploitation of the artists who created the companies' success and in many cases -- like Ertegun -- riches for the owners.

(For a nice, "Christmas-card" version of the Drifters' "White Christmas", click here).

One of the best moves Ertegun made was hiring Jerry Wexler -- the man who invented the term "rhythm & blues" ... see my newsletter #10 -- and who produced some of the greatest R&B, soul, country and rock through the 50's, 60's and 70's. Wexler was quoted in Gillett's Making Tracks about the relationships between the company executives and performers. In this case, he was discussing Atlantic's chief rival (Chess Records) in the blues/R&B field:

Leonard [Chess] told me he had an agreement with Muddy, that if Muddy's records stopped selling, he could always come work for Leonard at his house. I said, 'Oh year? That's funny, because Joe Turner and I have the same kind of deal. Joe told me, if our company ever gets into trouble, I can always get a job as his chauffeur.

A nice story, but eventually it didn't ring true for many of those artists -- including Turner. Let Ruth Brown continue the tale...

Ruth Brown:

Ruth Brown passed away Nov. 17 at the age of 78.  She was one of the first Atlantic stars. Her hits like "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean", and "Teardrops From My Eyes" were so important to Atlantic's success that for a while, the company shared the nickname for Yankee Stadium: "The House that Ruth built".

Her career dropped off after the mid-50's and she went through a lot of professional and personal hard times, but staged an impressive comeback beginning in the late 70's with some acting work. She won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical Black and Blue, and a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But Brown also accomplished a lot outside the recording studio and the stage.

Brown -- who eventually worked cleaning houses -- was not the only one to recognized what little income was received by those who helped create the Atlantic success. ("For every Picasso he had on his [Ertegun's] wall, there was a damp patch on mine", she wrote.) There was not only no royalty income, there were no statements, no accounting.

She eventually led the fight to reclaim some of what was owed to those pioneers. Her 1996 autobiography, Miss Rhythm recounts in detail the sometimes gruesome story:

In the mid-80's, Brown (and others) were featured on an investigative television program, 57th Street. The show also showed Joe Turner -- the man whose dozens of R&B hits for Atlantic helped create rock & roll (such as "Shake Rattle & Roll", "Flip Flop & Fly", "Honey Hush") -- who was now terribly ill with kidney failure, and on crutches, but still forced to perform to help pay his medical bills. The interview revealed that three months prior, Joe had received his first royalty cheque in 25 years -- for $4000. (It's lucky Jerry Wexler didn't depend on that chauffeur job!)

A few months after the show, Turner (who recorded his first hit in 1939) died. The same month, Atlantic issued a 14 volume history of its recordings. Turner and Brown were billed for some of the "remastering, editing and mixing" costs.

Eventually, largely because of her dogged determination, Brown achieved a measure of victory and recognition for herself, Joe Turner, and many of their contemporaries. Atlantic settled, providing royalty payments covering some of the years she claimed (not her biggest years though). As well, Atlantic contributed $1.5 million to set up the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to recognize -- and assist -- some of the pioneering R&B artists.

We've certainly lost another giant.

This is her Wikipedia entry
. Here's a nice video of Brown at the Apollo Theatre in 1955, and a 1 minute clip from her in 1990. This website has some info, and plays an extended selection of her songs.

James Brown (Dec. 25, 2006)

He sort of defines the phrase "one of a kind".

"Boy, that is really excitement isn't it?"
- Ed Sullivan, apparently taken aback by the energy Brown just brought to Sullivan's TV show, May 1, 1966

Brown died on Christmas day at the age of 73. There is no shortage of accounts of his life in various media, but here are a few notes about a couple of his most famous live performances. The accounts come from his 1986 autobiography, James Brown The Godfather of Soul.

Live at the Apollo: Oct. 24, 1962
A ground-breaking record, it no doubt would be on (or should be on) most lists of the greatest albums of the last half-century, it captures Brown at his crowd-inciting best.

Brown had to fight King Records' owner Syd Nathan over the very idea of a live album. In the end, Brown financed the recording himself, to the point of renting the Apollo Theatre so he could have full control.

They opened on a Friday, planning the recording for Wednesday. "I wanted that wild amateur-night crowd because I knew they'd do plenty of hollering", Brown wrote. They did four shows that day, recording them all. The first show revealed something Nathan had worried about. "What if someone yells something out of the way?"

Brown (and everyone else) heard "a little old lady" continually yelling, "Sing it motherf___r, sing it!" Brown and the recording crew listened to the tapes -- including the lady and the crowds' reaction to her -- after the first show, and decided, "Hey, maybe we've got something here.".

So they offered the woman candy, popcorn and $10 to stay through the remaining three shows, and moved the appropriate crowd microphone a little away from her.

(He will return to the Apollo for one last gig on Thursday, Dec. 28, for the public to pay their last respects. One hopes the place won't be too quiet. Surely there should be some of that crowd screaming. Maybe not the original "Apollo lady" though.

The T.A.M.I Show (Nov. 1964)
This was the film that helped introduce Brown to the broad, mostly white rock & roll teen audience when it was released in 1965. It was a multi-artist concert (e.g., Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Jan & Dean, Rolling Stones, etc.) filmed before a live audience in Santa Monica, Calif.

This was the show that was responsible for many of the stories about the Rolling Stones being afraid to follow Brown -- and for Mick Jagger picking up on Brown's dance moves.

Brown recounts the Stones' arrival at the auditorium while he and his group were doing their second rehearsal. (While many would wonder how they could expend so much energy in one day, no-one could doubt how his show got so tight!)

"After he [Jagger] saw me, he didn't even want to rehearse. Some discussion started then about them going on sooner. I heard that Mick smoked a whole pack of cigarettes, he was so nervous."

Brown said he was nervous too -- not sure how this new audience would react. He took no chances. "I don't think I ever danced so hard in my life, and I don't think they'd ever seen a man move that fast."

Eventually, his encores finished, and the Stones finally went on. "Mick had been watching me do that thing where I shimmy on one leg ... he tried it a couple of times. He danced a lot that day."

(Brown also recounted an amusing story. Given the energy he and his group expend in their stage show, they were amazed to hear someone in Lesley Gore's party turn down some autograph seekers. "'Don't bother her, she's tired now'. [Gore had performed two songs, with no rehearsal] 'Wait until she's rested.' We had already been out there and nearly killed ourselves twice already" [rehearsals].)

Catch nine minutes of his great T.A.M.I. Show performance on YouTube. (I lost track of the number of times the cloak came out...!)

Here's more: Funk defined in 8:47 with some great film work of his stage show at The Olympia in 1966. When he says "One more time!"... is there anyone who believes he'll do that riff just one more time?

Update: Jan. 8/07:

And... here's an audio link where you can download his entire 1974 concert in Kinshasha, Zaire -- part of Muhammed Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle". (Scroll down to the Jan. 4 entry, "James Brown in Africa")

Update: Dec. 30/06

I found this great story on Charlie Gillett's discussion forum, about the time James Brown played the Grand Ole Opry. The discussion thread is here. The item below was posted Dec. 28, 5:43pm. The original author at the time (1979) was working at radio station WSM which broadcasts the Opry.

One Saturday morning, as I did the 6am-10am shift on WSM-AM, my dad called the request line to chat: "We took some out-of-town friends to the Grand Ole Opry last night, and you'll never guess who was on the show." It was James Brown...

I asked my dad how the Opry audience reacted to James Brown's performance. If you remember Gary Busey in "The Buddy Holly Story" and the scene where the Crickets play the first time at the Apollo Theatre... it was very similar: stunned astonishment.

On the tape, what you hear is Opry announcer/WSM DJ Hairl Hensley finish a live commercial for Shoney's restaurants, then toss it back to center stage and Porter Wagoner who intros JB. Despite other accounts that have an incorrect song order, James hit 'em hard right out of the starting gate with a medley that began with "Get Up Offa that Thing", and included "Cold Sweat", "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", and another historical "first" for the Opry: a drum solo. No horns, but a great Hammond B-3 filled the gaps, along with BG vocals from JB's band. After that medley, The JB announcer repeated "James Brown!" as JB headed off stage amid polite applause. But then, the announcer said, "James! Come back out here! Y'all want to hear MORE?" My dad said there a number of shouts from the audience of "NO!" while others responded with a tiny bit of polite applause. JB came back out and did "Tennessee Waltz" and another song.

(Photo from Grand Ole Opry from


Update: Jan. 10/07:

A remembrance from one of Brown's former managers. Scroll down to "Wednesday, December 27, 2006: SKATES LIVES! The Godfather And The Pupil"