The most influential man you’ve never heard of
Thursday 7 p.m.
Southwest Park & Taylor
Also showing: “The Last Angel of History”
Jerry Wexler looks and comes across more like your cantankerous uncle than a musical revolutionary. He is probably less known than any boy band or teen sensation on the charts today, but good money says if you were to turn on your radio right now a minimum of dial flipping would find something he produced. For nearly 50 years Wexler produced music, shaped tastes and changed minds. “Immaculate Funk,” directed by Tom Thurman and narrated by Kris Kristofferson, introduces the world to this unknown icon.
The recording industry has never been known for its kindness to artists. From dirt poor country singers to soul pioneers and from unknowns to million-selling influential superstars, most can talk about shifty management, bad deals and lost fortunes.
This interview-heavy film paints a different picture of Jerry Wexler. The artists he has worked with, from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson to Dr. John speak of him with admiration and respect. Though some might chuckle that he was “hard bargainer,” he also is spoken of as one of the first in the industry to meld business and art. He was among the first to fight for artists to make sure their work could be heard and they were paid for it, a first for many artists.
Wexler first came to attention in the music industry as a writer for the trade publication Billboard in the early ’50s. At a time when segregation was still a part of American life, he dared to treat African-American artists with dignity and respect. Emerging black artists at the time were still marginalized, their work categorized as “race music.” Wexler would not stand for this categorization and insisted the industry begin labeling these records what they truly were, rhythm and blues. His next step came when he was asked to join fledgling Atlantic Records as a producer. In typical Wexler fashion he told them he would be no one’s employee; it was partner or it was nothing. Partner it became.
As Wexler tells it he was beginning to learn the sound he was looking for, the immaculate funk, something with pure groove power and a sublime delicacy. His search would not end in New York at Atlantic Studios.
His search sent him to Muscle Shoals, Ala. and the studio there. The New York Jewish sophisticate hipster who had made his name recording black gospel was on his way to work with a racially mixed band in the swamps of Alabama. The bulk of the film’s footage is taken from this era of his recording career, and with good reason. We are able to view Wilson Picket cutting “Midnight Hour,” Dusty Springfield performing “Son of a Preacher Man” and many more classic songs being recorded for the first time. Here, too, the focus shifts from Wexler as record industry producer to a true renegade. He had a unique vision and was able to craft it. An Aretha Franklin segment has her sitting at the piano and explaining how Wexler was able to look into artists and let them find their best.
It may seem strange that two of his most famous clients during this era were Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, but the next segment unfolds yet another part of the Wexler mentality. As Nelson tells it, the man just never understood why there were different musical genres. The only category he recognized was music. This method served him well in the Dylan sessions, eventually earning Dylan his first Grammy for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” A typical Wexler comment follows when he observes he cannot trust any awarding group that took until 1978 to honor Dylan with “Best Song.”
Wexler is a true icon. Al Bell calls him one of the most important civil rights activists in the business world. Etta James gushes about him. Jim Dickenson explains Wexler’s love for music by hypothesizing that the music was always meant for him, the records for everybody else. But after many musicians attempt to explain his importance and plenty of footage shows his abilities in the studio, the producer of so much soulful music explains it best. He is retired and at peace and laughingly tells the camera he is a devout Jewish atheist living out his days in existential bliss before he is just dust in the ground. You have to go and see the film, though, to find out how he wants to be remembered – you will not forget.