Producer, record company executive
At the age of 12, Jerry Wexler was a New York City brat, hanging out at Artie’s poolroom on 181st Street in Washington Heights and learning to talk fast and act tough. These traits would serve him well in the recording industry. In 1952 Wexler became a producer at fledgling Atlantic Records, an independent label dedicated to the genre that Wexler himself rechristened “rhythm and blues” in a 1941 Billboard article.
With an intense passion for jazz and soul, Wexler became an expert at distinguishing talent, and during his years at Atlantic, he launched many artists who became world-famous: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Clovers, and the Drifters. He also discovered country legend Willie Nelson before the singer moved to CBS Records and stardom. Wexler’s enthusiasm and intellectual edge, in fact, provided the support necessary for many artists’ best work. Among the plethora of musicians he has promoted are Joe Turner, Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Cher, Sam and Dave, Dr. John, Doug Sahm, and Etta James.
The Washington Heights area where Jerry Wexler grew up was a hodgepodge of poor immigrants—many of whom had just arrived in the United States. Wexler’s mother, Elsa, who married Wexler’s Polish immigrant father, Harry, in 1916, had aspirations about a literary life for her unmotivated son. Elsa scrimped and saved tuition for preparatory schools, and Jerry promptly flunked out of all of them. Ultimately, he took a job with his father, washing windows. Throughout his youth, however, Wexler managed to make frequent visits to Manhattan nightclubs, featuring swing and the big bands—Fletcher Henderson at the Savoy, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Wexler read books about jazz and blues, and collected the latest 78 rpm records.
After a stint in 1936 at Kansas State College, where he studied journalism—and haunted the wild Kansas City clubs—Wexler returned to New York. He fell in love with a teenager named Shirley Kampf, and as a sign of his adoration, he took her to see Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb at the Apollo Theater. Shirley became his confidant and co-worker for the next two decades. After marrying in 1941, the couple moved in with Wexler’s father, who was temporarily estranged from Elsa. Wexler finally landed a job, as a customs officer, but was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942.
As noted in his 1993 autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Wexler credits the army for instilling discipline into his character. He received a
For the Record …
Born Gerald Wexler in 1917 in New York, NY; son of Harry (a window washer) and Elsa (Spitz) Wexler; married Shirley Kampf, 1941 (divorced 1973); married Renee Pappas, 1973 (divorced 1982); married Jean Arnold, 1985; children: Anita (died 1989), Lisa, Paul. Education: Received journalism degree from Kansas State College.
Producer and record company executive. Worked for Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI); reporter, Billboard magazine, until 1951; promotions director, MGM Studios; became partner with Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, 1952; produced releases by numerous artists, including LaVern Baker, the Drifters, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Betty Carter, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Etta James; left Atlantic and produced releases for Warner Bros. and wrote film scores. Author, with David Ritz, of autobiography Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Knopf, 1993. Military service: Served in U.S. Army.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Entertainment, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
stateside assignment as a military police officer, presumably because of his customs experience. In Miami Beach, Florida, then in Wichita Falls, Texas, he was responsible for administering behavioral tests. After his discharge, he went back to Kansas State to finish his degree, began to write, and had a few articles published. He then headed to New York City to look for a newspaper job. Unsuccessful in his search, he found work at the newly formed Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), a radio group challenging the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ (ASCAP) domination of the music publishing industry. A bout with pneumonia forced Wexler to give up that position, but Billboard magazine soon hired him. Now 30, he was able to move with his wife into his first apartment.
Two lifelong preoccupations surfaced in Wexler at this time: bebop—the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie—and the food of the great Broadway delis like Lindy’s on 51 st Street. The song peddlers who frequented the restaurants, especially a man named Juggy Gayles, introduced Wexler to the world of record production. In his position of reporter for Billboard, Wexler chose from the thousand of demos that crossed his desk, the “Tennessee Waltz,” and gave it to singer Patti Page’s agent, Jack Ruel. She recorded it as the B-side of “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” and it became her signature song. Wexler can also take credit for alerting Mitch Miller of Columbia Records to two songs that became Number One hits: “Cry” performed by Johnny Ray, and a Hank Williams tune, “Cold, Cold Heart,” sung by Tony Bennett.
Eventually, a rift developed between Wexler and Billboard’s editors. According to Wexler, during the McCarthy era—when many Americans entertainers were being blacklisted for their alleged communist leanings—he had refused to work up a blacklist dossier on the folk group the Weavers. He left the magazine in 1951 to become promotions director for MGM Studios’ music publishing division, the Big Three. His reputation earned him a job offer from Atlantic Records, but he turned it down; he had insisted upon being made a partner. A year later, the owner of Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, acquiesced to Wexler’s demand when Ertegun’s partner, Herb Abrahamson, left to join the army. Wexler raised $2,063.25 to claim a 13 percent share of the company. Ertegun in turn used the money to buy Wexler a green Cadillac with fins.
Ertegun and Wexler were well matched: Ertegun was cool while Wexler was frenetic. Both men had an extensive knowledge of literature and art, as well as of rhythm and blues. Their office over Patsy’s Restaurant at 234 West 57th Street became a beehive of sessions that put Atlantic Records on the map.
The Atlantic Records business was run like a mom-and-pop grocery. Wexler worked intimately with the performers, helping Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters, for example, write “Honey Love” and playing tambourine for Ray Charles. Atlantic succeeded in changing the negligent attitude that record labels traditionally had taken toward black music. Wexler treated the performers with respect, rehearsing and developing clear, precise harmonies. He produced recordings for LaVern Baker, then Joe Turner, and, most notably, Ray Charles. Wexler claimed that he merely stood back and let the great pianist invent, but Charles’ work at Atlantic— combining bebop, gospel, and blues—proved to be his finest.
By 1956 Wexler was producing a dozen recording acts. He bid $30,000—an amount he did not have—for Elvis Presley, but lost out to RCA’s $40,000 offer. He soon hooked up with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, a song-writing team that created a steady output of pop music masterpieces, including “Stand By Me,” “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” and “There Goes My Baby.” Wexler’s hustle kept the then-independent Atlantic Records label competitive with the deep-pocket major studios. In the 1960s Atlantic brought guitarist Jimmy Page to the United States from England, and Page’s band, Led Zeppelin, became Atlantic’s biggest seller.
Ertegun and Wexler became estranged during the 1970s, as Ertegun’s taste switched to the more lucrative pop acts, and Wexler became notorious for backing purist failures in the R&B realm. As Ahmet gravitated toward Los Angeles and London, Jerry headed south to Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida. He was a pioneer in the southern renaissance that merged R&B and country sounds. One of Wexler’s best-known projects was Aretha Franklin, a gospel singer who blossomed under the producer’s auspices. She reworked blues performer Otis Redding’s “Respect” on her first album, and the song became a feminist anthem.
Wexler’s personal life, however, suffered from his workaholic nature. His wife, Shirley divorced him in 1973 when she discovered that he was seeing another woman, Renee Pappas, whom Wexler promptly married. He would later cope with the death of his daughter Anita of AIDS in 1989. A professional association ended as well when he sold his share in Atlantic to smooth over friction with Ertegun.
In 1985 Wexler moved to Sarasota, Florida, and married playwright and novelist Jean Arnold. He continued to pursue independent projects, working on film director Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club and Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway. He joined forces with folk troubadour Bob Dylan for the singer’s Christian albums Slow Train Coming and Saved. In the 1990s, having reached his seventies, he was still producing, making an album called The Right Time with his old friend Etta James.
Lavern Baker, Soul on Fire: The Best of Lavern Baker.
Ruth Brown, Miss Rhythm: Greatest Hits and More.
The Clovers, Down the Alley: The Best of the Clovers.
The Drifters, Let the Boogie-Woogie Roll, 1953-1958.
Ray Charles, The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1952-1959.
Ray Charles and Milt Jackson, Brothers.
Joe Turner, His Greatest Hits.
The Drifters, 1959-1965: All-Time Greatest Hits and More.
Wilson Pickett, A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett.
Betty Carter, ’Round Midnight.
Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).
King Curtis, Plays the Memphis Greatest Hits.
Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis.
Cher, 3614 Jackson Highway.
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace.
Ronnie Hawkins, Ronnie Hawkins.
Dr. John, Gumbo
Doug Sahm, Doug Sahm and Friends: The Best of Doug Sahm’s Atlantic Sessions.
The Wiz (soundtrack).
Willie Nelson, Shotgun Willie.
Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages.
Dire Straits, Communique. 1980-95
McGuinn-Hillman, McGuinn-Hillman, EMI.
Bob Dylan, Saved, Columbia.
One More Time (original cast recording).
Lou Ann Barton, Old Enough, Asylum.
Carlos Santana, Havana Moon, Columbia.
Jo Jo Starbuck, Your Life Is Calling (soundtrack), Warner.
Kenny Drew, Jr., Kenny Drew, Jr., Antilles.
Etta James, The Right Time, Elektra.
Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Knopf, 1993.
Baltimore Sun, July 7, 1993.
Billboard, April 17, 1993.
Boston Herald, June 11, 1993.
Chicago Sun-Times, June 20, 1993.
Daily News (New York), May 30, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, June 4, 1993.
Rolling Stone, February 18, 1993.
San Jose Mercury News, July 11, 1993.
Sarasota Magazine, May 1, 1993.
—Paul E. Anderson
Singer, songwriter, producer
Although often overlooked, Dale Hawkins's contributions are as valid as any of rock 'n' roll's founding fathers. Best known for his 1957 hit "Suzie Q," Hawkins made his reputation as one of two white artists on the Chicago-based Checker label (a Chess subsidiary). A key to his sound has been his ability to discover and develop great guitarists such as James Burton, Roy Buchanan, Kenny Paulsen, and Carl Adams. When his own recording career petered out in the early 1960s, he became a respected producer, cutting hits for John Fred, Joe Stampley & the Uniques, Bruce Channel, the Five Americans and many others.
Hawkins was born on a racially mixed plantation in Goldmine, Louisiana. "Heck, man, I picked cotton until I was 13, 14 years old," Hawkins told Original Cool. "Comin' up from school you'd get a biscuit, stick your finger in it and pour some syrup in and head for the field! That's how it was." With his hard-drinking musician father constantly on the road with various country bands and his mother working full time, Dale and his brother Jerry were essentially raised by their grandparents.
"I don't think I would have had the background of hearing all types of music that I heard if it weren't for my grandfather," recalled Hawkins. "He was a sheriff of some of the parishes over there in Louisiana and I got to go with him sometimes on Saturday night." During these forays with his grandfather, the youngster heard rural country music and gut-bucket blues, sometimes in the same place. "You'd get to hear Elmore James in the back and Hank Williams in the front. Also, we all had to go to church…. They had a Pentecostal church just down the street and I loved to hear 'em play and sing…. I got to go up and sing with 'em sometimes."
Among his other early influences, Hawkins names Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Lonnie Johnson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Encouraged by a local school principal/minister named Professor Lyles, Hawkins sold Grit newspapers and earned enough money to buy his first guitar at age seven. Using a Wayne Raney/Lonnie Glauson harmonica code book, he learned the rudiments of the blues.
A troubled teenager who frequently ran away from home, Hawkins enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 16. "I forged my birth certificate and went in 1953 and got out in 1955," Hawkins reported. "We were poor … and it was just something I could get into where I could have a paycheck and try to learn something." Upon discharge, he began playing music with professional intentions.
Worked for Stan Lewis
Once out of the military, Hawkins formed a small combo with young guitar phenom James Burton and drummer A. J. Tuminello. Often, the young men would ride their bicycles to gigs at the It'll Do Club on the Bossier strip. The singer's big break came via a clerking job at Stan's Record Shop in Shreveport, where his knowledge of the latest rhythm & blues records came in handy. "I was able to work there because I knew the music and a lot of the people who came in didn't know the title of the song," remembered Hawkins. "So, I'd say, 'Sing me a little bit of it.' I'd know the song immediately and I'd get it for 'em."
Store owner Stan Lewis would prove to be a significant figure in Hawkins's future. Not only was his shop an important R&B record outlet, but the savvy businessman had connections to labels that were a key part of the burgeoning rock 'n' roll movement. Later, Hawkins would rue trusting all the business matters to Lewis, but he admitted in Original Cool that, "For a while there, Stan was a real help to me, until I realized … that I had signed everything I had away."
Hawkins learned about production in the KWKH studios by helping Merle Kilgore and Johnny Horton master demos for the latter's future country hits "(I'm a) Honky-Tonk Man" and "Whispering Pines." Another friend, Bobby Charles, had just scored a good-sized hit with an R&B jumper, "See You Later, Alligator," which Bill Haley covered to greater acclaim. Impressed, Hawkins crafted his own tune in the same style, called "See You Soon, Baboon," and recorded it at KWKH. Lewis shopped the demo to Charles's label, Chess, and soon the record was released on their Checker subsidiary. Of his authentic bluesy sound Hawkins says, "I think the reason Leonard and Phil Chess signed me was because they thought I was black."
"Suzie Q" Became a Classic
With a snarling James Burton guitar riff modeled roughly on Scotty Moore's work with Elvis Presley and an insistent cowbell provided by drummer A. J. Tuminello, "Suzie Q" was a far greater record than its predecessor. Yet, for reasons still unclear, Leonard Chess didn't release the disc immediately. Hawkins credits Shreveport disc-jockey Chuck Dunaway with helping Chess see the light. "I had sat there for three months waiting for 'em to put it out and [Dunaway] said, 'Dale, let's just send it up to [Jerry] Wexler.' We sent a copy up to Atlantic and a few days later Jerry called and said, 'I love it. I'll take it.' Then I explained to him, 'Mr. Wexler, Mr. Chess has got the thing and he hasn't released it. I had signed the papers with him.' He said, 'What? You call him and tell him that he should either sh** or get off the pot.' 'You want me to say it just like that?' He said, 'That's all you got to say.' I called Mr. Chess and told him that. There was a little pause—and to hear Leonard pause during a conversation was something to talk about—and he said, 'I'll call you back tomorrow.' Three days later, it was on the street. That's how fast it worked."
"Suzie Q" was a far bigger seller than its number 27 chart ranking suggests. Employing a rolling marketing strategy, Chess promoted the record vigorously in only one region of the country at a time, a method that affected its national chart status. Although Hawkins wrote the song alone, Stan Lewis and "E. Broadwater" are credited as co-writers. Hawkins explained that "Broadwater" was the maiden name of the wife of Gene Nobles, one of the 1950s' great R&B disc jockeys. By taking a songwriting credit, Nobles was in effect taking payola in the same manner that Alan Freed did when his name was put on Chuck Berry's "Maybellene": the DJs gave the song airplay in return for receiving royalties. Shortly before his death, Nobles assigned his share back to Hawkins. Lewis was another matter. "He said that I sold him 'Suzie Q' for $125 and he was taking half of everything I made. It's bull. All you gotta say is: The man has never written a line of a song that I have ever had. But his signature, he wrote good."
As a result, when the song was successfully revived by Creedence Clearwater Revival as a million-seller in 1968, Hawkins only received BMI checks for airplay. "They couldn't take BMI away from me," explained Hawkins. "In fact, the contract I had with BMI made them my legal guardian and they wouldn't let them take it away from me. So, I get my BMI rights for the airplay. For the sales, I've never received a dime."
Discovered Legendary Guitarists
Hawkins's work at Checker veered between brilliant blues-with-a-beat excursions like "My Babe," "Tornado," "Wild, Wild World," "La-Do-Dada," and "Don't Treat Me This Way," to such white teen-pop tunes as "A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring" and "Class Cutter (Yeah, Yeah)." Splitting the recording locations between Chicago and Louisiana, Hawkins essentially produced most of his best records during that period.
For the Record . . .
Born Delmar Allan Hawkins Jr. on August 22, 1938, in Goldmine, LA; son of Delmar "Skipper" Hawkins (a musician) and Estelle Taylor Phillips (a teacher and day worker); married 1962-76; children: Jeffery, Gerald.
Served in U.S. Navy, 1953-55; recorded "See You Soon, Baboon" b/w "Four Letter Word Rock" for Chess subsidiary Checker, 1956; classic recording of "Suzie Q" hit number 27 on pop charts, 1957; hosted Dale Hawkins Show in Philadelphia, PA, 1960-61; produced for Stan Lewis's Paula label, 1964-66; became executive vice president of Abnak, 1966; recorded for Bell Records, 1969; headed A&R at RCA, 1969-72; established Hawk's Nest recording studio, 1997; produced and recorded for Mystic label, 1999.
Awards: Inducted into Louisiana Hall of Fame, 1999; inducted into Now Dig This Hall of Fame, 2000; inducted into Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 2000.
Addresses: Record companies— Ace Records Ltd., 42-50 Steele Rd., London NW10 7AS, England, web-site: http://www.acerecords.co.uk; Goofin' Records, P.O. Box 01601, Vantaa, Finland, website: http://www.goofinrecords.com; Norton Records, Box 646, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10003. Music publisher —Hawk's Nest Studio/Oh! Suzie Q Publishing, 4618 JFK #107, North Little Rock, AR 72116, phone: (501) 791-3400. Website— Dale Hawkins Official Website: http://www.dalehawkinsmusic.com.
Hawkins also proved himself adept at finding remarkable guitarists whose work would impact the world of rock for decades to come. James Burton and bassist Joe Osborne went on to enliven recordings by Bob Luman, Ricky Nelson, and Elvis Presley, among many others. Roy Buchanan, who played for Hawkins's first cousin Ronnie for a spell, became the standard for rock and blues guitar during the early 1970s. Kenny Paulsen's twangy riffs transformed Freddie Cannon's "Tallahassee Lassie" and many others into first-rate rockers.
Of all the guitar-slingers he worked with, Hawkins has the greatest appreciation for the lesser known Carl Adams, who can be heard on "Tornado" and "Little Pig." Adams, who later had the fingers blown off of his left hand, played with a searing technique; according to Hawkins, "Roy [Buchanan] learned an awful lot from Carl."
Made Transition from Performer to Producer
Hawkins asked for his release from Chess in 1960 and recorded singles for such labels as Atlantic, Zonk, Tilt, ABC-Paramount, and Lincoln, and he recorded a live twist album for Roulette. He also produced three singles on the Ebb label for his brother Jerry and hosted his own variety show on a CBS affiliate in Philadelphia. By 1964, however, he was back working for Stan Lewis at his new label, Paula Records.
"My wife was pregnant," Hawkins explained. "I could've stayed in New York and worked for Jerry Wexler, but I thought I needed to go home and do something in the way I was raised. What happened was, I found out that I could only do two things—one of 'em was produce, and the other was sell insurance…. So, yeah, I ended up working for him again and I signed two great artists for him—that was [Joe] Stampley and John Fred."
Stampley, who became one of the top-selling country artists of the 1970s and early 1980s, made his chart debut with a blue-eyed soul outfit called the Uniques. Asked if he remembered recording Stampley's first hit, Hawkins laughs, "I guess so, I wrote a hot check to record him…. Stan Lewis wouldn't give me my money and I had to go hustle it up. I finally got that money back. I pressed up 500 copies, 400 for sale and 100 for the deejays, then I sold the DJ copies out the back of the store. But all the disc jockeys and promotion people liked me a lot, man. I left Shreveport and I hit Vicksburg, Monroe, bam bam bam all the way to Atlanta, and by the time I got back to New Orleans that [record] was a hit. It was a song called 'Not Too Long Ago.' I don't know how high on the charts it went, but it was about a 700,000 seller, which was a pretty good record at that time, man. Then, old Joe just took it on from there!"
By far, Hawkins's biggest success at Paula was his behind-the-scenes work on John Fred's "Judy in Disguise," which became a number one hit in 1967. This monster smash led to a much more lucrative position as an executive vice-president at Abnak Records, which housed the Amy, Mala, and Bell labels. In addition to signing acts, he produced the Five Americans' "Western Union" and his own rock 'n' soul album, L.A., Memphis, and Tyler, Texas. It would be his last album of original material for 30 years.
When Abnak was sold in 1970, Hawkins moved to Los Angeles and became the A&R (Artists & Repertoire) director of RCA's West Coast division. Under his guidance, such hits as Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" and Michael Nesmith's "Joanne" were cut. Seemingly, Hawkins's career was in full swing, but his reliance on hard liquor and amphetamines was sabotaging his personal and professional career.
"In 1981, I had a decision to make: Are you going to live or die?" he told Gerry Galipault of the Pause & Play website. "When I started out in 1954 or 1955, nobody knew it was wrong … because it was legal. Everything I got easy, I had never done street drugs in my life. All of a sudden it got to where I could hardly function without them, and so I left the [West Coast] and came back to Louisiana. Even though I left the good money as a producer, I left to save myself."
After completing an extremely difficult year-long rehab program, Hawkins started his own crisis intervention program for teens in Louisiana, a program he kept going for five years. Having balanced some of his ethical books, the reformed singer-songwriter got the itch to make music again, and the post-Elvis rockabilly revival welcomed him with open arms. A surprise wind-fall of $63,000 from MCA, which had bought the Chess catalog, resulted in Hawkins's having the wherewithal to set up his own Hawk's Nest studio in 1995. Since then, he has eased back into the limelight, playing to appreciative rockabilly revival crowds and, in 1999, recording a well-regarded comeback album for the now defunct Mystic label.
Asked what advice he had for young musicians aspiring to do his type of music, Hawkins is adamant. "Study the masters, man. Don't listen to the historians. Grab the roots and see how it evolved and know what's real…. I don't really see where you could replace spirit with a piece of equipment."
Suzie Q, Checker, 1958; reissued, Argo, 1987.
My Babe, Checker, 1960; reissued, Argo, 1987.
Let's All Twist at the Miami Beach Peppermint Lounge, Roulette, 1962; reissued, Edsel, 2000.
(With others) L.A., Memphis, and Tyler, Texas, Bell, 1969.
Dale Hawkins, Chess, 1972.
Daredevil, Norton, 1997.
Rock 'n' Roll Tornado, Ace, 1998.
Born in Louisiana, Goofin', 1999.
Wildcat Tamer, Mystic, 1999.
Fool's Paradise, Beveric, 2000.
Dale Hawkins, Plumtone/e-music, 2001.
Miller, Jim, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, 1976.
Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 7th edition, Billboard Books, 2000.
Original Cool, June/July 1999, pp. 4-9.
"Dale Hawkins," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 12, 2003).
"Dale Hawkins Glad to Be Back in the Game," Pause & Play, http://www.pauseandplay.com/hawkins.htm (November 14, 2003).
Dale Hawkins Official Website, http://www.dalehawkinsmusic.com (November 12, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from the author's interviews with Dale Hawkins on May 2, 2003, and August 16, 2003, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.