Archive for August, 2011

11 Tips on Writer’s Block

August 30, 2011
Songwriting and Writer’s Block:
11 tips to help the songwriter get unstuck

by Michael Gallant

Iconic songs come in all shapes and flavors: from Kermit the Frog’s plaintive rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” to AC/DC raging with “Back In Black,” from Thelonious Monk’s wistful meanderings on “’Round Midnight” to John Lennon’s utopian dreaming with “Imagine.” Obviously, the list goes on an on – and wonderfully enough, on a regular basis, inspired songwriters add new entries to the pantheon of timeless compositions.Creating a memorable song is rarely as easy as just humming a pretty melody and writing down some lyrics, though. And just like writers of prose or non-fiction, even the most successful songwriters hit creative walls.

So where do you turn when you can’t seem to remember how to write a song? What do you do if you’ve got an explosive first verse but can’t come up with a chorus? What if you’re stuck with a blank page in front of you and don’t know where to start? Here are some tips from a range of experienced songwriters to help you overcome your own writer’s block.

1. Start with a title
“Find an interesting title and most of the song will often write itself,” says songwriter, guitarist, and producer Tommy Marolda, who has written tunes with Richie Sambora and Rod Stewart. “That’s something I’ve used in a lot of my songwriting.” Successful song-crafters like Bon Jovi and Diane Warren have used this strategy, and songs like “Living’ On A Prayer,” “Bed Of Roses,” and “Dead Or Alive” were written this way. “With most songs, the title tells the whole story,” he continues.

But where can you get an intriguing song title if the ideas just aren’t flowing? “Try looking at magazines,” says Marolda. “You can flip through the table of contents and sometimes they use interesting hyperbole or plays on words that can spark something in you. Or go to a poetry section in a book store and look at the titles of poems.”

Marolda strongly recommends adapting phrases to make them your own before using them as your song title. “Sometimes you can just substitute one word for another,” he says. “If you substitute words inside the framework of an already clever title, you can often come up with something original.”

2. Look and listen everywhere
“Whether you’re on a train, walking around, or just having a conversation, you never know what you’re going to hear,” says independent singer/songwriter Natalie Gelman. “When I’m really in the moment and paying attention to what’s happening around me, sometimes I’ll hear someone say something random and think, ‘That’s a great line! I should use that.’”

For Marolda, “listening everywhere” includes checking out pre-fabricated drum grooves from music production libraries for musical inspiration. Guitarist, producer, and composer Chris Munger, who has worked with bands like Public Enemy and networks such as Comedy Central, uses his native surroundings to spark inspiration. “Since I live in New York City, I love to go out and people watch and make up stories about the people I see,” he says.

3. Carry a notebook, voice recorder, or both
This may seem basic, but since you never know when inspiration will strike, it’s important to have a way to document a great musical idea whenever it comes along.

If you’re comfortable with traditional musical notation, a small notebook with staff lines can be all you need. If you prefer to sing your melodies, a voice recorder on a smart phone or another small recording device can do the trick.

Gelman recalls one time when she came up with a great musical idea, but had neither pen and paper nor any sort of recording device nearby to document it. Her solution? Borrowing a friend’s phone, calling her own voicemail, and singing the fresh lick to her own voice mail.

4. Keep unfinished ideas
Even if you’re only able to come up with a verse here and a chorus there, save everything you write, recommends Marolda. “A lot of famous songwriters have a suitcase full of ideas that they pull for different songs when they get stuck,” he says. “Go back into your own catalog of unfinished work and see what’s hanging out. You’d be surprised that a bridge you wrote years ago might fit perfectly with a song you’re working on now.”

Marolda’s trove of songwriting bits and pieces includes writing pads with lyrics and melodies, some finished, some unfinished. He also saves pages filled with unused song titles. “When I was writing for Richie Sambora’s solo records, all he would ask for were titles and ideas,” says Marolda. “There are hundreds of things that he didn’t use and I still have them here. I’ve turned them into songs for Rod Stewart and other people.”

5. Write a lot
For Gelman, more hours spent writing music means an easier overall creative process. “Writing constantly helps you become comfortable with the act of crafting songs — and with yourself as a songwriter,” she says. “As songwriters, we have to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes out when we write. It’s important not to reject anything that you write, and to keep writing.”

Part and parcel of writing a lot is working on whatever inspires you at any given moment, regardless of whether or not it fits into your genre of choice. Are you a shred-metal guitarist who suddenly comes up with a great Zydeco accordion line? Write it down. Even if it’s totally unusable for your current band or project, you never know when such a creative tidbit might come in handy down the road.

6. Identify your own clichés
“When there’s a block, it’s not because you hear nothing,” says keyboardist Danny Louis, who plays and writes for groundbreaking blues-rock band Gov’t Mule. “It’s that you’re hearing your old clichés. You’re just getting that same old bridge and pre-chorus that you’ve written a million times.” In moments of creative frustration, it can be easy to fall back on those comfortable licks, melodies, and chord progressions you’ve been using for years. But being able to smell your own clichés can also give you the awareness you need to do something truly unique.

7. Keep your inner critic at bay
Self-criticism can be a crippling force when you’re trying to write a song, and anything you can do to turn down the volume while penning words or melodies will be well worth it. “Good writing, just like acting or singing, is a marriage of heart, talent, and skill,” says Aurora Barnes, who writes music for Dramatico Entertainment. “If it’s meaningful to you, it will be to someone else as well.”

“The biggest problem songwriters face is fear,” asserts Gelman. “You can get scared of any number of things — but the most common one is, will my stuff be any good? You really just have to be present when you’re writing, honor whatever comes out, and make sure to capture or record it. Judging yourself in the moment won’t get you anywhere.”

8. Ask for help
“I usually have a three-to-seven day window in which I find I can finish a song myself,” says Gelman. “If I don’t finish something by then, I usually bring in someone to help me.”

Rather than seeing a co-writer as a crutch, Gelman sees it as an opportunity to push herself as a songwriter. “My friend Brad Yoder once described co-writing as looking at someone else’s crossword puzzle and filling in the gaps,” she says. “I love co-writing. As a songwriter, it can help you go where you’re scared to go by yourself.”

Choosing the right co-writer can be as challenging as choosing the right band mate or producer, so proceed with caution. Ask trusted colleagues for referrals and try to pick collaborators who you think will give your work the respect and attention it deserves.

9. Write on a secondary instrument
For Louis, creating fresh musical ideas often means writing songs on more unfamiliar instruments; in fact, much of his writing for Gov’t Mule happens on guitar, even though he plays keys for the band. “One thing I try that totally throws me for a loop is to pick up a bass guitar, improvise melodies on the bass, and sing a bass line at the same time,” he says. “The less familiar you are with the instrument you’re playing, the better. It really helps you break out of your own clichés.”

Louis also recommends spending a few hours with a drum kit, especially if you’re not a drummer. “A lot of times, the pitches of the drums, and cymbals, can be inspiring,” he says. “You can fart around on the drums to create melodic ideas that you could never pick out on a guitar or keyboard. If you just play the drums as notes, you can come up with both rhythms and note patterns that can be really inspiring.”

10. Take a break
“Sometimes you just need to eat,” says Barnes. “You need to be re-inspired. Sometimes I listen to music, read a book, go for a walk, or maybe even turn on the TV for a bit.”

For Munger, physical exercise often does the trick. “I feel like that’s a great way to clear your head and inspire you,” he says, also pointing towards watching a good movie as a useful mental reprise. “You have to walk away from your instrument when you’re having a writing block,” he continues. “Songwriting is like anything in life. Time away makes coming back that much better.”

11. Use your favorite artists for inspiration
“Sit down with recordings of some of your favorite songs and jam along with them, regardless of what instrument you play,” recommends Marolda. “Doing so may spark ideas for you instrumentally, relating to chord structure or chord progression, or may give something that will then turn into a full song of your own.”

Marolda is not advocating ripping off your idols. “You’d think that you’re just copying someone else’s work, but your interpretation is going to be completely different,” he promises. “Just stop the original piece of music and record the chords that you were playing, or the piano part that you came up with, and use that as a seed for something new. Ask yourself, ‘What if I went here instead of using this chord that they used?’”

Michael Gallant writes, produces, sings, and plays keyboards for the indie rock band Aurical. He is also the founder of Gallant Music, a custom content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com.

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Glen Cambell’s Last Album

August 28, 2011
Great article from Philip Martin in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette 8-28-11

Glen’s last waltz

PHILIP MARTIN

It’s knowin’ that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
Your relationship with Glen Campbell is complicated.
It goes back to around 1968, and 1968 is one of those years you’d remember if you were there. It was the year the hippie dream curdled, when the illusions of the Summer of Love evaporated, replaced by the acrid sting of cordite and tear gas. Martin Luther King Jr. gets shot to death in April; Bobby Kennedy in June. Vietnam burns furiously in the national consciousness.
There are race riots in American cities; a sitting president declines to run for re-election. The Beatles release what became known as their White Album, and Charles Manson and a small group of followers take up residence at George Spahn’s movie ranch in hills above Los Angeles, waiting for the apocalypse foretold in “Helter Skelter.”
And, in the summer, a guitar picker named Glen Campbell is hired to host The Summer Brothers Smothers Show, to run while Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour is on hiatus.
Campbell seems almost a parody of the Nehru-jacketed pop star, a kempt, establishment-ordained alternative to Revolution.
And then, the next year, CBS cancels the Smothers Brothers — maybe the only genuinely subversive prime-time network television series ever — and installs this toothy golden-blond beach boy as the host of his own musical variety show.
Campbell is nominally a country singer, but not the cranky old kind with the terrifying pompadour, Nudie jacket and whiskey shakes — he’s otter-sleek and all too ready for his close-up, a Stepfordian candidate with Bobby Goldsboro helmet hair sent as Soma to tame the tube-bedazzled denizens of a brave new world. Campbell is safe, an old-school entertainer who has played on Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra records.
He is a session musician — part of Hal Blaine’s famed “Wrecking Crew” of versatile “first call” players. He’s toured with the Champs (though he only joined the group after they’d recorded their hit “Tequila”) and the Beach Boys (singing the “retired” Brian Wilson’s falsetto lines and playing bass) and played guitar on Pet Sounds.
Even his first hit, the John Hartford-penned “Gentle on My Mind,” first released to only middling success, seems like ersatz Dylan, a smoothed-out hobo ballad for the suburban everyday housewives who’d come to make up Campbell’s key demographic.
Or at least, that’s how it seemed at the time.
And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
You have heard stories over the years — like the night 30 years ago when, for two hours, he stood in a hallway of Le Bossier Hotel in Louisiana, screaming curses at the door that separated him from his lover, Tanya Tucker, who at 21 was almost exactly half his age. Finally Sgt. Ricky Speir of the Bossier City Police Department showed up to convince Campbell that the discussion was unlikely to prove fruitful until after both parties had slept (apart) for a reasonable interval. Campbell avoided going to jail that night, and even briefly reconciled with Tucker, as the tabloids swarmed.
Then there was a period of relative quiet, as Campbell moved out of Los Angeles, and gave up Tucker and cocaine. He still released records regularly, though it seemed no one really cared much about them aside from his hard-core fans.
But the word was Campbell had straightened himself out. He released an album of hymns. He retreated to Branson.
Then came the ghastly mug shot that made the Internet rounds in 2003 — the Rhinestone Cowboy as Mean Old Bitter Fool. It surfaced after Campbell was arrested in Phoenix for drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident. Campbell’s BMW hit another car and sped off, and a witness followed it to his home and called police. They showed up, found Campbell disheveled and obviously intoxicated and arrested him and took him to the Maricopa County jail for booking. And after he’d been fingerprinted and was about to be released to his waiting friends and family, he became angry and tried to knee Sgt. Bill Niles in the groin. The officer took the blow harmlessly in the thigh, and arrested Campbell on suspicion of assault charges.
“There was a lot of, ‘Do you know who I am. I’m Glen Campbell … I shouldn’t be locked up like this,’” Niles told USA Today.
It’s not clingin’ to the rocks and ivy Planted on their columns now that bind me Or something that somebody said because They thought we fit together walkin’
Campbell is about to go out on tour, for the last time, as his short-term memory sputters and flares. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s around the beginning of the year, and he has embarked on a farewell tour that will kick off Wednesday in Toronto and will include a single stop in Arkansas, at the East Arkansas Community College Fine Arts Center in Forrest City on Sept. 10.
It says something about the trajectory of Campbell’s career that he is winding up 60 years in showbiz playing a community college in Arkansas. And that something is not quite sad — though there was a time when Campbell was arguably the biggest pop star in the world (from 1967 to ’69 he released 10 albums, seven of which went to No. 1) — but it is poignant to think of a 75-year-old man onstage, maybe not knowing precisely where he is, doing the thing he has done all his life, for an audience that likely remembers him as he was when he was young and pretty. An audience that might see him largely as a nostalgia act, a comforting sound from their past.
They will want to hear the old songs, and Glen Campbell will very likely play them. Maybe because he wants to, maybe because his new material — the songs on his excellent new album, the Julian Raymond-produced Ghost on the Canvas — might be too risky to attempt. The chord progressions might not have imprinted sufficiently in the neural corridors, the lyrics might be too easy to forget. The album itself might be the only evidence that survives, that argues for Glen Campbell’s interest in pushing forward into an enveloping black frontier.
People say that people who carry on despite their troubles are brave, but maybe that isn’t how it is. Maybe it’s just that you do what you can, what you know how. Maybe it’s that or taking the gas, stepping off the bridge into uprushing oblivion. Glen Campbell is a Christian, so he does not believe in nothingness or swirling chaos, and maybe we shouldn’t put too much stock in the songs chosen to fill out this final album. Certainly the diagnosis freights the album with something, it gives it the authority of a deathbed confession.
But Campbell sang the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” on his last album — 2008’s Meet Glen Campbell — without a trace of irony, like it was actually about the Nazarene (which it may have been, considering that Lou Reed later recorded a version with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama). He has always been an earnest artist, his wistful tenor flecked with gold, but at times immune to nuance.
Glen Campbell is the polar opposite of someone like Leonard Cohen, a suspect, chopless musician suffused with soul and a kind of louche integrity. One gets the feeling that Cohen is simply incapable of performing a song that doesn’t hold great personal meaning for him, while Campbell is a professional songster, a supple interpreter who could do a credible version of anything with chords and a melody — it’s no stretch for Campbell to cover the Foo Fighters, the Replacements, U2, the Scottish band Travis or Green Day (as he did on
Meet Glen Campbell).
Just as Campbell took Jimmy Webb’s odd little ditties — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” — into melodramatic mainstream ballads, so he transforms all that passes through him into well sung and string-lubricated Glen Campbell songs.
Ghost on the Canvas isn’t composed of cover songs — although the Paul Westerberg-penned title track previously appeared on his 2009 EP PW & The Ghost Gloves Cat Wing Joy Boys — but was conceived as a farewell to music, and to life. Most of the songs were written by Campbell and producer Raymond, who took notes on his conversations with Campbell during the sessions for Meet Glen Campbell in order to fashion lyrics.
There are six instrumental interludes — composed by keyboardist Roger Manning — which seem designed to evoke particular moments in Campbell’s life and career. (“The Billstown Crossroads” is an aural evocation of Campbell’s upbringing near Delight — he was the seventh of 12 children born to impoverished sharecroppers. “May 21, 1969” alludes to the debut of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on CBS.)
There are also songs by Teddy Thompson (son of Linda and Richard), Jakob Dylan (son of Bob) and Robert (Guided by Voices) Pollard and guitar solos by Billy Corgan, Brian Seltzer and Rick Nielsen. Thematically, the album concerns itself mainly with gratitude — for his fans, for fortune and maybe especially for Campbell’s fourth wife, Kim, to whom he has been married since 1982 and who evidently has seen a lot.
I might still run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me ’til I’m blind …
You might want to forgive Glen Campbell, if you think he ever did you wrong. Listen to his version of “Gentle on My Mind” today, you might hear it a little differently. Hartford’s lyrics are rooted in concrete observation; they aren’t blighted by the psychedelic impressionism that affected the era. It’s a sturdy, elegant song — well constructed, and Campbell’s reading is conversational.
And you can appreciate the other hits, too — in the same way you can appreciate Sinatra and Tony Bennett now, when before they might have struck you as impossibly “square.” And maybe you understand that while Campbell wasn’t really much of a songwriter himself — he wrote minor songs, like “Turn Around, Look at Me” — he had genuinely wonderful taste. Not only did he make Hartford and Webb rich, he covered Allen Toussaint. His version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” is not only the best Donovan cover ever, it cuts the original.
You know this now because you’re smarter than you were, and you recognize that just because someone makes it look easy — it isn’t easy. Just because Glen Campbell hit all the notes, in key and in time, with the precision and sobriety of an Eagle Scout, it didn’t make him less human, more facile or less invested in the music he made than the frenziedly excited thrashings of inspired amateurs.
It’s a matter of style, not soul.
E-mail:
pmartin@arkansasonline.com

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN DEERING
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo
Glen Campbell (right) was joined by country greats Johnny Cash (from left), Merle Haggard and Buck Owens in this undated photo from his series The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. The program aired from 1969 to 1972.
Glen Campbell will release what he says is his final studio album on Tuesday. Ghost on the Canvas features performances by Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg and Dick Dale, among others.
AP
Glen Campbell performed at the IP Casino in Biloxi, Miss., in July.

Jerry Wexler Article from 2008

August 25, 2011

I had read a quote from Jerry Wexler and struggled to find the source. It’s in a book, and this article quotes from the book. The article was written the day after Jerry’s death August 15, 2008.

Here’s the quote: “Each company must do its best to fill the pulsating needs of mediocrity in order to maximize its potential for success, we might as well be selling hubcaps.”

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Fond memories of music great Jerry Wexler
Posted by Wade Tatangelo on Sat, Aug 16, 2008 at 8:18 PM

Atlantic Records partner and famed producer Jerry Wexler, pictured above with Dusty Springfield, helmed many of my favorite albums. He also provided me with a cherished memory and one of my proudest journalistic accomplishments — two things for which I will always be grateful.

I knew death had been looming for years but when I saw the news online late last night it saddened me greatly. Still does. It’s not like Wexler and I were ever friends but the hours we spent together, which I recall vividly, and the kindness he showed me, made me feel like we had connected in way that rarely occurs during an interview.

Wexler died Friday at the age of 91. He was at his home on Siesta Key, a place I visited in 2003. The music titan had agreed to let me interview him for a profile that would run in the St. Petersburg Times, one of the newspapers I was freelancing for at the time, which was early in my career. My body shook with equal parts anxiety and excitement as I made the drive from my apartment in downtown Sarasota to his place in an upscale gated community on the nearby barrier island. A manservant who spoke broken English greeted me at the front door and led me to the living room where the great man sat. Wexler studied me closely — perhaps put off that The Times had sent a correspondent in his early 20s to interview him.

Before I turned on the tape recorder, he wanted to ask me questions, which included my birthplace and my writing experience. The conversation quickly turned to my favorite music and I rattled off the stars Wexler had produced — Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and other artists he had not worked with such as Hank Williams Sr., who I knew that he respected. Wexler mentioned his affection for Williams’ signature tune “Lost Highway.” I concurred and then, with my voice noticeably nervous, mentioned it always struck me odd that although the song sounds autobiographical it was one of the few Williams didn’t write. “Um, yeah, I think a guy named Leon Payne wrote it,” I muttered, hoping to God my memory hadn’t failed me. Wexler grinned and from that moment on the interview went amazingly smooth.

I peppered Wexler with prepared and impromptu questions; listened attentively to his long, detailed, illuminating answers. The interview lasted a stretch of about three hours. I found Wexler to be one of the most intelligent people I had ever encountered, a master raconteur who had intimate stories about everyone from Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson to Charles, Aretha, Dylan, Solomon Burke, Dusty, Duane Allman and Led Zeppelin.

After the interview wrapped, I stuck around while the photog snapped pictures. Wexler clearly did not enjoy the experience and used the occasion to rattle off hilarious, politically incorrect jokes that had me howling while the photog politely cringed. After the photog left, Wexler led me to an adjacent room lined with CDs. He handed me copies of The Genius of Ray Charles, Doug Sahm and Friends, Aretha’s I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) and a handsome double disc reissue of Dusty in Memphis that included liner notes by Wexler.

He also signed a copy of his highly recommended autobiography, Rhythm & the Blues: A Life in American Music, which he had sent me prior to the interview along with countless other fascinating documents such as a short story he had penned/published and clips the impresario had written while working as a journalist for Billboard magazine; stuff that predated his joining Atlantic Records in 1953. He signed my book: “For Wade — respect and affection — Jerry Wexler.”

My Wexler piece ran as “The Man from Atlantic” on the cover of the Times’ Floridian section, Sun., Aug. 3, 2003. It paid $600, the most money I had ever earned for a single piece. I was ecstatic — would have gladly accepted the assignment if the editors had offered me gas money to meet with Wexler, or nothing at all.

Wexler invited me to keep in contact, and I did, calling him if I was preparing to interview someone he had worked with, like soul great Solomon Burke. Speaking off the record, Wexler would give me priceless nuggets to try and work into the story. Unfortunately, most weren’t fit for “family newspapers.”

On staff at the Bradenton Herald in June of 2004, it came through the wires that Ray Charles had passed. I immediately picked up the phone and dialed Wexler. He answered on the second ring. “I just got off the phone with Rolling Stone and before that, the L.A. Times,” he said in his gruff but grandfatherly way. “But, I liked that piece you did on me, Wade, so I guess I’ll make time for you. What kind of quote do you need?”

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Here’s Wade Tatangelo’s Wexler profile, courtesy of the St. Pete Times archives:
THE MAN FROM ATLANTIC Series: SUNDAY ARTS
[SOUTH PINELLAS Edition]
St. Petersburg Times – St. Petersburg, Fla.

 Turn on the radio, click on the TV, flip through the stacks at the record store and you can’t help but bump into Jerry Wexler.

You may not hear or see his name, but his legacy is all over popular music.

Last year, Rolling Stone published “50 Essential Albums” for its “Women in Rock Special Issue,” the No. 1 and No. 3 selections, Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. Both were produced by the man who steered Atlantic Records through the 1960s and ’70s from a tiny operation to an industry titan.

“I made significant records,” says Wexler, seated in his sun- washed living room, overlooking the pool of his waterfront home near Sarasota.

“But I think more important is the range of music I was able to participate in. You know, when you go from Willie Nelson to Dusty Springfield, with Wilson Pickett in between, that’s quite a stretch.”

At 87, the formerly tall and handsome Wexler has sacrificed a bit of his once-intimidating physicality. But he remains a witty raconteur, repeatedly jumping up from a soft white leather sofa to fetch the CDs and memorabilia that illustrate his many stories.

“I worked with three geniuses,” he says, beaming as the years seem to fall away: “Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.”

A little bit of soul

Charles had been signed to Atlantic Records just before Wexler fast-talked his way into a one-third partnership of the label in 1953. As Charles rose to national prominence, so did Atlantic in the world of rhythm and blues. As a reporter for Billboard in 1949, Wexler had started using the term “R&B” for what had been called “race records.”

“We never did anything to advance Ray Charles. He did it all. He advanced us,” Wexler insists. “I spoke to him a couple of months ago. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. There’s still a lot of love. He said to me, “Man, those were my best days.”

Wexler used what he learned from Charles and produced hits for acts ranging from pop stars The Drifters to blues great Champion Jack Dupree. Wexler also helped reignite the career of blues shouter Big Joe Turner. Wexler first saw Turner perform in Kansas City during the 1940s when Wexler was paying far more attention to the country and blues of America’s heartland than to his classes at Kansas State University.

During the same period, Wexler helped make stars out of soul heavyweights Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett.

In 1967, Wexler signed a struggling young singer from Columbia Records. If Wexler’s sole contribution to popular music had been getting Aretha Franklin to transform Otis Redding’s Respect from a semi-misogynistic tune to a roaring feminist anthem, he’d still have made the history books.

Before she teamed with Wexler, Franklin hadn’t tapped into her gospel roots. Her producer knew from the start she’d be great: “Aretha Franklin has the qualities of the superstar,” Wexler wrote in the liner notes to her 1967 Atlantic debut album.

The following year, Wexler brought British pop singer Dusty Springfield to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. It was a considerable gamble. Even Springfield doubted that his choice of music and musicians would suit her voice.

The session’s result: the enduring hit single Son of a Preacher Man, and an album that remains a masterpiece of blue-eyed soul.

During the early 1950s, Wexler and his Atlantic partner Ahmet Ertegun went south to produce Crescent City legend Professor Longhair. Twenty years later, New Orleans native Dr. John was reeling from a triple shot of mediocre albums following his lauded 1968 debut Gris-Gris. The 1972, Wexler-produced Dr. John’s Gumbo marked a return to the performer’s roots and provided Dr. John with the hit that revitalized his career.

At the same time, Wexler was starting Atlantic’s first country music division. It didn’t produce commercial hits, but Doug Sahm and Band, which features guest spots by Dr. John and Bob Dylan, is now considered a cult classic of alt. country. So are the two Willie Nelson albums Wexler oversaw, Shotgun Willie (1973), and especially Phases and Stages (1974).

“I consider them my Smithsonian entries,” Wexler says, chuckling.

Wexler resigned from Atlantic in 1975, having cashed in his one- third ownership in 1967. The rise of disco pushed Wexler’s classic R&B out of the limelight.

“Each company must do its best to fill the pulsating needs of mediocrity in order to maximize its potential for success,” Wexler griped in 1979. “We might as well be selling hubcaps.” (The quote appears, along with dozens of others by Wexler, in his friend Peter Guralnick’s definitive chronicle of southern R&B, Sweet Soul Music.)

Driving Dylan’s comeback

Grumbling aside, 1979 marked a turnaround in Wexler’s fortunes.

He produced English rockers Dire Straits’ second disc, Communique, released in June of that year. It rose to No. 11 on the pop chart, cementing the band’s career and proving that, at age 61, Wexler was still on top of the music world.

Then he got a call from an old friend whose own career needed some magic: Bob Dylan wanted to go back to the studio.

“When we were doing the Doug Sahm and Band album (in 1972), Dylan used to come by to hang out. He did the song Wallflower on that album,” Wexler recalls.

“We took a little break, and we went into my office . . . he said to me, ‘Man, I done the word trip. I wanna do the music trip.’ I wasn’t sure what he meant. But when he called me several years later I understood.”

In 1978, while Wexler was producing Etta James’ acclaimed Deep in the Night, Dylan asked Wexler to listen to some new material.

Dylan “walks over to the piano and he starts playing and he says, ‘I’ve been writing on the piano.’ Which was a new thing for him, because he’d always been writing on his guitar. I didn’t think too much of it.”

A year later, Dylan asked Wexler to produce his album.

“So, that’s how (Slow Train Coming) happened,” Wexler continues. “I didn’t have a clue as to what it was going to be, nor did I care. I mean, when the boss says ‘Jump’ the response is, ‘How high and when do I land?’ So it turns out to be a wall-to-wall Jesus album. I couldn’t care less. They were beautiful songs.”

Wexler, who describes himself as a Jewish atheist, grins cheerfully over the irony of his having produced two of the all- time most popular gospel recordings: Franklin’s 1972 Top 10 double- album Amazing Grace and Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, which charted in the top 5.

Did those sessions ever cause him to think twice about religion?

“Hey man, the spiritual fervor is nothing but repressed sexuality,” Wexler says in jest. “Sure, I get that all the time.”

Not that Dylan didn’t try to convert his friend. “I said, ‘Bob, forget about me, you’re talking to a confirmed, 62-year-old, card carrying Jewish atheist.’ He laughed. We only had good times.”

By the way, he says, Dylan isn’t really the dark mystery he appears to be. “He’s not like that at all,” Wexler whispers. “He loves to laugh. He likes to be amused. He likes to get down.”

Memoirs and crosswords

By the mid 1980s, Wexler dramatically scaled back his workload. During the early 1990s, after purchasing a winter home in Sarasota, Wexler produced an album by Etta James and one by venerable jazz pianist (and fellow Sarasota resident) Kenny Drew Jr.

Wexler then teamed with noted music historian/biographer David Ritz to pen his award-winning memoir: Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. Wexler’s self-deprecating admissions and acute observations make for a compelling read.

In addition to offering a fly-on-the-wall view of some of pop music’s most important recording sessions and transactions, the book reveals Wexler as a charmer and a hothead, a man realizing the American dream while indulging in “moods of insecurity and arrogance,” and being driven by “a fear of failure.”

“I told my co-writer, David Ritz, I don’t want this to be a rose- petal encomium of the great man,” Wexler says. “I want warts and all. I said go and find some people that don’t like me, see what they’ve got to say.”

In the book, Wexler admits that he was often an absentee father and philandering husband. He goes so far as to include bittersweet, and often just plain bitter, quotes by his two ex-wives and two surviving children. (Wexler’s eldest daughter Anita died in 1989 of AIDS after overcoming a heroin addiction.)

Even in retirement, Wexler’s is a sought-after voice. Strewn across the glass coffee table along with the framed portraits of pals like Dylan, is the afternoon’s mail, which includes a tape of a BBC program on country music featuring Wexler, and a letter from the show’s grateful producer.

But, “breakfast and the New York Times crossword puzzle are my main daily activities these days,” Wexler says, almost apologetically. “My wife, Jean, as well; we are both aficionados. This is a brag, now: neither of us have failed to finish a daily, or a Times Sunday crossword puzzle, in 18 years. Now, that’s not the London Times,” he quickly adds; “that one is tougher.”

For nearly two decades, Wexler has been married to novelist Jean Arnold, whom he met through mutual friends while vacationing in Sarasota. The couple also maintain a residence in New York.

“Jean lifted my loneliness and gave me the gift of love,” Wexler writes in his autobiography. “Finally after a lifetime of temper tantrums, I learned to chill.”

Next year, the feature film Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story, is to be released. Actor Richard Schiff (The West Wing) plays Wexler, who advised Schiff to stress three characteristics in his portrayal: “Charm, intelligence and probity.”

Despite all his accomplishments, he still talks frankly of the opportunities he missed.

“There were other acts I could’ve had and didn’t that became big stars. But I ain’t gonna tell you their names,” he says, laughing devilishly. True to form, though, he doesn’t dwell on the misses.

“The ones I missed would’ve been one of the best rosters imaginable. The hits are obvious. The flubs just fade into obscurity and people don’t remember them.”