Friday, August 22, 2008
A Jerry Wexler Story
When I was right in the middle of the maelstrom of "Hungarimania" (more of a manifestation of my own twisted mind than what was actually any type of reality), every once in awhile, I would receive that little tidbit of validation that would keep me motivated to work 23 hours a day to maintain a 12 piece greasy soul orchestra and a blossoming independent record company. This is an example of one of the larger points of validation in my life, one that would be sorely mischaracterized as a "tidbit".
A little preamble:
As anyone who is in the business of selling records (especially little indies) there is a cycle of inception, production, and most labor intensive, the marketing cycle.
I had just released our double disc set, "LIVE" at Styleen's. All the initial radio packages had gone out (over 4,000 packages world wide), and it was imperative to stay by the phone and computer to solidify relationships with programmers and independent D.J.'s, either by following up or receiving calls as they came in (I set up an 800 number so they could talk to me on my own dime….ended up being a lot of dimes)….
But during this time, the Hungarians were also maintaining a pretty solid schedule of performances…on the particular night in question, we were playing a club in Rochester, NY called "The Creek", a pretty well known routing venue for national acts. We always did very well there, and this night was no exception, as the band was building a big head of publicity steam behind the new record.
As we were doing our patented mass levitation thing, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band (who had played a concert that night in town) walked in, and dug the band so much, they crashed the stage and jammed with us until closing time…. and the liquor was flowing quite freely…by the time I got in my battered Nissan truck to make the long drive to Syracuse…well lets just say driving wasn't an option. I slept for a couple of hours in the parking lot.
I will say that having real musicians from New Orleans grooving on the band put me on top of the world, albeit with questionable drunken equilibrium….and that was adrenaline producing enough for me to eventually make the drive home.
When I got there at around 7am, deader than the proverbial doorknob (drunker than the proverbial doorknob is more like it) I crawled into bed with my sweetie, Styleen. We were both working very hard long hours, and we had to steal our moments when moments became available….this was one of the rare ones.
So at the moment she straddled me and slipped me inside her, of course the phone rang.
"If you pick that thing up, you're a dead man", she hissed.
Now any man rooted in reality would have just let the damn thing ring…but if any devotee of things Little Georgie knows, one thing I'm not is rooted in reality…. especially in a manic phase of selling records. It was my radio cycle; all the DJ's that play independent music do so on public radio on Saturdays and Sundays…. I had to answer the phone.
Now if this moment couldn't get any more surreal, on the bedside table next to the phone was the recently published autobiography of Jerry Wexler, one of my music heroes…and as I snatched the receiver with one hand and assured Styleen that I would lose the call ASAP (Don't move!) I heard a crusty old guy yelling at the other end of the line yelling in a New Yorkeese accent, "Georgie? Georgie, is that you?"
"Who is this?"
"It's me….Jerry…Jerry Wexler!"
I thought it was one of my buddies pulling my leg.
"Yeah, and I'm fucking Ahmet Ertegun…who is this?"
"No really, it's Jerry Wexler…I wanna talk about your records"
And that my friends, was a start of one of the most amazing conversations I've ever had, with a true master craftsman of all the music that I truly love.
I forgot that I had hijacked the master contact list of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation's Board members, and had sent packages to that entire database, including Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and Mister Wexler....can't blame a snake oil salesman for buckshot promotional techniques, can ya?
This amazing man had taken detailed notes of every bar of music on the two recordings I had released to date, and for the next 3 hours he broke down every ancient reference I had intentionally peppered each record with, in the advent that someone musically erudite enough would read the transmission. Jerry Wexler caught them all.
"The thirteenth bar in "Gut Bucket….you stole that from Freddy Slack, didn't ya?"
I was flying around Pluto when I hung up the phone…that folks, is real validation. Jerry Wexler dug me, the architecture, the conceptual elements, the amazing band…. and on top of that, he got the deeply embedded musical messages and jokes.
Sorry darlin', but that beats morning sex any time…. A big contributing factor in why I have such a difficult time maintaining romantic relationships!
I remained in contact with Jerry through the years, and we exchanged the odd phone call, letters and postcards…. but as I got further away from "the biz", I kinda let this one slide…I have always felt guilty about doing so, but what would Jerry Wexler want with a schmuck that ended up playing "Piano Man" for drunken Tulane co-eds eight times a night at Pat O'Brien's Piano Bar and Plantation Vibe Emporium? I didn't feel I had anything to bring to his table. I had turned into a whore.
But I never forgot how he made me feel that first day…. that maybe what I was doing might have some lasting worth…. some lasting value.
Jerry passed on to the other side last weekend…I should have been around, and I shouldn't have hidden from him…. he was all about THE MUSIC: FIRST, and probably would have talked me out of turning myself into a Bourbon Street music prostitute. It would have saved me a whole lot of grief....
And being about music first probably rendered him useless in a business that sells music, but doesn't really concern itself with caring too much how it's created. I know he felt marginalized…. in my mind, a crime against nature, but he was pretty philosophical about it.
If you listen to any of those early Ray Charles records on Atlantic, or the classic Aretha Franklin recordings she did in Muscle Shoals / NY…Jerry was a producer that knew how the process of creating great art worked…I am grateful for his attempt to remind me to stay true to form, and always, be about the music.
Wish him well on his journey.