Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Origin stories

I've always gotten a kick out of origin stories. They're most commonly associated with comic book superheroes, the graphic novel Batman: Year One and the film it inspired, Batman Begins, being two good examples. M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is a more subtle expression of the form.

More generally, I like learning about where commonplace things got their start. Take, for example, the musical category "rhythm and blues," a phrase so ingrained in our pop culture that it seems like it's always existed.

Not so, of course; someone thought it up one day. That man was legendary music producer Jerry Wexler, who died recently at age 91.

From his New York Times obituary:
By 1949 he was back in New York, married and working as a cub reporter for Billboard. At the time the black popular-music charts in the magazine were gathered under the rubric Race Records.

“We used to close the book on a Friday and come back to work on a Tuesday,” Mr. Wexler recalled in an interview last fall with the Web site “One Friday the editor got us together and said, ‘Listen, let’s change this from Race Records.’ A lot of people were beginning to find it inappropriate. ‘Come back with some ideas on Tuesday.’

“There were four guys on the staff,” he continued. “One guy said this and one guy said that, and I said, ‘Rhythm and blues,’ and they said: ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. Let’s do that.’ In the next issue, that section came out as Rhythm and Blues instead of Race.”
The name he gave black popular music is in the first paragraph of his NYT obit, but Wexler enjoyed a long, influential career as an Atlantic Records executive with a deep connection to musicians.

He presided over seminal recording sessions by Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin as they pioneered the soul sound. He also helped shape the careers of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Linda Ronstadt.

On the rock-and-roll side, Wexler produced records by Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana and Dire Straits and signed some band called Led Zeppelin.

Although none of us can be reduced to a sound bite, there are worse things than to be remembered as the guy who gave R&B its name. What's most interesting to me is the fact that someone did.


Anonymous said...

BARAK SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ben said...

I'm glad I sweated out that essay about origin stories. I can see the fine points weren't lost on you.

A Non-Idiot

p.s. Surely you wouldn't misspell a name that's been in the newspaper every day for two years. I'm going to assume you're hating on Brak, the pirate supervillain from "Space Ghost."

Mick Jammer said...

As he has a full 60% of the letters in the right place, my guess is the guy's an unsuccessful plaintiff of--"to?" What's the preposition?--the movie "BORAT."

Meanwhile, thanks for devoting some column inches to Jerry Wexler, one of my biggest heroes in music, and quite possibly the hippest Jew of the 20th Century.