The Blues Foundation presented its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award Tuesday at the House of Blues, but not to a guitar picker from the Mississippi Delta or a belter from the South Side of Chicago. Instead, the award went to--as record executive Al Bell said in his introduction of honoree Jerry Wexler--"a white Jewish boy from the Bronx."
No one in the audience, from industry titans to blues aficionados, argued the choice. As producer and executive, Wexler is a key figure in the history of modern blues and soul. Though none of the most-celebrated artists Wexler is associated with--Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett--were able to attend, others left little doubt that this nonperformer is deserving of the recognition.
Solomon Burke, in an evening-capping performance, peppered his exuberant, sweet-voiced medley of soul hits with affectionate memories and tributes directed at a beaming Wexler, now 78, but--as he said in his acceptance--"running on 33."
R&B; belter Etta James, singer-bandleader Billy Vera and Texas eclectic Doug Sahm each also paid musical homage to Wexler, while Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun (Wexler's former partner and mentor) engaged in some good-natured roasting and reminiscing.
But it was Bell, speaking with fervor, who best conveyed the significance of Wexler's passionate crusades for the music.
Said Bell, recalling the prejudice and segregation of the early '60s, when Wexler took Bell's Memphis-based Stax/Volt operation under his wing: "With conviction in his heart, he promoted and perpetuated [the music] until some of those walls started to come down."