Jerry Wexler, shown in August 1979, worked with great R&B artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Dusty Springfield. ((DP/Associated Press))

Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer who helped bring R&B greats such as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles into the mainstream, has died. He was 91.

Wexler died Friday at his home in Sarasota, Fla., according to David Ritz, co-author of his 1993 memoir Rhythm and the Blues.

Ritz said Wexler had suffered from congenital heart disease for the past two years.

Wexler was influential at Atlantic for his work with artists such as Led Zeppelin, Duane Allman and Dusty Springfield.

But his greatest influence was as the man who provided both a recording studio and access to a wider public for African-American singers of the 1950s and 1960s.

Singer Solomon Burke said Wexler was the ultimate music man.

"He loved black music, R&B music and rhythm and blues was his foundation. He had a feeling for it, he had the knack to keep it going in his heart and recognize the talent that he felt was real," Burke said Friday.

"Jerry Wexler didn't change the sound of America, he put the sound to the public. He opened the doors and windows to the radio stations ... and made everybody listen."

Working with his friend and Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun, Wexler brought stardom to artists such as Wilson Pickett, Burke and Percy Sledge and boosted the careers of "Queen of Soul" Franklin and "King of Soul "Charles.

Wexler's deft touch as a producer can be heard on hits such as Franklin's Respect, Sledge's When A Man Loves A Woman and Pickett's In the Midnight Hour.

He is also credited with coining the term "rhythm and blues" for the black music charts at Billboard magazine. He was working as a reporter at Billboard and encouraged more in-depth coverage of what were then called "race records."

Wexler produced 16 albums and numerous hit singles for Franklin, who switched to Atlantic in the mid-1960s after several unhappy years singing show tunes for Columbia.

The move allowed Franklin to rediscover her gospel roots and in a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone, she said her work with Wexler was "among my favourite sessions. I feel the things we did together were dynamite."

Long-lasting influence on the recording industry

Wexler's all-night recording sessions of R&B are now considered historic for their long-reaching impact on the music industry.

"No one really knew how to make a record when I started," Wexler said, quoted on the website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "You simply went into the studio, turned on the mike and said play."

His influence on the music business continued after Warner Bros. bought Atlantic Records in 1967.

In the 1970s, he worked with Southern artists such as Allman, Dr. John and Delaney & Bonnie and cross-over country singer Willie Nelson. In the 1980s, he produced for Dire Straits, Carlos Santana and George Michael.

Born Jan. 10, 1917, to a Polish Jewish family, Wexler was raised in the Bronx and became a music buff in his teens, hanging out in the jazz and blues bars of Harlem.

He served in the U.S. navy during the Second World War and then graduated from Kansas State University.

In the 1940s, he became a reporter and editor at Billboard magazine. There he befriended fellow music enthusiast Ertegun, who died in 2006.

Ertegun and a partner had started Atlantic, a small R&B label based in New York and Wexler joined them in 1953.

"In the early sessions, I just sat there watching [Ertegun] while I was cowering in fright," Wexler said in a 2001 interview with Associated Press. "But as time went on, we proved to be a very successful team.... We went on the road together, we hung out together."

Wexler was known as a "hands-on" producer, who stepped in to fix a sound that wasn't quite what he wanted to hear. Once, during a session with Charles, the tambourine player was off the beat. Wexler, in his award-winning autobiography, recalled grabbing the instrument and playing it himself.

"Who's that?" asked Charles.

"Me," Wexler told the blind singer.

"You got it, baby!" Charles said.

With Wexler as a director, Atlantic came to the forefront of R&B. Among his triumphs of this period was Dusty Springfield's classic Dusty in Memphis.

In 1968, he and Ertegun signed Led Zeppelin, on the strength of a demo tape from the then-unknown band and the reputation of guitarist Jimmy Page, formerly of the Yardbirds.

In 1967, Wexler and Ertegun sold Atlantic to Warner Bros. for $17.5 million and both remained with the company. 

Wexler left Warner in 1975 and worked after that with Muscle Shoals Sound. Among the individual artists he produced was Bob Dylan on his 1979 Slow Train Coming which earned a Grammy.

Wexler was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

He is survived by his son, Paul and daughter, Lisa.

With files from the Associated Press