Music Producer Jerry Ragovoy

Rock historian Ed Ward appraises the life and work of Philadelphia music producer Jerry Ragovoy.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Philadelphia has such a long history of rhythm and blues and soul music that some of its greatest figures haven't gotten the recgnition they deserve. Ace Records has gone a long way toward rectifying this with a collection of the work of Jerry Ragovoy, the songwriter, arranger and producer who was behind an amazing variety of great music. The CD is called "The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is on My Side." Our rock historian Ed Ward, a longtime admirer of Ragovoy, tells his story.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JERRY RAGOVOY: (Singing) Someone up there I want to thank you so much. For sending her sweet love to me, yeah. I been so alone, never had a girl of mine I want to thank you. I just want to thank you...

ED WARD: Jordan Ragovoy was born in 1930 to Old-World Jewish parents who encouraged his interest in music by making sure he learned piano and studied the classics. But by the time he was 19, Jerry, as he called himself, found a different path. He took a job at Tregoobs, an appliance store which also had a record department. Tregoobs was in a black neighborhood, and so the sound system there was usually playing gospel, blues, or rhythm & blues, and Ragovoy found himself fascinated.

Hanging out outside Tregoobs one day in 1953, he heard a group of kids singing and liked what he heard. He invited them to come inside and sing the song they'd been doing for Herb Slotkin, the store's manager. Slotkin liked it too, so Ragovoy suggested they start a label together to record it.

(Soundbite of song "My Girl Awaits Me")

THE CASTELLES: (Singing) My girl awaits me. The sun is in the sky. She said she loves me and there's no need to cry. What I'm doing each day is dreaming of my darling inside. Long clouds seem...

WARD: "My Girl Awaits Me" by The Castelles sold over 100,000 copies and Ragovoy realized he'd stumbled onto a career. In 1955, he quit the store, and somewhere along the way he married an Italian American girl who used her connections to get him a job with Chancellor Records, where he made two major discoveries. First, asked to come up with a song for Frankie Avalon, he found "Got To Get A Girl" by two utterly unknown New Yorkers named Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Second, when the label agreed that Avalon should record it, they ask Ragovoy to write up the orchestral arrangement, something he'd never done before. The song wasn't a hit, but now he knew he could find material and arrange it. In 1961, he struck out on his own and almost immediately had his first big hit.

(Soundbite of song "A Wonderful Dream")

THE MAJORS: (Singing) Last night I had a wonderful dream about you Last night I had a dream Wondering will it come true Last night I had a wonderful dream I dreamed I held you in my arms And you thrilled me with your charms In a wonderful dream...

WARD: The Majors' "A Wonderful Dream" was picked up by Imperial Records in Los Angeles. It became a good-size pop hit in 1963. Ragovoy decided it was time to head to New York for the big time and to work with Bert Berns, another hot, multi-talented guy. Their first collaboration was a classic.

(Soundbite of song "Cry Baby")

Mr. GARNET MIMMS: (Singing) Cry, baby! Cry, baby! Cry, baby! Welcome back home. Now he told you that he loved you Much more than I But he left you And you don't, you just don't know why And when don't know what to do. You come running And start to cry, Cry Baby. Cry Baby. Cry Baby. Like you always do.

WARD: Garnet Mimms was the voice Ragovoy had been looking to work with since he heard those first gospel records at Tregoobs. And "Cry Baby," credited to Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters, was a pop and soul smash. It also came at the right time. Warner Brothers was starting Loma, a soul label, and needed material. Perhaps Ragovoy's most famous moment was when moment was when on three days' notice he wrote, arranged and in one take recorded "Stay With Me" by Lorraine Ellison and a 48-piece orchestra.

But the years 1966 and 1967 had many other great Ragovoy records, the one he did with Miriam Makeba, for instance.

(Soundbite of song "Pata Pata")

WARD: Assigned to do an album with her, Ragovoy went to watch Makeba's nightclub act the evening before they were about to start an album of American pop songs and convinced her that the South African material she did that night was what she ought to be doing. "Pata Pata" became an enormous worldwide hit. And he was still capable of writing, arranging, and producing incredible gospel theme soul music, like this astonishing record by Carl Hall.

(Soundbite of song "You Don't Know Nothing About Love")

Ms. CARL HALL: (Singing) Did you ever know what it is to be hurt? Did you ever feel like girl? Did you ever give her up all your pride? Just to have her by your side Well if you don't know what I'm talking about You don't know nothing, you don't know nothing You don't know nothing about love...

WARD: Four minutes of unrestrained emotion. "You Don't Know Nothing About Love" wasn't a hit but it became a connoisseur's favorite. In 1967, one of Ragovoy's biggest fans started recording. Janis Joplin's renditions of "Cry Baby" and "Get It While You Can" made him more money than the originals had. Ragovoy also realized that the new music hitting the charts was changing, so he went into studio management, building a legendary room called The Hit Factory, which was literally that, used for years by Ragovoy and others to make great records.

Today, Jerry Ragovoy is semi-retired, although he helped his old friend, Howard Tate, revive his career in 2001 with a stunning album, "Rediscovered." That's a word I think should be applied to Jerry Ragovoy, too.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. The music he played is from the CD, "The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is on My Side" on Ace Records. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at Fresh Air wish you a Happy New Year.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.