Jerry Ragavoy: One of the Best New R&B Producers

A look at the Philadelphia Rhythm and Blues hitmaker

South African singer Myriam Makeba performing for the first time at the Olympia in Paris on May 28th, 1967. Credit: STF/AFP/Getty

Philadelphia's Jerry Ragovoy is one of the top Rhythm and Blues producers (Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata"; The Staple Singers' "Let's Get Together"; Roy Redmond's "Good Day Sunshine" [yes—the Lennon/McCartney song!]; Howard Tate, Lorraine Ellison et al.) in today's market. He not only produces but also writes, arranges and publishes many of the songs his artists record, and he has just completed building his own 8-track studio (The Hit Factory) of which he proudly states, "I own it all by myself—no partners!"

Though it may not be unusual for someone who is not a strictly a Negro to produce R&B, Jerry's special feel for the "Soul Sound" got to the Rolling Stones who recorded his "Time Is On My Side," which he wrote under the pseudonym Norman Meatle. ("I made it up one day, and I hated it! But I did it because of the difficulty in submitting material, as I was already known as a producer.")

Jerry got interested in R&B "more by accident than on purpose. I got a job when I was about 18 or 19 in a record shop. It happened to be a strictly Negro area and for 4 years I heard nothing but pure R&B records. I didn't try actively to learn the idiom; I passively absorbed it, and it came out years later when I went to write an R&B song for the market. I was writing as if it were a natural thing for me."

He never had any formal music training, picking things up by ear ("I started playing piano all by myself at the tender age of 7 years old, and my mother thought I was another Mozart!"). Beginning his career as an arranger at Chancellor Records ("when Frankie Avalon and Fabian were very popular") he then became a fulltime arranger commuting between New York and Philadelphia. ("I got interested in arranging simply because I thought the money might be good.")

The first record Jerry produced was in the early 60's with composer Teddy Darrell doing his own song "She Cried" ("not the version that finally made it as a BIG hit—but the song really flipped me").

During this period Jerry also began collaborating with the late and very talented Bert Berns, who used the pseudonym of Bert Russell on some of his songs. Bert had become a successful R&B writer/producer, and he and Jerry began a fantastic writing relationship! ("We hit it off great. I think that every song we wrote, with the exception of a couple, hit the charts, and even the couple that didn't make the charts made money in Europe. Generally, I wrote most of the music, maybe 90 percent of it. If you listen to the songs that Bert wrote without me, you will notice a tremendously difference musically. Bert was great with lines, and sometimes with lay-out contributions.

"We wrote together—I'd come up with lyrics and he would too, you know, and we'd feed off one another. Incidentally, Irma Franklin's "Take Another Piece of My Heart" was Bert's musical idea, the chorus part, and he also had the title. I wrote the front part of the music and some of the lyric.")

In selecting songs to be recorded for the artists he produces Jerry says, "The first thing you do is pull out the rosary beads and pray that something will either come in or you'll be blessed by divine inspiration to write something!" It's very difficult to find good R&B material from publishers ("I am always pleased when an artist writes because it takes a burden off of me").

When Warner Brothers' Moe Austin signed Miriam Makeba and asked Jerry to produce her first single for the company, Jerry was daughted. But then he thought, "Oh my God, what did I do? I mean what does one do with Makebal?" After listening to 60-70 songs and feeling none of them really suitable, he asked her to sing some African songs ("because whatever I'd heard of Miriam, she's always exciting presenting her own material"). After a a quick meeting at Jerry's house with Miriam and some of her African friends who live in New York ("my tape recorder in the office was broken"), three songs were put together for the session.

After cutting "Pata Pata" Jerry said, "Truthfully, I didn't know whether it was a hit, or not; all I knew was I could say 'I made a great record!' Miriam sounds like Miriam and that made me happy. As it worked out it's a hit."

Although Jerry's card states: Jerry Ragovoy, Artists and Repertoire East Coast ("Artists and Reportoire is like the couch I have in my office—1934 Modern"), he maintains the right to produce artists outside the company that he had under contract before he joined Warner Brothers/7 Arts as an exclusive producer.

The session with The Staple Singers was unusual because they are under contract to CBS, but went to Jerry at the recommendation of their manager. They had already selected the song "Let's Get Together" ("Roebuck Staples will not touch a 'you and me' song—nothing that suggests a personal relationship—I love you—you love me'; so the limitations on the material are fantastic").

As Jerry explains: "Roebuck was singing the song in sort of almost old-time John Lee Hooker fashion, which was a groove in itself, but I didn't feel it as a commercial entity. So I picked up the 'gee-tar' and said, 'Why don't we try it this way?' We all rephrased the song, I threw in some different chords and laid out a quick arrangement and went into the studio."

The idea of building his own studio came to Jerry in 1965 ("the only year I didn't have anything on the charts as a producer. All I had to carry me through the year was the Stones' 'Time Is On My Side'").

"The motivation, as usual, like in publishing, is bread," he commented. "I said to myself, 'Where is it in the record business for a producer. You're as good as your last record, period. Suppose it all stops. Where can I go for some financial security that would be tangible, not the abstraction called the song. As a publisher it takes a long time to develop a catalogue that's substantial that could provide you with an income in case anything else went bad for you.' And from that year forward I began collecting equipment. This studio is not just something I bought."

The technical arguments that rage over whether an 8-track machine is cleaner than a 4-track, don't really interest Jerry ("I don't care if there's hiss and noise, as long as the record feels good—with the exception of an obvious defect."). In his opinion, the 8-track machine was developed for the groups ("they need the open tracks to selsync on because they can't play very well"), and he personally would prefer recording on mono ("and catch the whole thing right on the date").

Jerry is also an enthusiastic booster of composer/arranger/producer Burt Bacharach. "I first heard of Burt in Philadelphia, when a publisher brought in some demos, back in my Chancellor days. I remarked to Al Stanton (now with A&M). 'I don't know who this guy is, but he's really got it!' To me it was the freshest material I'd heard, and he stood out like a score thumb. Burt is the freshest writer in 25 years and he is the first one that expanded the idiom and made it mean something. He broke the 32-bar prison."

Smiling somewhat ruefully when asked about his plans for the future, Jerry replied, "My activities are so wide spread, suddenly I have people working for me, and the time consumption that comes from me is enormous. But what I would like to do ultimately, if there was any kind of dream, is side-step a lot of this stuff that hangs me up in time that isn't involved directly with creativity. When you are strictly in the creative bag, and there is nothing else, then maybe you will have the time to think about what you really want to do. I'm in the rat race, that's what it really is. Never thought I'd be, but here I am, one of the runners."