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.”