Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jerry Ragovoy in the Cathedral Of Soul

by Andy Schwartz

When Howard Tate died on December 2, 2011, most obituaries for the great soul singer mentioned the name of another man who’d passed on in July of this year. Jerry Ragovoy (September 4, 1930 – July 13, 2011) was a songwriter, producer, pianist, and the studio Svengali behind Tate’s career masterpiece, the 1967 Verve album originally issued as Howard Tate and later retitled Get It While You Can.

Arguably, Ragovoy never made a better album in his career. In fact, Rags didn’t make that many albums: Much of his most influential music appeared on singles released before 1967, when Sgt. Pepper broke the “album market” wide open. Howard Tate/Get It While You Can features superb vocal performances by Tate, whether singing church–flavored ballads (the title track, “I Learned It All The Hard Way”) or blues standards (“How Blue Can You Get”); sturdy arrangements by Ragovoy, frequent partner Garry Sherman, or Artie Butler; and tough, committed playing by a cast of NYC session players including pianist Paul Griffin and guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale.

Finally, Howard Tate/Get It While You Can contains the original versions of some of Ragovoy’s best and most–covered compositions including “Ain't Nobody Home” (B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt), “Get It While You Can” (Janis Joplin), and “Look At Granny Run Run” (Grand Funk, Ry Cooder). Several notable non–LP singles emerged from the Tate sessions including “Stop,” written by Ragovoy with Mort Shuman, later covered by both Sam Moore and Jimi Hendrix.

But if Jerry Ragovoy had never worked with Howard Tate…had never written “Get It While You Can” or “Ain’t Nobody Home”…we’d still be hanging his name in the Soul Hall of Fame. Here are some of the reasons why:

Written by Jerry Ragovoy (as “Norman Meade”) and Bert Berns (as “Bert Russell”) Released July 1963 as United Artists 629. No. 1 Billboard R&B (three weeks), No. 12 Pop. available on Cry Baby

In his liner notes for the 1993 CD Cry Baby: The Best of Garnet Mimms (all 25 tracks produced by Jerry Ragovoy), Robert Pruter wrote that prior to the July 1963 release of this landmark single, the sporadic soul hits of the period were “mainly easily digestible songs by Sam Cooke and Chuck Jackson that fitted well into the pop mainstream of the day, so that nothing seemed alien or new about them. ‘Cry Baby’ was different. The song was a gospelized production so full of the soul–saving, fire–and–brimstone ecstasies of the black sanctified church that it singularly stood apart…Never had the public heard anything so intense and so emotional on Top 40 radio.”

Ragovoy told Pruter he’d worked on the song “on and off for about two years” and, in his efforts to place the finished master, had been given the brush–off by executives at various labels: “Typically, in the record industry, if it doesn’t sound like anything the record executives are familiar with, they turn it down.” With Jerry as writer and producer, Garnet Mimms placed eight more songs on the Billboard R&B Singles chart. The consistent excellence of their output was such that even Mimms’ commercial misfires later became ideal cover material: “Look Away” for the Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood, “My Baby” for Janis Joplin.

ERMA FRANKLIN – “Piece of My Heart” mp3
Written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns
Released 1967 as Shout 221. No. 10 Billboard R&B, No. 62 Pop.
available on Piece of Her Heart: Epic & Shout Years

Ragovoy co–wrote this soul classic with frequent collaborator Bert Berns and probably played the piano part that forms the bedrock of the arrangement. One of only two singles ever charted by Aretha Franklin’s older sister, “Piece Of My Heart” is probably Rags’ best–known song thanks to Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), whose cover version reached No. 12 in 1968 and has remained a staple of classic rock radio ever since. Erma’s original was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1968; twenty–five years later, in 1992, after renewed exposure in a British TV commercial for Levi’s, her recording entered the UK Top Ten.

THE ENCHANTERS – “God Bless the Girl and Me” mp3
Written by Samuel Bell & Lorraine Ellison. Produced & arranged by Jerry Ragovoy. Released March 1966 as Loma 2035.
out of print

Garnet Mimms and Sam Bell were members of a Philly vocal group, the Gainors, who left to form the Enchanters. The success of “Cry Baby” pushed Mimms to the forefront, however, and soon the other members (including Zola Pearnell and Charles Boyer) were cutting tracks without him. The Enchanters’ “I Wanna Thank You” struggled to No. 91 R&B in the fall of ’64, but with Ragovoy producing and Sam Bell as a contributing writer, the group came up with two more deep–soul stunners, “I Want To Be Loved” (Loma 2012, released February ’65) and “God Bless The Girl and Me.” I’m pretty sure Sam Bell is singing lead on these sides; if so, then he’s nearly the equal of Garnet Mimms for church–bred intensity and passionate articulation. The combination of piano and organ is another key element derived from gospel music and a trademark of Ragovoy’s sound in this period.

MIRIAM MAKEBA – “Pata Pata” mp3
Written by Miriam Makeba & Jerry Ragovoy. Produced by Jerry Ragovoy.
Released 1967 on Reprise 0606.
available on Pata Pata

Ragovoy’s biggest crossover hit of the Sixties after “Cry Baby” was also among his least typical. Thanks to the support of Harry Belafonte, by 1967 South Africa’s Miriam Makeba was already established in the US: She had released several LPs on RCA and been nominated for a Grammy the previous year. I’m not sure if Makeba was signed to Reprise at the time she recorded “Pata Pata,” or if Ragovoy independently produced and then shopped the master.

In any case, singer and producer retooled a South African folk song (that Makeba had first recorded in 1956) and the result was a sui generis hit that reached No. 7 R&B/No. 12 Pop in 1967. “Pata Pata” was the first song of South African origin since “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” to make a major impact on American audiences. Makeba’s hit preceded by about a year the Number One success of “Grazing In The Grass” as recorded by her then–husband, trumpeter Hugh Masakela.

LORRAINE ELLISON – "Stay With Me" mp3
Warner Bros. LP 182, released 1969. Produced by Jerry Ragovoy.
available on Stay With Me

Along with Howard Tate/Get It While You Can, this is the other great Jerry Ragovoy album.

Its creation began with the title single, “Stay With Me,” co–written by Ragovoy and George David Weiss. Sometime in 1966, Frank Sinatra canceled a New York recording session, potentially leaving his label Warner Bros. with the bills for a 46–piece orchestra and no music to show for it. On two days’ notice, Ragovoy, arranger Garry Sherman, and singer Lorraine Ellison (born 1931, Philadelphia PA) hustled into the studio and recorded “Stay With Me” – a towering, operatic ballad that many consider the pinnacle of East Coast “uptown soul.”

“To many people, ‘Stay With Me’ still typifies the basic idea of what real soul music is all about,” wrote UK soul music maven David Nathan in a 1974 article for Blues & Soul. “And there aren't too many soulful people around who don't get that spine–chilling tingle when they hear it, even to this day.”

“‘Stay With Me’ was a song that Jerry Ragovoy had written with Mr. Weiss, and I thought it was going to be a monster smash,” Lorraine Ellison told Nathan in Blues & Soul. “It certainly looked that way – the record had twenty-six national breakouts in the States, and it did make it onto the soul charts and made some headway onto the nationals.

“But at that time, Warners was just not into black music, period. They really had no idea how to promote the record and they had no real way of getting into the R&B market.”

The single made it to No. 11 R&B/No. 64 Pop, and these stats – along with some positive reviews and a certain underground buzz – were enough for Warner Brothers to green–light a full album. Heart and Soul: Introducing Miss Lorraine Ellison was released as WB 1674 in 1966. Produced by Ragovoy but arranged and conducted by jazz man Oliver Nelson, it was an uneven set that found Ellison singing familiar standards (“Cry Me A River”) and other people’s hits pop (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” “If I Had a Hammer”). “Stay With Me” was buried in the middle of Side Two, and only one other song, “When Love Flies Away,” bore a Ragovoy writing credit. Heart and Soul did not chart and was soon deleted.

“Then interesting things began to happen,” West Coast rock critic John Mendelsohn wrote in his liner notes for Stay With Me – the second Lorraine Ellison album, unexpectedly issued by Warner Bros. in the fall of 1969. “[Such] diverse musical figures as Laura Nyro and Carl Wayne [of The Move] listed Lorraine Ellison as their favorite female vocalist. And in Harlem...an enterprising pirate tape–duplicating operation found mobs of takers when they offered tapes of ‘Stay With Me’ at the somewhat outrageous price of $5.00 apiece.”

“… Having realized that they had an artist of almost limitless potential, both commercial and artistic, sitting around their house, [Warner Bros.] got Jerry Ragovoy busy producing a straight–ahead album of gospel–based soul, the music that Lorraine had been doing for years with such unrewarded brilliance.”

Indeed, this was the album that should have followed the single. Stay With Me is eleven tracks of pure uptown soul, with an unswerving stylistic focus and the sustained mood of a secular cathedral. Ragovoy arranged and produced the entire set; he co–wrote seven songs with (variously) Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Sam Bell, Bert Berns, and Ellison herself. The title song closes Side One with a bang, in a manner analogous to the placement of “Get It While You Can” on Howard Tate.

It was all too little too late, however, and Stay With Me followed Heart and Soul into the cut–out bins. But Janis Joplin must have gotten hold of a copy: She later covered “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” on Pearl, along with four other songs co–written by Jerry Ragovoy.

LOU COURTNEY – “What Do You Want Me Yo Do” mp3
Written by Lou Courtney. Arranged by Jerry Courtney. Produced by Lou Courtney & Jerry Ragovoy. Released 1973 as Epic/CBS 5–11062. No. 48 Billboard R&B in spring 1974.
available on I'm in Need of Love

By 1973, hardcore Southern soul was pretty much a spent force, commercially if not inspirationally. Otis Redding had been dead for years, Atlantic had dropped Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin was cutting jazz–flavored material with Quincy Jones. Ragovoy hooked up with R&B journeyman Lou Courtney, whose biggest chart record – the quasi–Motown dance novelty “Skate Now” – was six years behind him. Together they came up with a flute–flavored, proto–disco sound that was closer to Johnny Bristol’s “Hang On In There Baby” than to the glories of Garnet Mimms or Erma Franklin. Still, “What Do You Want Me To Do” is a genuinely infectious record with an arrangement that positively pops, and Courtney sings the hell out of it. The single crawled to No. 48 R&B and died, but not before singer and producer managed to squeeze out a pretty good album, I’m In Need of Love, also on Epic/CBS.


“Open Up Your Soul” mp3
by Erma Franklin, 1968.
available on Piece of Her Heart: Epic & Shout Years

“I Want To Be Loved” mp3
by Loraine Ellison, 1969.
available on Stay With Me

Garnet Mimms – “Look Away”
by Garnet Mimms, 1964.
available on Warm & Soulful

"Malayisha" mp3
by Miriam Makeba, 1967.
available on Pata Pata

“Ain’t Nobody Home” mp3
by Howard Tate, 1967.
available on Get It While You Can

“Stop” mp3
by Howard Tate, 1967.
available on Get It While You Can


Anonymous said...

"Stop" was also recorded by the James Gang for their first Yer Album and Ragovoy plays piano with them on it.

H.M.S. said...

Wow, thanks to Andy for this detailed piece on Jerry Ragovoy's production career, much appreciated and admirably done!

allen vella said...

That was an awesome 7 days of great posts..thank you!

Bruce said...

Norman Meade=Jerry Ragovoy & Bertrand Russell Berns should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These two great songwriters have a impeccable resume. May they both rest in peace.