Old Music for New People: A Tribute to Jerry Ragovoy

By , Columnist

This week we will depart from our usual format to honor the departed. My dear friend Jerry Ragovoy, legendary songwriter, producer, and arranger, passed away on July 13 of complications from a stroke. He was 80 years old. In his lifetime he had created music that changed the world, mostly in the rhythm and blues genre. Nobody would have guessed he was a white Jewish guy from Philadelphia who loved George Gershwin by the way he influenced and changed black music in his lifetime.

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I took the liberty of picking ten of my Jerry favorites to play for you here today. When I was starting out in the music business around the age of 16, I tried to get in to see my heroes and seek their help. Myriad doors were slammed in my face, but one of the people who always kept an open door for me was Jerry Ragovoy, and he answered all my young boy questions with patience and intelligence.

I could never have played the organ part on “Like A Rolling Stone” if I hadn’t sat at various Jerry sessions, and picked up the gospel essence that he embedded in those records. Later in my life I was able to write and produce some sides for Lorraine Ellison, because Jerry had recorded one of my early compositions with her. I was able to play organ live with Howard Tate because he remembered me sitting in the control room at some of his early sessions.

I perform a birthday show every February at BB King's club in New York City. I try and get bands that I love that not many people are aware of to come and play as well as old friends to sit in and jam. None of them are advertised; people just know they’re going to hear some inspired music and they come back every year. For the last five or six years, Jerry attended each show and came backstage and met everyone. It was my great thrill to introduce him to Andrew Oldham, who produced the Rolling Stones' version of Jerry’s song “Time Is On My Side.” They instantly became good friends and Andrew and I convened in New York City on July 13 to pay our respects to our dear friend on his last day on earth.

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Jerry, who was in the twilight of his life, came to the show every year, driving with his wife Beverly from Stamford, Connecticut to Times Square. He always told me what a great time he had and I was flattered beyond what my humility could contain. As I begin my senior years, I can’t help but be inspired by the grace and fortitude I observed in my dear friend in his later years on this mortal coil.

Here, then, is some timeless music, some of which you may never have heard before; hence this week's column title, Old Music for New People:



1. "You Don't Know Nothin' About Love" - Carl Hall (4:01)
(Jerry Ragavoy; arranged and produced by Jerry Ragovoy)

I used to listen to the gospel group The Raymond Rasberry Singers on Vee Jay Records and marvel at the voice of the female lead singer. They never listed the names of the singers on the album so I always wondered who it was. Little did I know that it was actually a male singer named Carl Hall and that Jerry had snapped him up as soon as he moved from Chicago to New York. This was the first record Jerry cut with him, a Ragovoy original song, produced and arranged by Jerry as well. This has become my favorite Jerry track because it is a perfect record - there are no flaws or goofs here. It just doesn’t get better than this. Sadly, it is comparatively unknown. If you like it, play it for all your friends. I do. This is from 1967.

2. "The Common Broken Heart" - Lou Courtney (4:29)
(Lou Courtney; produced by Jerry Ragovoy)

This is just a treat for the ears, a gorgeous mix of a beautiful arrangement sung by the song’s writer. Jerry produced this in 1973 and it is also comparatively unknown but high on my favorites list.

3. "Good Day Sunshine" - Roy Redmond (2:39)
(Lennon-McCartney; arranged and produced by Jerry Ragovoy)

Paul McCartney once said in an NPR interview that this was one of his favorite covers of songs that he wrote. Jerry’s arrangement was very inspiring to me. In later life, I have tried to take songs that are REALLY well known and write crazy arrangements for them so they can be done again in a brand new, fresh way. Here is Ragovoy and Roy Redmond’s interpretation of The Beatles.

4. "Stay with Me" - Lorraine Ellison (3:29)
(Jerry Ragovoy/George David Weiss; produced by Jerry Ragovoy)

In 1963, Frank Sinatra booked a session in a New York studio with 46 musicians, then canceled less than a week before the session. So the record company (Warner-Reprise) sent out notices to all their producers that if anyone wanted to use the musicians, it was theirs because Warner's had to pay for it anyway. Jerry grabbed it and then stayed up for three days with arranger Garry Sherman, as they feverishly wrote out the parts for 46 musicians to be ready on time.

At 7pm Jerry convened the session, gave out the parts, and began rehearsing the band. Lorraine was singing live on the session and Phil Ramone was engineering. At 7:30, they took take one. It was perfect except that Lorraine had flubbed the first line in the second verse. They gave the band a break and Lorraine punched in the mistake, also in one pass, and at 7:45 they thanked the musicians and bade them goodnight. Phil Ramone’s stereo control room mix was used as the final mix. This track you are about to listen to was recorded and FINISHED in 45 minutes! It is a legendary, one-of-a-kind performance. Bette Midler covered it in the film The Rose.

5. "Piece of My Heart" - Erma Franklin (2:32)
(Jerry Ragovoy-Bert Berns; arranged by J.R., produced by Bert Berns)

When Jerry co-wrote with music biz buddy Bert Berns, the songs were primal and perfect. This was one of their first efforts, I believe. Berns produced the original recording with Aretha’s sister Erma as the vocalist. This is where Janis Joplin heard it and there still is something special about this, the original version. It became one of the most covered songs in history!

6. "Where Did My Baby Go" - Howard Tate (2:31)
(Jerry Ragovoy; produced and arranged by Jerry Ragovoy)

I always loved the groove of this track; the guitar part and the drum part especially. It was a unique step for Jerry (actually a two-step). Howard’s vocal was perfect for the song as well. Howard was another Ragovoy discovery.

7. "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" - Lorraine Ellison (2:54)
(Jerry Ragovoy-Chip Taylor; produced and arranged by Jerry Ragovoy)

Recorded in 1968, this was a wonderful collaboration with Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing”). The musicians rose to the occasion and one could ALWAYS count on Lorraine. Just a great representation of soul music in the late '60s!

8. "Either Side of the Same Town" - Elvis Costello (4:00)
(Jerry Ragovoy-Elvis Costello)

A thrilling encounter for Elvis Costello - to write a song with his childhood hero. Jerry really enjoyed the experience as well. They both recorded the song; Jerry cut it with Howard Tate on their last album together. I put Elvis’ version on here because there weren’t THAT many Ragovoy songs recorded by white people.

9. "The Dam Busted" - Carl Hall (3:12)
(Harper - Members - Poindexter - Poindexter; arranged and produced by Jerry Ragovoy)

Jerry only cut six sides on Carl and was amazingly unable to secure an album deal for him! In my opinion, this is the second best one and contains the lyric: “You were just like a piece of good meat to a starvin’ dog / When I feast my eyes on you I knew I had to have it all!” I hope someday I can write a line that expressive. This combination of great playing and amazing singing is very special indeed. This has never, to my knowledge, been released on CD, so try to tolerate the pops and clicks of my often-played 45 RPM single.

10. "Get It While You Can" - Howard Tate & Jerry Ragovoy (3:50)
(Jerry Ragovoy; Jerry - piano, Howard - vocal)

On the last album they did together, as a closer, they sat down and played a duet - just the two of them reprising a song they recorded with a full band many years before. It’s a great way to close this tribute.

Thanks again, Jerry, for all that you taught me and for how much you enriched the world.

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Legendary musician (Bob Dylan, Blues Project, Super Session, Blood Sweat & Tears), producer (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nils Lofgren, The Tubes) and author (Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards), Al is happy to join the staff of The Morton Report in an effort to help his fellow listeners stay in tune!

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