Taking Care Of Business (Jerry Ragovoy)

It took Jerry Ragovoy 10 years to find a place where his talents as a songwriter, arranger & record producer were appreciated & put to proper use. In 1963 Ragovoy, initially an R&B guy, was working in Philadelphia for Chancellor Records, a label struggling to replace anodyne fading teen idols with novelty dance records.After contacting Bert Berns, a dynamic freelance producer working in New York. he helped Berns finish “Cry Baby”, a song which sold a million copies when recorded by Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters.The following year another of Ragovoy’s songs, “Time Is On My Side”, gave the Rolling Stones their first US Top 10 success. A man’s reputation can be secured by such a double whammy. New York gave Jerry his ticket to ride. As you know, if you can make it there…

Jerry was set to work with Garnet Mimms & the partnership recorded a string of emotional soul-gospel ballads which kept the singer around the R&B charts until 1966. Garnet was a  proper talent. In this fantastic clip he is introduced by Otis Redding to sing “I’ll Take Good Care of You”, a Berns-Ragovoy tune that crossed over to the Top 30…this is pure soul satisfaction, enchanting.

For the rest of the decade Jerry spent a lot of time in a recording studio making a lot of music. His trademark was a slow fuse balladry, solid songs with lush imaginative orchestration. He brought gospel Uptown but he liked his vocalists to be impassioned rather than overwrought. For some time it was his records that defined New York soul music. He was hooked up with the right guy. Bert Berns was a real Record Man whose street smarts got songs written, recorded, released & knew that the music business was as much about the business as the…you get me. He got deals made where he got paid. Bert replaced the legendary Leiber & Stoller as staff producer at Atlantic Records before making a mark running Bang, an Atlantic subsidiary. That first hit, “Cry Baby”, was credited to Bert Russell (Berns) & Neville Meade (Ragovoy). Sometimes, when big money is being made fast, it is better to cover your tracks.

Jerry made his own move in 1965 when he took over Warner Brothers’ East Coast operations releasing tracks on the Loma label. He recorded with Mimms, now solo, his old backing group the Enchanters, Lorraine Ellison. With  Howard Tate the partnership created a run of bright, bluesy R&B hits. Ragevoy’s artists benefitted from his arranging talents & the use of the best of the New York session players including Richard Tee, Eric Gale & Chuck Rainey. On one fortuitous occasion a Frank Sinatra no-show left a full orchestra at a loose end. Our man put them on to “Stay With Me” by Lorraine Ellison for a one take, all guns blazing, instant classic. It is not my favourite of his productions, epic Spectoresque ballads may have been the current thing but…I’m being too critical. It’s the histrionics of less talented singers that have clouded my view of this great record.

There was some great work for Loma. Check for the 3 singles by Carl Hall. Listening to “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love” is a great way to spend 3 minutes & 15 seconds. Deep Soul that doesn’t quite let it all hang out & is probably the better for it. In 1967 he produced a Top 20 hit for South African singer Miriam Makeba. “Pata Pata”, sung in the Xhosa language, was originally recorded by Makeba 10 years earlier. The writing credit was now Makeba/Ragovoy, so it went in the music industry.

Dusty Springfield, the Queen of British Pop, was sent to New York to record with the master. It was an idea before its time. “What’s It Gonna Be” was released as a single by Phillips but not before smearing the song in some incongruous orchestral additions. When Dusty signed for Atlantic she was back in a US studio, smashing it with “Dusty In Memphis”. Most of her LPs had included a song by Jerry & this cover of a Garnet Mimms song from 1965’s “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty” is the best example I have seen of just why this woman was a cut above.

One of Ragovoy’s songs, “Piece Of My Heart” failed to hit with Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, then became a stand-out track for Big Brother & the Holding Company. When singer, Janis Joplin, left for a solo career her music moved from hard rock to blues-soul. Janis’ individual voice provided the blues, the soul came from the 5 Jerry Ragovoy’s songs she recorded. 3 are on “Pearl”, the posthumous LP, 4 on the “Greatest Hits” which sold 7 million copies. The Ragovoy Music Corporation received some serious royalty cheques in the early 1970s as poor Janis’ small body of work was re-hashed & re-released.

In 1969 the CEO of RMC  built his own studio, the Hit Factory, in New York. There were 2 more facilities opened the next year. Me & Karl Marx guess that when the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the producers then things are both hunky & dory. Jerry Ragovoy was his own boss now, he stepped away from that day-to-day recording process & took some time to enjoy his new circumstances. He kept his hand in, working with the Staple Singers, Bonnie Raitt & Dionne Warwick.His reputation was made by the durability of his work in the 1960s. Anyone with any interest in soul music could not avoid his name on so many great records. It was 30 years later that an opportunity arose for closure on some unfinished business.

Ragevoy & Howard Tate were a fine partnership. The singer’s ability to handle emotion & wit brought the best out of the arranger. The 1966 LP “Get It While You Can” is as good a soul collection as there was at the time. The pair worked together in 1972 when Jerry’s songs were less sharp though the Dylan & The Band covers were interesting. Tate never found his audience, struggled with personal tragedy before drifting out of music into addiction & homelessness. After his recovery he was preaching around Philadelphia then found in 2001 by a DJ. Howard’s legend had grown &, wonderfully, his agile voice was intact. In 2003 Jerry Ragevoy joined with his old favourite for the LP “Rediscovered”.

This new version of “Get It While You Can” is so, so great. Not even the Reverend Green’s pipes were in this shape at 64 years old. Howard is doing what he was born to do & it’s a beautiful thing. Behind him, unseen until the end, is the veteran producer/songwriter, now 72. That piano progression strips the song to a solid foundation. The little push before the last chorus is all you need, a horn section would be cool, the song stands up without it. Jerry Ragovoy, who passed away in 2011, as did Howard Tate, was a great American songwriter.

We Still Got The !!!! Beat

Earlier in the year I posted 3 clips from a 1966 TV show out of Dallas Texas. The !!!! Beat captured some of the sensational Soul/R&B artists of the day in wonderful colour footage. I am a sucker for those grainy clips of “Shindig” & “Hullabaloo” but the !!!! Beat went beyond the chart hits of the time, looks as good as a movie & was clearly a wonderful thing. The clips are hidden away on the Y-tube, live or lip-synch they are gems stumbled upon almost accidentally when you are looking for something else. Here’s one I found this week.

Well, Otis Redding in his high-waist trousers, hands over the mic to “Mr” Garnet Mimms, a well turned out young man, who proceeds to deliver his song beautifully & passionately. I’m trying to keep it together here but it’s moving colour pictures of Garnet Mimms…bloody hell ! He recorded in New York with the great Jerry Ragovoy. His weave of uptown polish with a gospel feel was as good as soul got in 1963/4 & when his records caught a wave he would have Top 30 hits. “As Long As I Have You” is a near-perfect record & this one “I’ll Take Good Care Of You”, Garnet’s last Top 30 hit, gives it a run for its money. So, the only thing I know about this man is that he just missed the Soul Explosion because Memphis & Motown carried the swing at that time. That & he has a beautiful voice. In 2007 Garnet returned to recording with songwriter/producer John Tiven who specialized in the re-discovery of soul talents. Garnet was 73 years old when “Is Anybody Out There ?” was released. I have not heard the LP but I’m on it now.

One day I just might begin that magnum opus considering the African-American voice as the major determinant of 20th century popular culture. When (OK if ) I do then this clip of Etta James is one of the first illustrations because it is absolutely blinding. We like to place labels on to the things that come our way firstly to comprehend & then to control them. We can put this into that box & we feel better. Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, Soul. In “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” Ms James delivers a summation of 50 years of culture, touching all bases & defying categorization. The original 1964 hit was not 3 minutes long. Here we get the extended 12″ version & it is a showstopper.

Etta had a tough childhood, born in Los Angeles when her mother was just 14 & her father never around. She moved to San Francisco & singing was her way out. There was a hit record when she was just 17 & singing with the Peaches. There were solo successes too in the 1950s before the great Chess label signed her with big plans for her future. I don’t know if “crossover” was around in 1960 but that’s what the string-heavy, overwrought ballads Etta recorded were aimed to be. “At Last” is state of the art but a little too smooth. James had strong ideas about her own career path, she also had drug & alcohol issues. That volatility & power needed to get itself into the music. As we can see here she got it right when she let it all out in front of a big old funky band. The following year (1977) Chess sent Etta down to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. The “Tell Mama” LP made a soul singer out of her & enhanced an already assured reputation. There were some tough times before Etta James was able to enjoy the deserved recognition which came her way in her later life. She won her first Grammy in 1995. She’s a queen.

On “The !!!! Beat” it was not just those latest pop-soul hits. There are forgotten Texan groups covering Motown, there is even a pre-teen James Brown impersonator ! We have to stick with the classics though so…all together…” We may not have a cent to pay the rent but were gonna make it, I know we will”. “We’re Gonna Make It” a song of optimism, of love will get you through times of no money better than … by Little Milton that I have lived with & loved since 1965. James Milton Campbell Jr made records for over 50 years. In the 1960s he was with Chess & for much of the 70s with Stax. There’s a lot of music from this time & much of it is solid blues & soul. He was a big deal, there’s a village in Oxfordshire named after him.

The accepted wisdom is that by 1966 commercial African-American music was a Land Of A 1000 dances, Dancing In The Street. While  Motown & Stax-Atlantic artists were undoubtedly the most visible the R&B, Blues, even Doo Wop & Gospel traditions were not simply abandoned for fancy suits & synchronized choreography. “The !!!! Beat” looked modern & it was ahead of its’ time in that it was programming for a mainly black audience. What made it so great that it avoided the “look at me !” “you’re only as good as your last hit” shallowness of most contemporary pop shows. So we are lucky enough to see a wider spectrum of artists captured in what can be justifiably termed their glory. Praise Jah !