Friday, February 12, 2010

Flashback Friday: Jerry Ragovoy

When Reprise sent Miriam Makeba into the studio around 1966/67, "Pata Pata" was not what they were expecting. They had commissioned an album of American pop songs, and to get the job done they tapped the reliable Jerry Ragovoy as producer. But before heading into the studio, Ragovoy went to see Makeba perform, and he decided that he was more interested in recording the traditional South African music that made up her live show. The result was the Pata Pata LP, including the hit title track, which Ragovoy not only produced but co-wrote.

"Pata Pata" was a bit of a stylistic anomaly for Ragovoy, but it isn't much of a surprise given his incredible range and flexibility as a composer, arranger and producer. During his prime in the 1960s and '70s, Ragovoy demonstrated fluency in pop, rock, doo wop, soul, R&B, gospel and funk, and often blurred the lines between them.

Growing up in 1940s and '50s Philadelphia, Jordan "Jerry" Ragovoy was steeped in "race music" – gospel, soul, blues and R&B. He was a classically trained pianist but got his start in the music business as an entrepreneurial producer. Noticing talent in some local youths singing outside of the appliance shop where he was working, a teenage Ragovoy asked if he could record them. To put the record out, he started his own label with the shop's owner.

He soon discovered that he also had a knack for arrangement, and by the early '60s Ragovoy was churning out a steady stream of successful singles, many of which would later be re-recorded and explode as signature hits for other artists. He co-wrote and/or produced the original versions of "Time Is On My Side" (The Rolling Stones), "Cry Baby" and "Piece of My Heart" (Janis Joplin), and "Good Lovin'" (The Young Rascals).

In 2008, the UK label Ace put out a career-spanning compilation of Ragovoy's work. The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is On My Side includes rarities as well as hits, all with excellent sound quality, and liner notes written by Ragovoy himself.

The compilation kicks off with Lorraine Ellison's soulful ballad "Stay with Me." Legend has it that when Frank Sinatra canceled a studio booking at the last minute, Ragovoy found himself with free studio time and a full orchestra – and only a few days to put the song together. He completed the arrangement and made the powerful recording in one take.

Lorraine Ellison - Stay with Me [mp3] - (Amazon)

Carl Hall's "You Don't Know Nothing About Love" is a gut-wrenching (and slightly androgynous) declaration of heartbreak from a broken man, once again co-written, arranged and produced by Ragovoy. Introduced by a low, wavering organ line, Hall tells of the consequences of his self-destructive love, for purposes of catharsis and, finally, as a cautionary tale: "One day my friend, it's gonna be your turn... Then, and only then, will you know just what I'm talking about." The track didn't make much of a dent in the charts, possibly because it's depressing as hell.

Ragovoy continued producing regularly through the '70s and, ever the entrepreneur, founded the Hit Factory, the aptly named recording studio complex in New York City, now unfortunately a condominium building. When the Ace compilation came out, NPR's "Fresh Air" did a nice profile on him, including excerpts from some of his landmark recordings.

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