‘Backroom boys’ - and girls for that matter - often fail to get the recognition they deserve in the music industry, especially those that worked in the classic soul era, where the vocalists were the ones on whom the accolades were bestowed. Ace Records are seeking to do something towards redressing the balance and, following volume one of the Bert Berns’ Story, is their tribute to the sometime partner of Berns, Jerry Ragovoy. (Al Kooper refers to them as “...the white kings of soul music”.) Berns died young, but Ragovoy’s words form a major contribution to the track run-down in the CD notes. He comments “Artists usually get the glory which, for the most part, they deserve and the producer stays in the background.” He also stated: “With every singer I’ve ever worked with, I was like Hitler when it came to vocals. Every time I produce something, it’s as if I’m still trying to prove myself. Every note, every song, every project that I immerse myself in, whether it’s an arrangement or whatever, all of it is a unique challenge.” Ragovoy, whether as producer, arranger, songwriter or just piano player rarely achieved less than perfection, as the twenty-four shining examples here bear witness.
The Castelles’ My Girl Awaits Me takes us right back to 1953. Ragovoy had grown up listening to classical and big-band music, taught himself to play piano, written his first song aged eight and spent four years in an electrical appliance store in a black neighbourhood, whose record department allowed him to become steeped in ‘race’ music. The store owner and Ragovoy started Grand Records to release the Castelles, Jerry’s first time at the production helm. Listening to this track fifty-five years later, his ear for getting the very best out of a vocalist was evident then, reinforced by 21-year-old Ragovoy’s big soul-ballad arrangement of Disappointed, Claudine Clark’s flip to her hit Party Lights, really showcasing her potential.
After working with Chancellor Records out of Philly, Ragovoy moved to New York, where he had placed his first big hit, the Majors’ A Wonderful Dream with Imperial Records. He began associations with companies such as Liberty/UA and Warner Bros and got to work with some of the great vocalists of soul. Cry Baby by Garnet Mimms and Lorraine Ellison’s Stay With Me are the stuff of legends. The original of Time Is On My Side is here, with the trumpet of Kai Winding providing the then unwritten verses and sitting atop backing vocals provided by the Warwicks and Cissy Houston. Not Irma Thomas’ baby then but Jerry did get to work with her later. Former gospel singer Carl Hall shows just where he cut his chops on two selections; jazz songstress Pat Thomas glides effortlessly over the Baby Washington vehicle, I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face and Estelle Brown gets the spotlight for the fine You Got Just What You Asked For, co-written by Norman Meade, just one of Ragovoy’s past songwriting aliases.
Ragovoy’s involvement in Miriam Makeba’s classic Pata Pata recording was a surprise to me, but not the distinctive partnership between him and Howard Tate. Although 23 of the 24 recordings within the ‘story’ here span the two-and-a-half decades between 1953 and 1978, the last one is from 2003. “We...decided that we were too good of a team not to do some more music for the world to enjoy,” Tate said. This CD ends superbly with the stripped-down remake of Tate’s 1967 outing, Get It While You Can. Just Tate’s vocals, Ragovoy’s piano... and a mountain of soul. So little has been written about Jerry Ragovoy over the years and, even now he seems content to talk more about the music than about himself. Well, if it’s the music that has to speak for him, it will say “This is a grand master”.
By David Cole
Editor of In The Basement magazine