January 27, 2017
There was a fateful dinner, years ago, where Jerry Blavat was sitting across from Madonna. It might come as a surprise to a couple square CNN anchors, but Madonna was dropping F-bombs left and right that night. It was a circumstance that barely distracted Blavat from the thought: “What the hell am I doing here? How did a little cockroach kid from South Philadelphia, with no formal education, overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to earn a place at this table?”
From his hardscrabble childhood to his teenage years dancing on a bandstand and making a name for himself in the music industry, Blavat has the kind of life story slated to be made into a motion picture (something that is actually in the works right now).
We caught up with him to ask some questions about the show at the Kimmel Center on Saturday.
“It’s a very unique show. This show is a gospel, soul and doo-wop reunion.
So we have the Dixie Hummingbirds – who are legendary – they started out in this city in the 1940s. We have Eddie Holman, whose voice is incredible, with ‘Hey There Lonely Girl,’ and we have the Stylistics with ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New,’ The Chi-Lites who did ‘Have You Seen Her?’ We have Ladd Vance and Johnny Gale for A Celebration of Kenny Vance and the Planotones, Dee Dee Sharp and Mashed Potatoes, and the Tokens, who did, ‘A Lion Sleeps Tonight.’
It’s been a thrill for me to be able to present this music at the concert hall. And the other thing is that all of these artists are backed by a 30-piece orchestra. What I do is get my musical arranger, Mike McCourt, and we get the original records and arrange it, so you close your eyes and you hear the same thing you heard as a kid, but now with strings, percussion, violins. It’s an amazing experience."
What is it about Philadelphia that gives it such great musical culture?
“Philadelphia is a very special place. I’ve had opportunities to go elsewhere, but I’ve never left here. This is where I have the roots of where I began. The neighborhoods, the people, the music that was so very important to them. Back then, we didn’t have a lot of money. You’d listen to the Geator on the radio and you would spend a dollar and go to the dances. Two thousand kids at Shay-Boo. This music represents kids that – when they didn’t know how to express themselves – they would listen to the music of the Geator. They would call me up and say, ‘I met a girl last night. Can you play ‘I Only Have Eyes For You?’ And then the girl would call me up and she would say, ‘Please play, ‘You Belong To Me.’"
So, was it like the old-school version of “Missed Connections”?
Is there anything out there today that you think compares to that vibe?
“I really don’t think so. These artists represent class and style and discipline to their art. When we have a show at 7:30 [p.m.], they’re in the dressing room at 7 [p.m.]. – ready to go. They’re dressed. They’re doing their steps. They’re doing their harmony. Some of these acts out there now, the show is at 8 o’clock, they don’t get on stage till 10 o’clock. That’s not the show business I’m about.
“This show is the real deal. I only wish that the artists out there today understood that they have an obligation to the audience that made them successful. The gift of artistry is a gift from God and they should not abuse it. Never forget the audience that makes you a star.”
Are there any artists you introduced that you wished people remembered more?
“Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels. The Moonglows. Curtis Mayfield when he was with the Impressions.”
What influenced your stage persona?
“No question about it. When I was a valet for Don Rickles – when I was dancing on bandstand and I met Sammy Davis and we became lifelong friends. These people influenced me – Sammy, Don, Frankie Lymon. At an early age, I became the road manager to Danny and the Juniors, before I even got on the radio. I worked with Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. So when I went on the radio, I wasn’t just a disc jockey playing their music. I was a friend. These people influenced my life as a performer.”