Jerry Ragovoy, who died last month, wrote “A Piece of My Heart” for Janis Joplin and “Time Is on My Side” for the Rolling Stones, channeling his Eastern European cantorial heritage to create soul classics
I’ve been asking the questions of musicians over the course of my quarter-century career as a music journalist. But the question I’ve regularly been asked by musicians on the other end of the phone—as well as by fans, industry people, and music geeks—has been, “Are you by any chance related to Jerry Ragovoy?”
The songwriter Jerry Ragovoy—who died last month at 80—was never as well known as contemporaries Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach, Gerry Goffin, and Doc Pomus. This was partly his own fault; early in his career he wrote songs under assumed names, including Norman Meade. (Growing up with a name like Rogovoy, I understand why.) Among real music-heads, however, Ragovoy ruled.
Ragovoy wrote two of the iconic soul ballads of the rock era—“Time Is on My Side,” which was made famous by the Rolling Stones, and “A Piece of My Heart,” which is forever identified with and often wrongly credited to Janis Joplin—but his greatest accomplishments lay outside the pop arena. Unlike his Brill Building contemporaries, most of whom churned out catchy, palatable versions of R&B music intended for white listeners, Ragovoy was a genuine soul man, working with black artists and writing, producing, and arranging hits for R&B singers who rarely crossed over to pop. A recent compilation album, The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is on My Side 1953-2003, put out by the U.K.-based Ace Records, includes two dozen recordings that bear his imprint and sounds like a secret history of soul music. There are few big-name performers on the recording; instead, these are the originals—the jazzy, Kai Winding version of “Time Is on My Side,” and the original, 1965 recording of Ragovoy’s “Good Lovin’ ” by the Olympics, which the Young Rascals would basically copy and ride to No. 1 the next year.
But mostly there are the Jerry Ragovoy signatures: gospel-inflected soul vocals, deft horn and string arrangements (presumably why well-known music geeks like Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Elvis Costello are such huge fans), an emphasis on groove over melody. Not that his melodies don’t have their own sweep, just that for Ragovoy, unlike for Burt Bacharach, melody seemed to be just another form of rhythm, but one no less effective in conveying transcendent emotion. Jerry had an uncanny ear for soulful vocalists, and he nurtured the likes of Garnet Mimms, who should be as well known as Sam Cooke; Lorraine Ellison, whose wail on “Stay With Me” could well have been the model for Joplin’s vocal on “A Piece of My Heart”; and Howard Tate, whose records made with Ragovoy influenced the “Philly sound” of the mid-1970s.
Jerry’s father, Nandor Ragovoy, and my grandfather, Joseph Rogovoy, were brothers, which made me Jerry’s first cousin once removed. (As for the disparity in the spelling of the last names, that’s simply a case of an immigration officer taking liberties upon arrival.) Jerry, named Jordan at birth, and my father, Lawrence Rogovoy, were born within six months of each other. I didn’t know Jerry well; our families were not close, partly because his family grew up in Philadelphia while the rest of the Rogovoy clan was in New York. But Jerry was also not particularly interested in maintaining relationships with his extended family. He explained to me in one of a few phone conversations we had over the last 20 years that he had a strained relationship with his father, who apparently was a difficult man (as was my grandfather). Breaking away from his family was top on his agenda as a teenager, and that in no small part propelled him into a career in music.
But I didn’t need to know Jerry well to understand at least some aspects of his life and personality. In photos from the 1960s, he bears a remarkable resemblance to my father. (My then-wife audibly gasped when she first saw a photo of Jerry, saying, “That’s your father.” They had strikingly similar bearings, bone structure, and even clothes.) If his father was anything like my grandfather, he was probably also a bigot—not unusual for men of their generation and background—and that could go far to explain why Jerry wound up going native, if you’ll pardon the expression, when he went into music.
As Jerry explained it, his first exposure to black music came when he got a job as a teenager in an appliance store in a black neighborhood. The store included a record department, which Jerry managed, and he played the latest R&B hits all the time. “That’s what I listened to all day long for four years,” he once told his friend, the rock legend Al Kooper. “And little by little, by osmosis, I absorbed the black musical idiom. I could well have been born black because, ultimately, it became a natural musical expression for me.”
While Jerry’s mother, Evelyn, apparently had a beautiful voice and, according to her son, could have been a professional opera singer, he didn’t know that he came from an extended musical family. His grandfather, Herman Rogovoy—my great-grandfather—was a cantor in Eastern Europe who settled in the Bronx, where he enjoyed a large local following and a reputation as a traveling concert performer. Jerry’s uncle Joseph—my grandfather—was a facile pianist who could bang out Rachmaninoff from memory.
These things sometimes apparently skip generations. My dad, perhaps due to severe hearing loss as a child, is somewhat tone deaf and became a CPA. He has no appreciation for music made after 1955. But as a young teenager I got stung by rock ’n’ roll—Bob Dylan in particular—and when it became clear to my father that I was obsessed with rock music, he remembered he had a cousin who was “in the music business” (although he knew nothing of the nature of his cousin’s work and accomplishments). The three of us had lunch in New York, where Jerry was based, in 1975.
We met at Jerry’s office, where he showed me his collection of keyboards, which included a Hohner Clavinet, a kind of proto-synthesizer used primarily by funk and R&B artists. Over lunch, my dad and Jerry caught up on family history, while I tried my best to pepper Jerry with questions about which rock stars he knew and what they were like. He was singularly unimpressed with them as a group, saying they weren’t that interesting and didn’t have much more to say beyond talking about what kind of guitar strings they used. Jerry was kind enough to offer to listen to a cassette recording I’d made of some songs I’d written—and merciful enough never to respond with his critique. After parting, my dad’s comment on the train back to Long Island was, “I didn’t expect to pay so much for a hamburger.”
It would be years before I’d have any contact with Jerry again. The next time came via a phone call from a mutual friend—a fellow songwriter of Jerry’s named Aaron Schroeder, who had written hit songs for Elvis Presley and Gene Pitney, among others. “Guess who I’m sitting with?” Aaron asked me when he called. “Your cousin Jerry. He wants to say hi.” We spoke briefly and agreed to renew our correspondence, which I was happy to do, given all that I had learned about Jerry in my work as a music journalist—much of it directly from musicians who had worked with him or were influenced by him.
“ ‘Rags.’ That’s what we called him,” Dionne Warwick told me when I interviewed her in advance of a one-woman show she was doing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. Jerry had produced an album of Warwick’s in 1974; along with Bonnie Raitt’s Streetlights, it was one of his highest profile efforts in the pop realm. While Warwick had only good things to say about her experience working with him, and while the album was a success for her, Jerry was quoted as saying, “I think it’s one of the worst albums I ever made in my whole life.”
If there remains a bit of a mystery about cousin Jerry, and how this son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants wound up creating some of the most affecting, hardest-hitting gospel-laced soul music of the 1960s, maybe the answer comes in reassessing what we mean by soul music. Jerry, remember, was the grandson of a cantor, and what is cantorial music if not soul music? Certainly if, as he suggested, he was imbued with the sound of R&B through osmosis, he also was primed for it by being born into a religious and family tradition that knew how to move people’s hearts and spirits through the keening wail of soulful song.
Seth Rogovoy, a music critic living in Great Barrington, Mass., is the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet and The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music.
Yiddish is far from dead. It’s undead, and it haunts everything from Harvey Pekar’s comics to the vampire literature of the early 20th century.