Interview: Steve Oskie, co-writer of “You Only Rock Once”

If you grew up in or around Philadelphia and especially if you are old enough to remember Dick Clark and Bandstand, you’ll know the name Jerry Blavat. Still going strong with DJ appearances and concert promotions, Blavat, 71, was the Mick Jaggar to Dick Clark’s Paul McCartney. A renegade who refused to work for any radio station that dictated what to play, Blavat’s story is brilliantly recounted in his new autobiography, You Only Rock Once (Running Press). The following interview with Blavat’s cowriter, Steve Oskie, sheds light on the book’s genesis and development, beginning with Oskie’s brazen initiative to propel the project. Oskie is a Philadelphia-based screenwriter, novelist and playwright.

You’ve written a novel and several plays and screenplays. How did that prepare you for this undertaking?
When it comes to my writing – and my strong desire to make a living as a writer and gain recognition for my work – I’ve been pushing a rock up a hill for close to forty years. All of the books and stories I’ve read and written – all of my failures, near misses, and modest successes – gave me a strong sense of just how great an opportunity the Blavat project was. As a result, I wrote with energy, determination, and a sense of purpose.
I’ve been a competent writer for some time now, but what I really needed was a subject. Unfortunately, it took me a couple of decades to realize it, and a couple more to find one. In Jerry, I hit the mother lode. His life story is a writer’s dream.

I’ve never been talented enough to invent a literary character that is half as interesting as Jerry. His story has everything: sex at an early age, brushes with the law, courtroom dramas, and close friendships with some of the biggest celebrities of our time. In terms of the mechanics of writing, the Blavat project falls into the category of creative non-fiction, and a long manuscript I produced – The Madness of Art – helped me to find my voice in that genre. The decade I spent as a resume writer helped me also – as in resume writing, my job was to help Jerry tell his story as persuasively as I could, and to get his version of the facts out there.

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Samuel Johnson. He said, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book,” and you can probably modernize it by saying something about the movies we see also. The more I learned about Jerry, the more reminiscent his life seemed of Good Fellas by Nicholas Pileggi and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I never consciously attempted to write like Bellow (an impossible task, given my skill level), but I thought that Jerry’s childhood and adolescence could have the same kind of feel as Bellow’s story of a tough, precocious kid growing up on the streets of Chicago.

How did the idea to collaborate on an autobiography with the Geator come about?
Stay with me here, because the beginning of my answer might be a little startling. My previous project was a screenplay about the Philadelphia serial killer, Gary Heidnik. Needless to say, there are absolutely no similarities between the two men, but after writing the screenplay, I realized how much I enjoyed working from the starting point of a real life subject and allowing my imagination to fill in the blanks and go in whatever direction I was pulled by the subject matter. My Heidnik screenplay – Dead Meat – was never intended to be a fact-by-fact biography of Heidnik. Instead, I wanted to use Heidnik’s life as a basis for my exploration. That’s why – for dramatic purposes – I “executed” Heidnik on the electric chair when he was actually removed from society by a lethal injection. (In reality, the last time an electric chair was used in Pennsylvania was in 1962, decades before Heidnik was administered the injection.)

While considering my next move as a writer, I knew I wanted to write another screenplay, and so I looked around for a subject. Having recently read a biography of Jimi Hendrix, most of the ideas I developed and rejected were musical in nature. At one point, I thought about writing a screenplay about Billie Stewart, whose hits included “Summertime” and “Sitting In the Park Waiting for You.” But I was unable to find enough background material to gain any traction.

Somewhere along the way, I read something about Jerry Blavat – that his father was a bookmaker and that he was a close friend of Angelo Bruno, and those two things intrigued me. (I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Jewish iconoclasts who reject the conventional notion of becoming a doctor or lawyer.) And the more I read about Jerry and learned about the incredible influence he’s had on popular music, my excitement for the project grew.

How did you meet Jerry?
I introduced myself to him prior to one of his appearances at the Parx Casino, after visiting his website and finding out his schedule. At the time, I had no way of knowing how fortunate my timing actually was.

Jerry had been approached by a number of writers over the years to tell his life story, including Nicholas Pileggi. But his life has been one of constant motion, and until recently he had never slowed down long enough to commit himself to the project. The closest he had come was when Pileggi approached him in 2004 and stated that if Jerry got his life story down on paper, he would be interested in developing the project as a film. Shortly after that, Jerry bought a tape recorder and taped approximately twenty pages of notes.

Between his radio shows and live appearances, he never found the time to continue the project, and the notes remained in a drawer of his desk at Geator Gold Radio until March, 2009 when I stopped him on the escalator at Parx and asked for a minute of his time.

“Jerry,” I said, “did you ever get the Pileggi project off the ground?”

He looked at me suspiciously. “How did you know about that?”

“I read about it in Philadelphia magazine.”

“Naa. I have a few pages of notes, but that’s about it.”

The day before, my heart sank when I read in Philadelphia magazine that Pileggi had already approached him. After all, there was no way I could compete with Pileggi’s heavy duty accomplishments. But there was an opening for me if I could help Jerry get his life story on paper. The only thing for me to do was turn my attention away from writing a screenplay and pin my hopes on ghost-writing his autobiography.

“I can help you with that,” I said.

“Do you have a business card?”

I handed him a manila envelope and said, “It’s in there. I also gave you a copy of my novel and a screenplay I wrote about Gary Heidnik.”

“I gotta go,” he said. “I’ll check it out.”

“I hope to hear from you.”

Jerry didn’t call me, and a week later, I called him. Because of the delicate nature of some of the material in his life story, he didn’t immediately accept my offer, but with his 50th anniversary in show business fast approaching, he felt that the time might be right for him to get his story down on paper.

Over the next few weeks, Jerry and I discussed the possibility of our working together. He introduced me to some of his friends, including the singer, Al Martino, and I believe he grew comfortable with how I was handling myself. Two or three weeks later, he decided to give me a shot.
On March 30, 2009, we sat down for our first interview session. For the remainder of the year, we got together once or twice a week. I came prepared with questions but gave Jerry plenty of room to tell his story in his own words. We had the interviews transcribed and I created the narrative for us; and then Jerry reviewed what I had written word for word, line by line, and paragraph by paragraph until he was satisfied with our revisions. Throughout the process, Jerry continued to remind me that he was a street kid, and that he thought, acted, and expressed himself like one. If I got too cerebral or high-brow, Jerry was quick to jump on it, and we found a better way to express what we were after. Just by Jerry being himself and telling his story in his own words, I got a strong sense of him, and eventually, I believe we found our way to a narrative that is readable and captures the essence of who he is, how he looks at life, and what’s important to him – namely, friendship, loyalty, music, and making people happy.

Are you a big oldies fan?
I wasn’t familiar with the old street corner harmony groups that Jerry spoke about in the book, but my older brother turned me on to Motown in the 60s and I’ve loved those records ever since. Mostly, though, I was one of the people that Jerry is speaking to on his weekly radio show on WXPN, when he draws a distinction between often-lame cover versions and the originals. Just last week, I was reminded of it when listening to Jerry’s show. I thought Bobby Vinton was the only one who sang “Blue Velvet.” I had no idea that Tony Bennett had recorded it originally and that the Clovers had done a cover version as well.

Also on the subject of oldies – if this counts for anything – I made a fool of myself more times than I care to remember on the dance floor of Grendel’s Lair on South Street. Every Wednesday for two or three years in the late 70s and early 80s, they had “oldies night,” and I would get tanked up on screwdrivers and drown the fact that I was totally uncoordinated.

What’s the earliest recollection you have of Blavat?
I grew up in Harrisburg and didn’t move to Philadelphia until 1970, but I seem to recall that we were aware of his radio and television shows and the compilation albums he was putting out. Once I moved to Philadelphia for high school, his name came up more often. When Jerry and I were writing the book, he gave me some DVDs of his old TV shows and his compilation CD, “The Lovers’ Hour.” The photographs on those products seemed to ring a bell somewhere in the recesses of my mind, so I believe I was aware of him by the mid-60s.

How did the project evolve along the way?
The biggest challenge we faced was Jerry’s difficulty in carving out time from his unbelievable schedule. We met in the mornings once or twice a week for anywhere for 2 to 4 hours, and then I would email the digital files to Keely Stahl, who would transcribe them. So not only would Jerry have to make time for the interviews, he had to make time for reading over what I had written and making revisions. We both made the commitment, though, and hung in there until the manuscript was finished.

Did it ever look like it wasn’t coming together?
I would say no. I wrote fairly quickly, producing a book-length manuscript in about nine months, but there was a month-long delay in Jerry’s responding to and completing the last chapter in January, 2010 when he was preparing for a show at the Kimmel Center. As far as I know, Jerry books the acts for those shows, negotiates with them, and handles thousands of details, from putting together a backup band to overseeing the creation of musical charts. Jerry knew how eager I was to finish, but I said, “I won’t push you,” and he said in no uncertain terms, “No, you can’t push me. We’ll get it done.” (One of the main reasons I had confidence that we would bring the project to fruition is that Jerry seemed to enjoy the process of reminiscing and making sense of his personal history, just as I enjoyed the writing.)

Was the Geator amusing to work with?
Jerry is a natural born story-teller. His power of recall is amazing, and he has an artist’s eye for the little details that are important. Throughout his career, he’s exhibited incredible instincts for what will and will not be interesting to his audience, and he exhibited that quality in this project. Jerry’s instincts for editing the manuscript were also very sharp, and he would borrow a phrase from his good friend, Freddy DeMann, when red-penciling one of my more extravagant flights of fancy. “No, Steve, cut to the chase.” (On another occasion, when I attempted to embellish a passage about Don Rickles introducing Jerry to Frank Sinatra in Atlantic City, I had Jerry and his mentor Nat Segall riding in a “rolling chair” on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Jerry put an end to it very quickly, saying, “Rickles is a friend of mine. That never happened. He’ll know it’s bullshit.”)

During my interviews with Jerry, his cell phone would ring repeatedly, and it could be anyone from a relative of Sammy Davis, Jr’s wife or Jay Black of Jay and the Americans. I’m not so jaded that I wasn’t a little star-struck by some of that.

What anecdote or revelation surprised you the most?
There were a number of them: Jerry “winning” his first radio show in a craps game; Jerry meeting the old rabbi who circumcised him 25 years before after his father got shot in the leg and they wound up in an emergency room together; the fact that his neighbor in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia was Cardinal Krol, the highest ranking Catholic in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who proceeded to drive errant golf balls into Jerry’s swimming pool; Jerry allowing his television contract to expire after a film producer referred to him as “the next Dustin Hoffman.” Having done my homework before I introduced myself to Jerry, I knew about his presence during the assassination of the reputed Mob boss, Steve Bouras, but I never knew about some of the less spectacular twists and turns in his story until he revealed them to me.

Did anything arising out of your input give the Geator pause?
There were a few instances in which he was reluctant to move forward with certain passages in the book once he saw them in black and white. He never shied away from making himself look bad, but there were people that he didn’t want to hurt or compromise in any way. He would ask me if certain things were really necessary and allow me to say my piece, and then he would make the executive decision on whether or not they would see the light of day. I respected him for it, and it allowed us to work together harmoniously.

What was the greatest difficulty with the project?
I guess I already answered that one. The biggest challenge was Jerry’s schedule.

How would you describe the Geator off-stage?
Jerry made it clear to me early on that his word is gold and that he lives by a code of honor. I can see that in his interactions with other people. He points out that his sense of loyalty arose from the streets., and that rings true for me as well. There is nothing phony about his desire to make people happy. Our interviews were constantly interrupted by people coming up to him to say hello or shake his hand, and it never felt like he considered it an imposition. That’s why we ended the book with Jerry putting a smile on someone’s face in circumstances just like that.

What is your next project?
I’ve always felt that Jerry’s life story would lend itself to a two-hour feature film or a multi-part drama for HBO or another premium cable channel. I’ve been working on a script, but Jerry hasn’t had a chance to read it. Right now, the need to promote the book has coincided with the summertime, the busiest time of his year. I’m confident that he’ll read the script when he can. In the meantime, while I’m writing it, I’m hoping that the book will do well, and that it will enable me to find an agent, a publisher for my novel, and producers for my two previous screenplays.

Will you collaborate on another autobiography?
Working with Jerry has been a terrific experience, but he’s a tough act to follow. I’m hoping that the next few months will provide me with some attractive options to consider.

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