Review: “You Only Rock Once” – Book
Radio was once exciting believe it or not. DJ’s actually chose their own music (what a novel idea!). In Philadelphia, before progressive FM pioneers like Ed Sciaky and Michael Tearson, there was (and still is) AM maverick Jerry Blavat, who has refused to take any radio job where he can’t play whatever he wants. If you grew up in the Philly area and listened to “oldies” music Blavat (“The Geator With The Heater”) is a household name. Outside of Philly, while fondly recalled by many in the music industry, he is largely a treasure waiting to be discovered.
Now with the release of his new autobiography “You Only Rock Once” (written with talented novelist and playwright Steve Oskie) the chatty and durable Blavat, 71, can be appreciated in a whole new context. The book deftly chronicles an entrepreneurial relentlessness beginning with the 13-year old Blavat hustling his way onto the 1950s TV show Bandstand as a dancer. He soon received a quick promotion to a consulting music programmer for the show. Record hops, radio, nightclubs (Blavat owns and still performs at Memories in Margate, New Jersey and has a weekly schedule of appearances that would tire a man 50 years younger), and syndicated TV would follow.
Blavat brashly and with great detail (the book’s index is phonebook-sized) lays it all on the line. Here’s his description of a meeting Blavat set up for Bob Crewe, producer of The Four Seasons, whose brand new song “Sherry” Blavat had just heard and loved. Taking Crewe and the song and a battery-operated turntable to Ewart Abner of Vee-Jay Records, a black label, Blavat writes:
“I could see Abner was a little hesitant. He turned to me and said, ‘Geator, this is a white group. We’re a black label. We don’t have any white artists.” I said,
‘What the fuck does color have to do with a hit record?’
‘As much as I like the song,’ Abner said, “I don’t know if we can break it. The black stations might not play it.’
‘Ab, it’s a hit record. I’ll tell you what. I’ll take it back to Philly and prove it to you.’
Blavat went on to play “Sherry” two or three times a night on his radio show. Listener requests for the unreleased song soon forced Abner to reconsider, and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons soon became one of the most popular groups of the early 60s. The integrity of Blavat’s musical color blindness prevailed throughout his career, beginning when he was a teenager on Bandstand and refused to play candy-assed white cover versions of black recordings as was the prevailing norm.
Blavat also went on to break wide open at least two more dormant recordings that went on to become hit records. He was the first to play demos of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” and Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over,” forcing reluctant label honchos to take both future smashes seriously enough to release them.
The book has even juicier stories about his precocious sexual encounters. Blavat’s self-aggrandizing tone also shows little mercy in describing both his friendships and brief encounters with celebrities, but you’d brag too if your list included Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles, Frank Sinatra, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Charlton Heston, Bobby Darin, Robert Blake, Phil Spector, and mob boss Angelo Bruno. Oops! That last one caused The Geator a heap of trouble, probably costing him the gig as host for what became “Dancing On Air. ” Even though no illegal activity was ever connected to Blavat, the association cost him years of law enforcement scrutiny. He explains it as being ever loyal to old friends from the neighborhood. Blavat’s own Dad was a small-time hood from South Philly who would take bets on everything down to “whether a pothole would get repaired.”
The book’s first two chapters splendidly recall an upbringing with a Jewish Dad and an Italian Mom during a time when ethnic loyalties trumped mutual compassion. The personal anecdotes are often wild and crazy. There’s wining and dining Philly priests in NYC while he’s still a teenager running profitable record hops that needed rescuing from a loud minority of protesting parents. There’s the nuns in Blavat’s Overbrook swimming pool (Cardinal Krol was a next door neighbor). Later Blavat’s wife Pattie would throw all his clothes in the same pool after locking him out. Then there’s Blavat locking down Memories when Chuck Berry’s guitar goes missing until, Blavat instructs, someone better leave it in the men’s room (someone eventually did). Early on, Blavat leads pickets in front of the studios of Bandstand in protest of the imminent replacement of host Bob Horn with Dick Clark (Clark wrote the forward for You Only Rock Once). Finally, there was one memorable record hop over in South Jersey. Blavat describes it:
“Dick Clark talked it up on the local portion of American Bandstand and I mentioned it on WCAM…Although we expected a good turnout, we were unprepared for the mayhem we caused. Teenagers from all over the area descended on The Steer Inn, clogging traffic on Route 130 and the Ben Franklin Bridge…Camden Police had to shut down the Admiral Wilson Boulevard…Although I set attendance records at many of my record hops, I had never closed down a highway before.”
Before Woodstock, there was Jerry Blavat. Both closed down a highway and opened up a whole lot more.