Jerry Blavat, 82, the fast talking Philadelphia disc jockey and impresario known as “The Geator with the Heater,” has died. His tireless promotion of pioneering Black artists of the 1950s and 1960s shaped the pop music culture of the city where he maintained an iconic presence for seven decades.
Mr. Blavat first came to fame as a dancer on the teen-targeted pop music television show Bandstand in the 1950s. Having learned to jitterbug watching his mother, aunts, and uncles dance to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey records — ”The Italians, when the radio was on, they would start to dance,” he said — he quickly established himself as one of the stars of the show, then hosted by Bob Horn.
Having heard Fat Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” — played by Black deejays like Jocko Henderson and George Woods on Philadelphia station WDAS — he advised Horn to play the originals, rather than the watered down versions sung by the likes of Pat Boone.
Little Richard later said of Blavat: “For a white boy, the Geator’s got too much soul. And can that boy dance! I remember doing his TV show and he jumps on the piano and starts to do The Slop … There’s only one Geator.”
He went on to make his mark as a band manager, record store and club owner, TV host, concert promoter, deejay, friend to the famous, and a living breathing, irreplaceable repository of Philadelphia music history.
Mr. Blavat’s death on Friday morning, at Jefferson-Methodist Hospital, was confirmed by his close friend A.J. Mattia and Keely Stahl, his companion of over 30 years. The cause of death was myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease, and other health problems.
» READ MORE: What is myasthenia gravis, the condition that contributed to Jerry Blavat’s death?
A family statement issued on Friday said: “Jerry proudly said, ‘Life is precious, and I am happy. And when I am happy, I want the world to be happy.’ … His love for Philadelphia only superseded his love of music. He was proud of this great city, and nothing made him prouder than the impact the music from Philadelphia made on the world.”
At the time of his death, he was still heard regularly on his own Geator Gold Radio network, and on his weekly Saturday night show on WXPN-FM (88.5), The Geator’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Rhythm and Blues Express.
In recent months he had curtailed his always-busy schedule, canceling appearances at his Margate, N.J. club, Memories, due to painful shoulder injuries. He also postponed his annual oldies all-star concert at the Kimmel Center, scheduled for Jan. 28.
Mr. Blavat — a genius self-promoter who also dubbed himself “The Boss with the Hot Sauce” — was supremely well connected in the music world and show business.
Artists like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin benefitted from his early support and remained loyal to him through the decades. He became friends with Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1950s and was best man at his wedding in 1970.
He served as Don Rickles’ valet, who introduced him to Frank Sinatra at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Sinatra nicknamed the skinny Blavat, “matchstick.” Later, he would grow fond of the ravioli Blavat’s mother would cook for him when he played Atlantic City.
Blavat’s memoir You Only Rock Once — whose title was shortened from one of his favorite sayings: “Keep on rockin’, because you only rock once!” — was published in 2011. Motown founder Berry Gordy, then, wrote of Blavat: “For all the artists, and all the others in the music business, you have been so important to all of us through the years.”
The Queen of Soul put it more succinctly: “I love the Geator!”
Mr. Blavat grew up in South Philadelphia, the son of a Jewish father known as Louis the Gimp who, as told in the memoir, operated an illegal bookmaking operation out of their Bancroft Street rowhouse. He had an Italian mother who went to work at the Navy Yard during World War II, where we was called “Lucy the Riveter.”
My mother taught me love,” Mr. Blavat told The Inquirer in 2011. “My father taught me the streets, the nightclubs, how to hustle.”
Mr. Blavat had excellent taste and preference for original versions of songs by authentic rhythm and blues acts — rather than the whitewashed version that were rerecorded by bland mainstream singers.
Blavat’s advocacy of authentic R&B impacted the sound of the music made in Philadelphia, where both Black and white music makers were shaped by soul music.
In 2019, when Todd Rundgren inducted The Hooters into the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame — where Blavat was inducted in 1993 — Rundgren said: “I tell people everywhere I go that I’m the product of the Philadelphia music scene. People ask me, what does that mean? I tell them it comes down to one thing: I grew up listening to the Geator. He played the music that would have been called race records at the time, the music that was made south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And that’s why so many white kids in Philly grew up wanting to sing R&B.”
Mr. Blavat spoke his own language, an embodiment of the tradition of hep cat deejays who were entertainers that kept up a steady stream of patter while hyping records on the air.
He filled the dance floor at venues like Memories with loyal fans that he called “yon teens” long after their teenage years were in the past. Old friends, acquaintances and strangers were greeted as “my man, pots and pans!”
Mr. Blavat came up with his nickname early on as a variation on “gator,” because his radio show would eat you up like an alligator.
In 1960, Dick Clark interviewed Mr. Blavat on the show and asked him, “What do you do sir?,” he replied “Geator with the Heater.” Clark then explained to the TV audience that Mr. Blavat was “the most prominent young people’s deejay in the city of Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.”
In the late 1950s, Mr. Blavat worked as road manager for the Philadelphia doo-wop group Danny & the Juniors, whose big hit was “At the Hop.” When he got off the road and returned to South Philly, he used $120 that he won in a dice game to buy time on Camden radio station WCAM-AM.
He then sold the time to advertisers to make a profit, which allowed him to use the airtime anyway he liked, thereby freeing him from the constraints of program directors.
He started with a talk show he hosted from the Venus Lounge in South Philly, in 1960. His first guest was Micky Mouse Club veteran and actress Annette Funicello. But during a snowstorm, he took over the WCAM airwaves in Camden and started playing records.
“I took all my rock and roll records,” Mr. Blavat remembered in 2021 in an interview with the National Association of Music Merchants, “and I started to play Little Richard, Frankie Lymon, the Cleftones, Earl Lewis and the Channels, my buddy Earl Carroll & the Cadillacs. And these kids, who were off from school, were hearing this music, which were my oldies, but were new to them. … And that’s how it began.”
Mr. Blavat was involved in many aspects of the music business in Philadelphia. In the 1960s he was a partner in the Lost Nite and Crimson Record labels, and co-owned the local chain, the Record Museum. From 1965 to 1967, after Dick Clark and Bandstand left for Los Angeles, he hosted a teen-targeted Philadelphia music show called The Discophonic Scene.
“Expressway To Your Heart,” the Soul Survivors song written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff that was the duo’s first top five pop hit, came out on Crimson.
On Friday, Gamble and Huff said in a statement: “We are very sadden by the passing of our very dear and long time friend Jerry Blavat. Jerry was not only a legendary radio personality here in Philadelphia but was known to always promote Philly music and its rich history around the world.” ”.
His influence in turning songs into first regional and then national hits was powerful. In 1962, he broke Dionne Warwick’s first single “Don’t Make Me Over” and invited her to a record hop in Mt. Ephaim, N.J. to make her first public appearance.
On Friday, Warwick wrote on Twitter: My heart is heavy as I post this. My true champion Jerry Blavat the “geator” made his transition! From the beginning of my recording career he kept my music playing on his radio show. My prayer is that he will now truly Rest in Peace.” She will be delivering a eulogy at Mr. Blavat’s funeral on Jan. 28.
“His passion for music and dancing was so authentic and sincere,” said Ben Vaughn, the musician and radio host whose show precedes Mr. Blavat’s on WXPN on Saturday.
“People from the Delaware Valley have a knowledge of music that is different than anywhere else in the country,” Vaughn said. “We have hundreds of obscure doo wop and soul tunes stuck in out heads that no one outside of our area ever heard of. …And it’s because of one man… Jerry Blavat.”
Mr. Blavat’s name was frequently mentioned in stories about organized crime. He was eating dinner with alleged mobster Chelsais Bouras in a South Philly restaurant when Bouras was gunned down, in 1981. His connections with the Nicodemo Scarfo-Angelo Bruno were investigated by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, and he took the 5th amendment when called to testify.
He was open about the association with Bruno. “They were family to me,” Mr. Blavat told The Inquirer in 2011. “Ange’s wife was from the same Italian town as my mother’s family. Angelo had a grocery store where we grew up.” But he denied that he was ever part of the Philly mob.
Along with filling the dance floor at Memories, Mr. Blavat maintained his Geator Gold Radio network for decades and could often be seen looking spry, riding his bike to his office and studio on east Market Street.
But by the mid-00′s, he was a legend without a gig on a commercial radio station. Bruce Warren of WXPN-FM (88.5) brought him in to do a one hour Saturday night show that ran for 17 years. (The station will play five hours of Blavat shows starting at 2 p.m. Saturday, and plans to continue running his show at 6 p.m. on Saturday for the foreseeable future.)
“You think about all the great deejays that were unique to Philly like George Michael and Ed Sciaky and Butterball and Jocko,” said Warren, WXPN’s program director, referring to the late legends Joe Tamburro and Jocko Henderson. “The Geator is link to all that.”
In 1998 Mr. Blavat was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Museum of Radio and Records, and the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame in 2002.
He is survived by his companion Stahl, daughters Kathi Furia (Robert), Geraldine Blavat, Stacy Braglia, and Deserie Downey, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
A funeral mass will be held at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Saturday Jan. 28. A viewing will begin at 9 a.m. and mass is at 11:30. In lieu of flowers, donations are being accepted by Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, Jerry Blavat Endowed Fund, kimmelculturalcampus.org.
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