Get It While You Can
Not long ago, Billboard reported that rocker Melissa Etheridge was negotiating to star in a Janis Joplin film biography. Reading the Billboard announcement, something caught my eye: The company producing the film reportedly agreed to pay $1.1 million for the rights to use "Piece of My Heart," which Joplin recorded on Cheap Thrills. The licensing fee, the story said, "is believed to be one of the richest ever offered for the movie rights to a song."
I'd been thinking about Joplin because of the House of Blues's new collection Songs of Janis Joplin: Blues Down Deep. HOB's idea seems to have been to get a bunch of soul, blues and folk artists and have them interpret "Joplin's" songs -- never taking into consideration, apparently, that the best of Joplin's songs were black blues and soul recordings to begin with: Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," Garnet Mimms's "Cry Baby" and "My Baby," Howard Tate's "Get It While You Can" and Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain."
The HOB people also don't seem to realize that most of "Joplin's" songs can also be credited to one of the men given a windfall by the hopeful makers of the Joplin bio-pic: Jerry Ragavoy, co-author with Bert Berns of "Piece of My Heart." I'd been seeing Ragavoy's name here and there for years, but I didn't really think about him until I imagined someone opening the mail and finding a check for $550,000. So I pulled some CDs off my shelves and started checking song-writing and arranging credits.
What I found was that Ragavoy not only co-wrote "Piece of My Heart," he also co-wrote "Cry Baby," "My Baby" and "Get It While You Can" -- which means he had a hand in many of Joplin's best-known tunes. Ragavoy also penned "Time Is on My Side," perhaps the best-ever cut by soul diva Irma Thomas. This is more than just a portfolio of somewhat obscure songs. For one thing, I'd always taken these to be quintessentially black compositions, steeped in the church. And in almost every instance, the artists who recorded them reached the pinnacle of their careers with a song Ragavoy had a part in composing, arranging or both. I'd been thinking of Joplin as a pseudo-mama who passed off black music to hippies, and then I discovered another layer: Beneath the not-so-secret black heart of American song, there was a Jewish boy from Philadelphia pulling levers.
Born in 1930, Ragavoy grew up listening to classical music. His life changed course just after high school, when he got a job at an appliance store in a black west Philadelphia neighborhood. In those days -- this was 1948 -- appliance stores often sold 78 rpm records, and salespeople played the latest product for customers. For the next five years, Ragavoy listened to black gospel groups such as the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones and the Caravans; R&B greats Charles Brown and Amos Milburn; and gutbucket bluesman John Lee Hooker, who became his touchstone. He soaked it all up, he says, speaking from his home near Atlanta, and "it came out as a natural part of my musical expression."
The first recording he produced, "My Girl Awaits Me" by the Castelles, in 1953, was his first hit. Ragavoy says it sold 100,000 copies. He moved on to a gofer's job at Chancellor Records, a label that boasted Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Then he discovered the Majors, another vocal group, and while he claims he hated doo-wop, he wrote "A Wonderful Dream" for them under the pseudonym Norman Meade. He was saving his own name, he says, for works he planned to write for Broadway.
"Norman Meade" had a hot hand. "A Wonderful Dream" hit number 23 on the pop charts in 1962. By the time it came out, Ragavoy had already moved to New York. When the record charted, he quit his job plugging songs for a publishing company and has been on his own ever since. He had met another songwriter at Chancellor, Bert Berns, and the two began collaborating. In 1963, on a trip back to Philadelphia, Ragavoy met Garnet Mimms, a former gospel singer. "Cry Baby," written with Berns, was the first side Ragavoy cut with Mimms. It sold, he says, a million and a half copies.
Some have argued that "Cry Baby" was the first true soul song, marking the place where the black church first bled over into pop music. With Mimms's spoken interlude and the female backing group Sweet Inspirations welling behind him, it sounds like Sunday morning. When I ask whether that was something Mimms contributed, Ragavoy loses his patience.
One day shortly after "Cry Baby" hit, Ragavoy's phone rang. A friend of his, an arranger, was making a recording with jazz trombonist Kai Winding and wondered whether Ragavoy had any good songs lying around. He promised to take a look, and then in an hour, he says, he wrote "Time Is on My Side." It didn't do anything for Winding, but then Irma Thomas recorded it, and her version began inching up the charts -- until, that is, England's newest hit makers bumped her off.
"The next thing I know, I get a call from a publisher in England," Ragavoy told Goldmine last year. "They said they wanted to cut it with a group called the Rolling Stones, who I'd never heard of. Next thing I know, it's out and it's their first hit in this country. I was amazed, 'cause they had sent me a copy four months before, and I listened to it and thought, 'What on earth is this piece of shit?' That's exactly what I thought. 'Man, I'm glad I got my $1,500!' Took me awhile to get used to the Stones ... a coupla years, actually."
After Ragavoy's success with Mimms and "Time," jobs followed with Howard Tate, a former member of one of Mimms's groups. The song Ragavoy wrote for Tate with Mort Shuman, "Get It While You Can," may be the greatest soul song performance you never heard -- inexplicably, it never dented the charts when it was released in 1967. The same is true for "Stay with Me," a song Ragavoy co-wrote for Lorraine Ellison; it stalled at No. 64 on the pop chart.
Ragavoy, collaborating with Berns, had more success with Aretha Franklin's sister Erma in 1967 when they cut "Piece of My Heart." Erma Franklin never shone quite that way again, but for two minutes and 40 seconds she was immersed in an exquisitely delicate yet powerful anthem. Her pauses alone are sublime. When Janis Joplin took a run at the same song several months later, backed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, she got bogged down.
"There's a very simplistic explanation," Ragavoy says. "Erma's record is performed by studio musicians who are just incredible, combined with the fact you have great background singers, great everything, period. There is not a wasted quarter note -- it all means something. As opposed to Big Brother, [who were] lame musicians for the most part. Half these records are made because they think it's a fucking party. Big Brother, you hear it, it's raw, it's sloppy, and even though it was a hit, it's really a shame -- although [Joplin] sure sang the hell out of it.
"Janis was largely influenced by R&B, but my own personal opinion about that particular time in musical history is, there were a lot of white singers who loved R&B and tried to imitate it, and they made this terrible mistake of thinking if you sing loud and shout, that's soul. All you have to do is listen to Marvin Gaye, or Hooker, for that matter, and you know that's not true. Janis was not the only one -- there were lots of singers, male and female, who felt they were obliged to scream until the veins popped out of their necks and that was R&B."
I wonder what Ragavoy would have done with Joplin if someone brought her to him in '67 instead of Erma Franklin.
"I might have turned her down," he says.
Ragavoy and Joplin met once. She was in New York, performing at Madison Square Garden shortly after her version of "Piece of My Heart" came out, when one of her producers called Ragavoy and said Joplin would love to meet him. He could have gone to see her backstage, but he invited her to his recording studio, the Hit Factory.
"She walked in and -- I never really was one for beads and Nehru jackets, anything that was a uniform -- I had on my Brooks Brothers navy blue blazer and gray pants and a pair of loafers. So Janis walks in and looks at me, and says, 'You're Jerry Ragavoy?' She couldn't believe it; I didn't fit the image."
Undaunted, Joplin asked Ragavoy to write a song for what proved to be her last album, Pearl. She'd phone periodically to check on its progress, Ragavoy says. One time she called, and it was very noisy in the background. Ragavoy asked her what was going on.
"She said, 'Oh, we're havin' a party here to celebrate this new tattoo I got on my tit. Why don't you come over, honey?'
He did. The third time she called about the song, at the end of the summer of 1970, he'd finished it but hadn't had a chance to make a demo. At her insistence, he sang it to her over the phone. She seemed pleased. Six weeks later, she was dead. The song -- here's your spooky movie moment -- was called "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven."
Ragavoy says he eventually overcame his resistance to Joplin's voice, because he realized she outgrew her shrieking before her death. Of course, her popularity doesn't hurt; Ragavoy makes money whenever Joplin's Greatest Hits sells, and while it hasn't been flying out of the stores lately, the money from her versions of his songs has dwarfed his royalties from the original recordings. The music business, he says, has been kind to him.
"Fair enough," I say. "But doesn't it bother you, just a little, that performances of three of your songs are being sold by the House of Blues as [performances of] songs of Janis Joplin?"
"No, not really," he answers. "I never have and never will pay attention to people in marketing."
This is probably just another way of saying that capitalism may be the best available choice, but it's still an economic, not an aesthetic, system. In the end, says Ragavoy, he enjoys his anonymity. But then again, what else can he say?
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.