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.

"That's what I brought to it," he says sharply. "Garnet's the singer. I was the arranger, and the arrangement's gospel."

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Robert Meyerowitz