Jerry Ragovoy, who was born on 4 September 1930, may never have achieved household name status, but his writing credits speak for him, as do the thousands of versions of his songs by everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Small Faces to B.B. King and Dusty Springfield.
Three songs stand particularly tall in the songbook of the Philadelphia-born Ragovoy, who began his career as a music maker of renown in the early 1950s. ‘Time Is On My Side,’ written under the name of Norman Meade, became world famous in the hands of the Stones. ‘Stay With Me Baby’ was first cut by Lorraine Ellison and endlessly covered, as was the Erma Franklin original ‘Piece Of My Heart.’ But those tunes are the mere tip of a soulful iceberg.
Ragovoy’s first production on disc came in his early 20s, when he not only recorded ‘My Girl Awaits Me’ by Philadelphia vocal group the Castelles, but co-founded a label to release it, Grand, with local retailer Herb Slotkin. Their work, and that of other Grand signings such as the Cherokees and Lee Andrews and the Hearts, represented the beginning of what became known as the Philadelphia Sound. Non-soul acts on the label included Chris Powell and the Tri-Tones.
Later in the 1950s, Ragovoy worked with another Philly-based label, Chancellor, known nationally as home to pop favourites Fabian and Frankie Avalon. But it was in the 60s that his name really came to the fore. His first chart victory as a writer was with the vocal group the Majors, whose top 30 pop and R&B hit of late 1962, ‘A Wonderful Dream,’ was from his pen.
Ragovoy went on to form a writing partnership with the similarly accomplished Bert Berns, who wrote as Bert Russell, and the first notable result was the classic 1963 soul single ‘Cry Baby,’ by the ever-underrated soul man Garnet Mimms and his group the Enchanters.
1963 was also the year of the original ‘Time Is On My Side,’ recorded by Kai Winding, produced by Creed Taylor and with backing vocals by Dionne Warwick, her sister Dee Dee and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney. In 1964, the song was covered by the Soul Queen of New Orleans herself, Irma Thomas, in a version heard by the Stones.
Their cover was a US single, becoming their first top ten hit there with a No. 6 peak. It was included on their American album 12 x 5, before appearing in the UK on The Rolling Stones No. 2. The song was then remade by the Moody Blues, Wilson Pickett and countless others.
In 1964, Ragovoy and Berns’ ‘One Way Love’ became a No. 12 R&B hit for the Drifters, and several more of their songs were memorably interpreted by Mimms, including ‘It Was Easier To Hurt Her’ (one of several to be remade by Dusty Springfield) and ‘I’ll Take Good Care Of You.’ Another Mimms original, ‘As Long As I Have You,’ was recently revived by Roger Daltrey as the lead song and title track of his UK top ten solo album.
Ragovoy also wrote with Mort Shuman, a union that produced some fine material for another undervalued soul artist, Howard Tate, such as ‘Ain’t Nobody Home’ (later cut by both B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt) and ‘Look At Granny Run Run.’ With Shuman’s regular writing partner Doc Pomus, Ragovoy wrote the title song for Elvis Presley‘s 1965 movie Girl Happy. ‘You Better Believe It,’ written with British singer, composer and entertainer Kenny Lynch, was cut by the Small Faces for their self-titled debut album of 1966.
In the summer of that year, Philadelphia vocalist Lorraine Ellison taped what is regularly acknowledged as one of the most impassioned soul records ever made, of the Ragovoy-George David Weiss ballad ‘Stay With Me Baby.’ A No. 11 R&B hit, the song was covered the next year by the Walker Brothers and has attracted dozens of readings ever since, including those by Kiki Dee, Bette Midler, Duffy and Chris Cornell.
As his reputation grew as a great record man, Ragovoy combined his writing and production duties with the role of staff writer for the Warner Brothers subsidiary Loma Records; later, he was East Coast head of A&R for Warner Brothers. He also put some of his earnings into the renowned New York studio the Hit Factory, and there were teamings with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and South African singer Miriam Makeba, who had a top ten soul hit (and No. 12 pop) in 1967 with Ragovoy’s ‘Pata Pata.’
1967 was also a banner year in his alliance with Berns, with the creation of another fervent soul classic, ‘Piece Of My Heart,’ expertly realised by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s older sister. The song hit No. 10 R&B in the US and first reached a pop audience via Janis Joplin’s rendition with Big Brother and Holding Company in 1968.
Springfield’s version soon followed, and Bryan Ferry included it on his solo debut These Foolish Things in 1973. Etta James, Faith Hill, Melissa Etheridge and Beverley Knight are among the scores of artists to tackle ‘Piece Of My Heart’ since then, and Steven Tyler redid it for his solo album We’re All Somebody From Somewhere in 2016.
Ragovoy was less active from the 1970s onwards, but won a Grammy for Best Score From An Original Cast Show Album with his production on Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. The following year, he was the chief producer and writer on Then Came You, the album by Dionne Warwicke (as she spelt her name at the time), although the hit single collaboration with the Spinners was a Thom Bell production.
In the last years of his life, Ragovoy teamed again with Howard Tate for the impressive 2003 comeback set Howard Tate Rediscovered. Another connection with Joplin emerged in 2011, when a song he had written for her especially, ‘I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven,’ was performed for the first time in the show A Night With Janis Joplin. She had died before she was able to record it, but Ragovoy was in the opening night audience in Portland to see it come to fruition. He passed away soon afterwards, on 13 July that year, at the age of 80.