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Time on his side in the '60s when he had a string of pop hits

JORDAN (JERRY) RAGOVOY, SONGWRITER, RECORD PRODUCER, 4-9-1930 13-7-2011

JORDAN (JERRY) RAGOVOY, SONGWRITER, RECORD PRODUCER, 4-9-1930 13-7-2011

By DAVE LAING

JERRY Ragovoy, the songwriter behind some of the best-loved ballads of the 1960s, including Time Is On My Side, a hit for the Rolling Stones, and Piece of My Heart, which became Janis Joplin's signature song, has died of complications following a stroke. He was 80.

Ragovoy specialised in creating three-minute songs of intense emotion, enhanced by complex orchestral arrangements and was one of several white American songwriters and producers who, in the 1960s, helped mould the new African-American sound of soul music.

The son of a Hungarian-born Jewish optometrist, Ragovoy was born in Philadelphia and, as a child, learnt the piano and absorbed European classical music.

He wrote his first song at age eight, describing it later as "a direct steal from the Nutcracker Suite".

His interest in African-American music was sharpened after leaving high school, when he worked in an electrical appliance store that also sold 78rpm records. He supplemented his income by giving piano lessons.

One day in 1952, a group of black teenagers, who had been singing at high school dances as the Castelles, came in with a demo recording to play to the shop's owner, Herb Slotkin. Impressed, Slotkin and Ragovoy set up Grand Records to release tracks by the group. Success was immediate when My Girl Awaits Me was a national R&B hit, with Ragovoy the pianist and producer. The next record, This Silver Ring, was the first of dozens of Ragovoy songs to be recorded over the next two decades.

Soon Ragovoy was working with Philadelphia's premier pop label, Chancellor Records, home to Frankie Avalon and Fabian. There he wrote A Wonderful Dream for the Majors, a top 30 hit in 1962 Ragovoy persuaded the group's male lead singer to sing falsetto.

Unhappy with the commercialism of Chancellor, Ragovoy then moved to New York, where he contacted the songwriter and producer Bert Berns, whom he had met when Berns was a music publisher's representative pitching songs to record companies. Ragovoy impressed Berns by completing a song that Berns had not been able to finish in six months. That song, Cry Baby, recorded by Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters became a million-seller in 1963. It was one of a number of songs for which Ragovoy used the pseudonym Norman Meade.

Cry Baby's mixture of pop, gospel, R&B and Ragovoy's lush string-laden orchestration has earned it the reputation of a pioneering soul recording. Among its backing singers was Dionne Warwick.

Working mainly with Berns until the latter's premature death in 1967, he crafted a series of soul records that combined high sales with artistic excellence. Among these were Time Is On My Side by Irma Thomas (1964), Erma Franklin's Piece of My Heart (1967), Howard Tate's Ain't Nobody Home (1966) and Lorraine Ellison's sublime Stay With Me (co-written with George Weiss), a slice of grand emotion to rival almost any operatic aria. The 1966 performance was recorded with the help of a full orchestra that had been assembled in the studio to accompany Frank Sinatra, but the great crooner had cancelled his session. (Ragovoy once said of this song, "That's my Puccini influence.")

Several of these songs were to become big hits for white artists. Time Is On My Side was a global hit for the Rolling Stones, the Walker Brothers recorded Stay With Me, while Piece of My Heart became the Janis Joplin hit. Joplin also recorded versions of Cry Baby, and another song Ragovoy wrote for Ellison, Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).

Ragovoy, however, was less impressed by some of these efforts, once complaining that "lots of singers, male and female, felt they were obliged to scream until the veins popped out of their necks", than by the royalty cheques they brought him.

As late as 1999, it was rumoured that the producers of a proposed film about Joplin had paid more than $1 million to use Piece of My Heart.

Outside the soul music genre, Ragovoy worked with such artists as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba, whose version of a traditional tune, Pata Pata, was a top 20 hit in 1967. In the late 1960s, Ragovoy ploughed some of his earnings into a New York recording studio, the Hit Factory, which he was to sell in 1975. Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life was among the albums made there. Ragovoy also owned a short-lived record label, Rags.

After 1970, Ragovoy was much less active in the record industry, although he won a Grammy award as producer of the cast album of the Broadway show Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. He also produced albums by Bonnie Raitt and Milkwood. He decided to come out of retirement in 2003 for a reunion with Howard Tate, writing the songs for an album by the veteran singer.

A comprehensive collection of his best productions, The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is On My Side, was issued in 2008.

Ragovoy's wife, Beverly, twin daughters and a granddaughter survive him.


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