Jerry Blavat — aka ‘The Geator with the Heater’ and ‘The Boss with the Hot Sauce’ — is a disc jockey, actor, and entertainer who’s had a major influence on the music industry. Born in Philadelphia, Blavat gained fame as a teen when he appeared as a regular on WFIL-TV’s Bandstand. After hosting live dances in the Philly/South Jersey area, he started his own radio show, created the Lost Nite and Crimson record labels, and appeared in films and on television. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His 2011 memoir is entitled You Only Rock Once.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Blavat, 81, and talked with him about various aspects of his career including his work on Bandstand, his friendships with notable entertainers, and his association with several well-known recording artists and recordings.
When you were just a teen, you were a regular on TV’s Bandstand in the years before Dick Clark hosted it. In addition to dancing, didn’t you also choose songs to be played on the show?
That’s right. When I was thirteen, I snuck in to Bandstand — you had to be fourteen to get in — but I snuck in because all the girls in South Philadelphia were watching Bandstand. They’d watch the guys jitterbug, and I said, “Wait a second, I can jitterbug better than these kids!” so we all lined up and snuck into Bandstand.
There was a dance contest going on and I got into the contest with a girl who was a regular. Her name was Jo Mazzu — this is in my book, You Only Rock Once — and I won the dance contest. When I went back to South Philly, I was a star. Everybody saw me and said, “Wow!”
So then, every day, I would go to Bandstand, I’d get into the dance contest, and I would win the dance contest. Bob Horn, who was the host of the show before Dick Clark, said to me, “Listen, no more dance contests for you! You’re such a good dancer, I want you to pick the dancers to rotate on the dance floor,” and he also said, “I know you love music, so I want you to start picking music for me, too.”
So I picked the song, “Ain’t It a Shame,” and he said, “You’re giving it to me by Fats Domino, but it’s by Pat Boone,” and I said, “No, that’s not the real deal!” He said, “But this is what they’re saying nationally,” and I said, “Let me get you the real one — the Fats Domino version.” So I started getting the original versions of songs like “Tweedle Dee” by LaVern Baker instead of Georgia Gibbs and “Little Darlin’” by The Gladiolas instead of The Diamonds, and I became the program guy for the show’s “Rate the Record” segment.
I was also in charge of taking care of the guests when they came in. Bob Horn would say “We’re going to have company.” Then, he’d go to commercial and when we’d come back, there would be Perry Como, Joni James, The Ames Brothers, The Four Coins, etc. My job was to make sure that when we went to commercial, the guests would be ready to hit the correct camera spot when we came back on television.
One time, when I got off the dance floor after a commercial, I said to one of the guests, “We’re coming back from commercial, so when Bob Horn says, ‘We have company,’ that’s your spot, right there.” But the guy said, “Wait, where’d you learn how to dance like that?” and I said, “Everybody in South Philadelphia knows how to dance like that! We like to impress the girls.” And the guy laughed and said, “You’re like a little White me!” His name was Sammy Davis, Jr., and Sammy and I became friends for the rest of his entire adult life — but that’s how my story began.
We understand your first radio gig involved doing interviews. Who was the very first person you talked to?
It was Annette Funicello. But before that, I used to be on the road. I managed a group called Danny and the Juniors who had a hit with “At the Hop.” I also worked with many other artists including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. But when I came back to Philly, I did a radio show from the Venus Lounge, and when Annette Funicello — who was a good friend of Frankie Avalon — came on the show, they wanted me to do a Bikini Beach thing based on her movie, but I, unfortunately, I couldn’t do it because I weighed only 98 pounds!
Did she give you any sort of big scoop during your first interview?
Oh, yeah! She told me that, as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, she hated wearing the Mickey Mouse ears! But you have to understand, she was just a kid when she was doing that, and so she said, “I didn’t like those ears they put on me all the time — they ruined my hair!”
We were intrigued to learn that once you started doing record hops and events in Philly and in Jersey, one of your shows featured Stevie Wonder’s very first live appearance and another featured Dionne Warwick’s debut appearance.
That’s right. In 1962, I was doing a dance in Atlantic City at the Jefferson Hotel. Because I had the freedom to play the music I wanted to share with my audience — other disc jockeys had to do what we called “format radio” where they were only allowed to play what a program director told them to play — people in the industry would send me records saying, “Give us your opinion and let us know if it’s a hit,” and if I liked it, I would play it.
One day, Berry Gordy of Motown Records called me and said, “I’m sending you a record called ‘Fingertips.’ It’s from an album called The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder.” I played it and I said, “Berry, it’s a hit,” and he said, “Great! Stevie’s coming to town with a Motown tour. Since you’re in Atlantic City, we’ll send him over to do a record hop.”
So this is 1962. I’m on stage in front of a thousand kids and when I get off stage I’m told, “Stevie’s ready to come on to lip-sync his record.” So I go back on stage and I say, “Ladies and gentlemen — he’s only twelve years old — here’s Little Stevie Wonder!” And Stevie comes out with his assistant guiding him across the stage, and that was when I first found out that he was blind. But this was Stevie’s first public appearance and the place went wild.
With Dionne Warwick, the same thing happened. I was in New York, and Burt Bacharach, who’s a dear friend, said, “I want you to hear a record I did with Dionne Warwick.” Dionne Warwick had been working with her sister, Dee Dee Warwick, and their cousin, Cissy Houston, as background singers for other artists.
Burt played me this song he wrote called “Don’t Make Me Over,” and I said, “This is amazing!” But he told me that Florence Greenberg of Scepter Records wanted to release the same exact track but with a vocal by Tommy Hunt, and I just said, “Give me that record!”
I went out and busted the record wide open on WCAM in Camden, NJ, and Dionne called me and said, “I can’t thank you enough!” I said, “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you come to town and do a record hop?” Again, this was 1962, and just like with Stevie, it was Dionne’s first public appearance.
Speaking of “busting a record wide open,” weren’t you the one who broke the Four Seasons’ hit, “Sherry”?
Absolutely. What happened was this: Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe had written “Sherry” and they were shopping around for a label to pick it up. At the time, I was in Florida for a record convention and Bob Crewe played it for me and I said, “This is a smash!” He said, “I’m glad you think so. I’m going to see Morris Levy at Roulette Records to see if he’s interested in picking it up” — this was about four o’clock in the afternoon when I said to Bob, “Tell Morris it’s a hit.”
At about eight o’clock in the evening, I came down to go to dinner and Bob Crewe was drinking in the bar. I said to Bob, “Congratulations! Are you drinking to your success?” and he said, “ No. Morris says this is the worst piece of doo-doo he’s ever heard,” and he also said, “Tell ‘The Geator’ he’s lost his ear.”
I picked up the bar phone and I called Ewart Abner from Vee-Jay Records, a Black label — they had The Spaniels, Betty Everett, Jerry Butler, The Impressions, Jimmy Reed; all Black artists. And I played all Black music on the radio myself, but I said to Abner, “I want you to hear something.”
I went to Abner’s suite and played “Sherry” for him and he said, “Geator, you’re right, I think it’s a smash! Tell me about the group.” I said, “It’s a combination of Frankie Valli from The Four Lovers and Bob Gaudio from The Royal Teens who had a hit with ‘Short Shorts,’ and they’re calling themselves The Four Seasons.”
And Abner said to me, “Geator, I love this record, but I have a Black label. The Black DJs aren’t going to play it if they find out it’s a White artist.” I said, “Abner! What’s music have do to with race, color, or creed? It’s a hit! Everybody will buy it, not just Black listeners,” and I said, “I’ll prove it to you!”
So I went back to WCAM in Camden and I played “Sherry.” By the end of the week, the phones were lighting up. Vee-Jay’s distributor called me and said, “What’s this record you’re playing called ‘Sherry?’” Now, this was Main Line Record Distributors, and the guy who owned it was Barry Golder. I said to Barry, “This should be on Vee-Jay, but Abner is afraid the Black cats won’t play it.” So Barry talked to Abner, and Abner called me back and said, “We’re gonna make a deal, and I’ll give you five cents for every record.” I said, “I don’t want any money. I’m not taking any money. I’m just glad its a hit!” — and that was the beginning for The Four Seasons.
Speaking of hits, we know you hooked up songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff with the band, The Soul Survivors, who recorded “Expressway to Your Heart” on a label you created.
We recorded that song on a little label called Crimson Records out of Philadelphia which I formed with my manager, Nat Segall, along with Jerry Greene and Jared Weinstein. I busted that record wide open and Donnie Kirshner, who had just started his own label, called me and said, “I want to buy the master.”
Now, what we had with that record was a local hit, so I went back to my partners and said, “Listen, Donnie Kirshner wants to buy the master,” and they said, “No, no! We’re gonna make this go national.” I said, “Wait a second. You’re gonna go from city to city to get distributors to pick it up?” and they said, “Yeah,” and I said, “They’ll pick it up because it’s a hit, but if we don’t have a follow up, we’re never gonna get paid from the distributors.”
But it all began with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who wrote “Expressway to Your Heart,” and The Soul Survivors who recorded it.
You mentioned that you became very close friends with Sammy Davis, Jr., but isn’t it true Frank Sinatra had a special nickname for you?
Yes! I was working as Don Rickles’ valet. Don had filmed a movie called Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, and Frank had a movie out called A Hole in the Head. At the time, Frank’s movie was playing at the Capitol Theater on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City and Rickles’ movie was premiering at the Globe on the Boardwalk.
We went to Rickles’ premiere at the Globe and, at it turns out, Frank was appearing in town at the 500 Club. After the premiere, Rickles said, “I want you to meet Frank Sinatra, so I’m gonna take you over to the 500.” We were inside Sinatra’s dressing room when Sinatra came out and Rickles said, “Mr. S., I want to introduce you to my valet.” Frank took one look at skinny me and said, “Hello, Matchstick!” and that’s what he called me from then on!
[Laughs] In the 1960s, didn’t you appear on TV in The Monkees?
Yes, I played a DJ on The Monkees. In the script, they gave me another name — I think it was ‘Mr. Clayton’ — but when I got off the plane, the casting guy had the shooting time all screwed up. By the time I got there, they had to throw me right on the set. I told the director I knew my lines and he said, “All right, let’s run through the scene.”
In the scene, Davy Jones was dressed like a girl, and “she” was supposed to be my love interest, but instead of following the script, I just started improvising saying things like, “I love you, I love you, Miss Jones! It’s ‘The Geator,’ here — ‘The Boss with Hot Sauce’ — Jerry Blavat.” And I knew the lines from the script, but the director said, “I like what you’re doing much better,” so I became ‘The Geator’ on the show.
In the 1980s, didn’t you provide the voice of the DJ that Madonna’s character listens to on the radio in the movie, Desperately Seeking Susan?
Yes, when they’re on the Boardwalk listening to the radio, she’s listening to the voice of ‘The Geator.’
And speaking of the Boardwalk, we’re told you own a nightclub at the Jersey Shore?
Yes, I’ve owned my club, Memories in Margate, in Margate City, NJ, for fifty years now, and everybody’s been there. My mom cooked for Sinatra there. She also cooked for Sammy Davis, Jr. there. Chuck Berry appeared there, and Little Anthony and the Imperials appeared there. I still appear there myself, too, and people are welcome to come see me there.
Lastly, in 1998, you were inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Can you tell us what that kind of recognition has meant to you?
It really is a rewarding and humbling experience to know that your peers appreciate what you’ve been able to do in this business. I never intended to be a disc jockey. I never intended to be an actor. I never intended to be a dancer. I came from a broken family. But if you read my book, you’ll see I always was in awe of show business, and I had wonderful people who nurtured me and befriended me.
When Sammy Davis, Jr. died, he was 64 years of age. He was my friend all his adult life and I was his best man when he got married in Philadelphia. I sat with giants at Frank Sinatra’s table. Dean Martin called me when I did The Monkees and asked if I could get his daughter, Deana, a part, and she was on The Monkees with me. So my life has been about wonderful people. And if it ends tomorrow, I’ll have no regrets because I made people happy, and by making people happy, it fulfilled my life.
To learn more about Jerry Blavat please go to geatorgigs.webs.com.
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