A living legend celebrates 50 years in show biz.
“ According to! The big! Tick-tock! On the! Tower of power! Clock correct! Time tonight! For the! Big boss! With the! Hot Sauce, and it’s got to be! The Geator with the Heator, Heator beater on the records, a-swing-a-ling, a-lop-a-bop-a-choo … ” and before Martha and the Vandellas hit the song’s first “Whenever I’m with him … ” he’s off and running again. No sweat.
Old man Boo is still out there working some rocking-a-baby-in-his-arms move, but he’s not the only one with skills. One older woman with orange hair, thinking she’s about to take a break, starts walking off the floor when she’s grabbed around the waist by a gray-haired man and is immediately thrown into a quick two-step. A few minutes later, when the Geator is playing James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing,” her skirt is hiked to midthigh. The song ends and finds a seamless segue into a double shot of the Isley Brothers: “This Old Heart of Mine” followed by “I Guess I’ll Always Love You.” The dancers, in line and in sync, don’t miss a step.
For two hours the Geator MCs, calling out dancers by name and dealing out music history from Perry Como’s “Wanted”—a huge hit in 1954—to Cupid’s “Cupid Shuffle,” a song just three years old.
“ As I look down at you folks ,” he calls out, “ you look so happy! ”
At Blavat’s regular gigs, everyone shows up, dancing with everyone. But it wasn’t always that way.
When he started at Wagner’s and Chez Vous in the end of ’61, “it was the white kids going to record hops,” he says. “The black kids didn’t go.” By the time those dances ended in 1970, it was half white, half black.
Of course, plenty happened in the intervening years: the Civil Rights Act, the Summer of Love, Vietnam, Malcolm X, MLK. But in the neighborhoods, where national trends can be slower to pick up, Blavat’s barrier-breaking covered a lot of ground.
Years before he was a DJ, Blavat got his start as a dancer on the original Bandstand , hosted by Bob Horn before Dick Clark took over and turned it into the international juggernaut American Bandstand . Kids would flock to the studios at 46th and Market, and Blavat, prominently featured on the show as the one who picked the music for a segment called “Rate-a-Record,” turned into a local celebrity/teen sex symbol. (His in-the-works autobiography all-too-graphically details how he reaped the romantic rewards of this hometown fame.) When Horn was inclined to play a white cover of a song—say, “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts or “Ain’t It a Shame” by Pat Boone—young Blavat would instead give him the original by the black artists: the Chords or Fats Domino. “My love,” he says now, “has always been rhythm ’n’ blues.”
When Blavat worked as a DJ, WDAS and WHAT were black stations, playing whatever was released on black labels: Scepter, Chess, Checker, Argo. But he was on WCAM, a white station. “Back then you couldn’t get your product played on a white station,” Blavat says. “When I started to play the newer things like ‘Twist and Shout’ by the Isleys and Dionne Warwick—all of the black artists—the white kids would be listening to me on WCAM and going into the stores and saying, ‘Hey, the Geator last night played “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers.’” Suddenly, white kids in Philadelphia were listening to the Chiffons, Jimmy Soul and Gary U.S. Bonds, all of which white kids in other cities never would’ve heard. “I legitimized that rhythm ’n’ blues music.”
The Geator, it’s clear, is a man of passions. Beyond his encyclopedic knowledge of who-recorded-what-song-in-what-year-with-which-producer-and-what-tambourine-player, he tends to frequent the same restaurants, patronize the same businesses, tell the same stories and hang with the same people.
“I drink wine, I ride my bike, I go to the gym, and I make love with somebody I love,” he sums up, taking another sip. “I don’t fake it. You can’t fake life. You can’t fake it, brother.”
Curiously, he also ranks among his passions a breathtaking knowledge of Native Americans. Like music, they come up frequently in conversation, drawing parallels to his independence as a performer.
“I can experience and grow and do what I want and bring my audience along with it,” he says. “There’s the secret. Who can do that today? Who has the freedom to do it? Freedom. Native American Indian: I roam the plains. I’m hungry—I hunt the buffalo. I hunt the antelope. Another tribe comes to fight—I protect my area. This is my neighborhood. You don’t belong here.”
He continually refers to one famous Native American who, he says, never got the credit he deserved.
“My hero was an Oglala Sioux by the name of Crazy Horse,” Blavat explains. “Crazy Horse was one of the only Native American Indians of prominence who never was photographed, never painted. He stayed away from the white man. He lived a native Indian life. He was the true warrior in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse was the warrior.
“Because he was so free, his own people were jealous of him,” he continues. “And in the end his own people killed him. They arrested him and they bayoneted him. But the freedom—they never took that away. Look at Julius Caesar. Who killed Julius Caesar? Brutus—his own people.
“Who’s gonna kill Jerry Blavat?” he asks quietly. “Me. Because nobody is left in my world.” ■
Jerry Blavat’s Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll and R&B : Sat., Jan. 30, 8pm. $41-$81. Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce sts. 215.893.1999. kimmelcenter.org
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4