A living legend celebrates 50 years in show biz.
If you saw Boo on the street, you wouldn’t pay him much mind. Your first thought: This guy is old.
He looks every bit the 67-year-old that he is: His hair is gray and thin, covered by a camo-print baseball cap, and his mouth hangs open in the way that old-man caricatures seem to have a perpetual drool. His black T-shirt, reading “IF MY MUSIC IS TOO LOUD, YOU’RE TOO OLD,” looks straight off the Ocean City boardwalk.
But when you see Boo on Jerry Blavat’s dance floor, your first thought: This guy can fucking move.
With one hand pressed behind his back, the other leading his partner, Boo spins her around with grace and ease, taking care to keep his dance steps in sync with hers. While James Brown’s 1973 smash “Doing It to Death” pumps over the speakers at Parx Casino in Bensalem, Boo draws his partner in close and, with his thumbs tucked into his eagle belt buckle, begins doing pelvic thrusts and squats, his baseball cap turned backward by now. Even when his hat drops to the floor, he doesn’t just bend down—he improvises a dance move to pick it up. Smooth and seamless.
Boo is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt, but tonight he’s just one of hundreds in the casino’s 360 Bar, where one DJ, Jerry “the Geator with the Heator” Blavat, is presiding over it all. The Geat is spinning records of old doo-wop and R&B, rock ’n’ roll and funk ’n’ soul, rapping over the tunes and calling out dancers by name. As of this month, he’s been at it for 50 years.
There was a time when the Geator was more famous than he is now. But what his audiences have lost in hair they’ve more than made up for in devotion.
Blavat, who’ll be 70 this summer, hears the shouts as he bikes around the city. “Yo Geator, how’s it going?” “My man!” “The Geator with the Heator!”
Back in the ’60s, when he held dances at the Wagner Ballroom or the Chez Vous Lounge, 2,000 kids would show up. Today—at Parx Casino on Wednesday nights, the Buck Hotel on Thursdays, Chickie’s & Pete’s and the Springfield Inn on Fridays, Memories in Margate every summer weekend—the crowd numbers more in the hundreds. But they show up—blue hair, back problems and all—and they hit the floor, still masters of the moves the Geator taught them 50 years ago.
“The love that I have for my music is the same respect that I have for my music as always. Back then, my audience were kids—I called them ‘yon teens’—they’re beyond teens today,” says Blavat. “And these are the ones who still support me. I am one of the most fortunate guys in America.”
The “beyond teens” line is one of Blavat’s favorite catch phrases, and it, along with a handful of other choice plays-on-words, is almost certain to come up in any conversation with the Geator lasting more than five minutes. (See also: “I play music from the heart, not a research chart!”) His speech and steps are constantly punctuated with finger snaps, mimicked by nearly anyone he encounters. Like your favorite record on repeat, it’s part of the rhythm ’n’ jive that Blavat has been repping for 50 years now.
It’s the hottest show on the radio! The Geator with the Heator! The Boss with the Hot Sauce! My main man, pots and pans! My brother from another mother! My sister from another mister! Here we go!
The sound is vintage, from when radio was king in Philadelphia. Jocko Henderson, Hy Lit, Georgie Woods, the recently passed George Michael—these DJs were local superstars on stations that defined neighborhoods—WIBBAGE, WDAS, WHAT—with call-letter allegiance determined by race, parish and hip factor. And Blavat ended up the biggest of them all, if not by celebrity, then at least by staying power.
“As commercial radio continues to blow, legendary DJs are dying,” says WXPN’s Bruce Warren, who puts the Geator on the air every Saturday night. “There was something about growing up in Philly listening to these guys. There are very few great DJs left on the radio. DJs-as-storytellers is a vanishing art form.”
Blavat and his audience have grown together, in a way: When they go see him for two, three hours a week, they step back in time to a day when they were the coolest cats in the parish, when a wild night out involved necking in the back of Dad’s Chevy at the drive-in movie theater at Broad and Pattison. They step back into this old Philadelphia, where they find the Geator, holding court. Like he never left.
“Everybody wants to go back and relive a moment in their life where you can relate, and I do that,” he says. “I bring you back for two hours with my music to a better time in our world—a time when kids were the product of a neighborhood, kids went to dances—Wagner’s, Chez Vous, Starlight—and they met other kids from different neighborhoods.”
As he loves to remind anyone who will listen, Jerry Blavat too is very much the product of a neighborhood. He grew up half Jewish, half Italian on McKean Street in what was then a very Italian South Philadelphia. But with his father in and out of jail and his mother working as a riveter at the Navy Yard, Blavat was raised mostly by the nuns of St. Monica’s Parish at 17th and Ritner. “I always hung with older people because I always wanted to learn from older people,” he says. “I always dressed older.”
On the occasion of his 50 years in show biz, Blavat has been working on his memoirs—a detailed account of the life and times of the Geator. Though still a work in progress, it details his education on the streets of Philadelphia, his early days working as a manager for Danny and the Juniors (“At the Hop”), the South Philly dances where he hosted thousands of kids at a time, and his fortuitous entry into the world of radio, when, as a new jockey on Camden’s WCAM, he started spinning in the middle of a snowstorm. When no relief jocks came, he just kept spinning his records—Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino—musicians who at the time weren’t played on radio. The phones lit up, and the program director offered him a permanent slot.
PW's Summer Guide 2015