The day the music died in Philadelphia

The words “icon” and “legend” are easily thrown around, applied as freely as suntan lotion in July.

With Jerry Blavat, they were nearly an understatement.

The incomparable Geator with the Heater R.I.P.

He was one of my first friends in Philadelphia, and here’s how that came about.

In 1973, I was the features editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and was reviewing a rock ‘n’ roll show, sponsored by a now-gone rock radio station, at the New Locust theater on Locust Street, now the Estia restaurant. 

It was a lousy show. 

Some of the ‘50s acts had switched out saxophones for electric guitars, which changed the sound. Aside from that, the two DJs basically made fun of the music as corny. Imagine paying good money for a show that the hosts were making fun of.

In my review, I torched the DJs, for their attitude and their fake tinsel, and said they should study the master of the music and of authentic tinsel, Jerry Blavat. I had arrived in Philly a few years earlier, but had learned of this DJ who called himself “the boss with the hot sauce” who insisted on doing things his way.

After the review ran, Jerry called me up to say thanks and said he wanted to send me a bottle of wine.

I said I couldn’t accept a gift like that under our ethics policy.

“Can I drink it with you?” he asked.

Hmmm. “I guess so,” I said.

Next thing you know he showed up at my home with a couple of bottles in his hand. We polished them off, got blotto, and launched a decades-long friendship. 

You will read elsewhere about his public life — his career that started with him being a dancer on American Bandstand and eventually brought him into contact with national celebrities. (As to Bandstand, he launched a protest to challenge the removal of disgraced host Bob Horn. The new DJ, Dick Clark, to his credit, never held it against the Geator because he was being loyal to a friend.) 

A couple of years after our wine parry, when I was removed as features editor and banished to the night copy desk, I also was removed from the A party list in Philly. People who had sought my approval and friendship as a features editor turned into smoke in the wind when I lost that title.

But not Jerry Blavat, the Geator. Also a handful of others who said I was more than a title, I was a friend. 

That meant a lot to me.

When I was restored to day work and given the all-important job of gossip column — some colleagues called me Lazarus because of my many comebacks — I was back in Jerry’s entertainment orbit. Jerry was the consummate entertainer — from his head spinning jive talk to the way he snapped his fingers like a machine gun. 

He did radio, he did television, he wrote a newspaper column, he knew everyone in the music industry from the Intruders to Frank Sinatra to Madonna.

If I needed to reach someone in music, I often asked for Jerry’s help. He never said no.

Straw-thin and fire plug high, Jerry stood tall among his peers, and was always in great physical shape. He rode his bicycle all over town and hit the gym a lot. He was strong inside and out. 

When Sinatra came into A.C., he could count on a meal of homemade pasta prepared by Mama Geator and delivered to the Chairman of the Board at his hotel suite by the Geator.

But Geator was not really friends with Sinatra. He was friends with Sammy Davis Jr.

How close?

He was with Altovise Davis when Sammy died at their Beverly Hills home in 1990 and Jerry called me around 7 a.m. to offer me a world-wide scoop.

I could not use it.

The fact that Davis was dead, without any details, was not a newspaper story. There was no public internet, no Twitter, to blurt it out. It was a scoop I could not touch, but Jerry remembered the guy he called Stuophonic Stu.

Then there was the time he called me and asked if I’d like to have dinner with Sinatra and his pals that night in Atlantic City.

Just one thing, he said. “You can’t talk to him unless he talks to you.”

Hmm. “That’s OK. I can still get a column out of it.”

“No – no,” he said. “You can’t write about it.”

“If I can’t write about it, why would I want to go?” I asked Jerry.

“To have dinner with Sinatra,” Jerry said with surprise.

“I’ll pass.”

So instead of me having a story about having dinner with Sinatra, I have a story about standing him up.

I did go to dinner with Jerry a number of times.

Monday night was his night off and he would gather a group of friends — from 6 to 12 men — to eat at various restaurants around town. Jerry was known everywhere because he went everywhere. 

The dinners were always his treat.

He would never accept anything in return and I told him I wasn’t comfortable with this one-way street. I’ve got to give something back, I explained to him.

“OK, give some money to the nuns,” he said.

Since that day, I have made an annual donation in his name to the IHM, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. You could too: https://ihmsisters.

Jerry’s father was Jewish, but Jerry was raised Catholic and he went to mass most mornings.

Some said he needed to because of what newspapers like to call “mob ties.”

Yes, he did have friends in the mob.

And in the D.A.’s office.

And in the church.

And in the mayor’s office.

And among cops and firefighters and plumbers and accountants and lawyers and secretaries, and among anyone who ever danced at his sock hops for yon teens all over town, decades ago, or at Memories in Margate in recent decades.

That joint was a magnet. A place to see and be seen. 

In one corner you could see Philly Democratic Party leader Bob Brady a few steps from GOP leader Vito Canuso (who can really dance), while in another corner U.S. Senator Arlen Specter was holding court while in the other corner (alleged) mob boss Skinny Joey Merlino was hanging loose.

The joint was mobbed in the other way, too. At its height, you could barely move and I remember one night, when I was returning from the Shore after a party, I tuned to his station just in time to hear him give a shoutout to “Daily News columnist in the house.”

My date busted out laughing. “You’re there?,” she said. “I thought you were here with me.”

I laughed. “Jerry’s an entertainer. And it’s good publicity for me.”

So, yeah, sometimes he exaggerated.

It is true he did some favors for the mob, but he did favors for everyone else. If a mayor asked him to entertain at a city event, Jerry didn’t charge. Charities got help, too.

He got a lot of grief from my friends in the press when he pointed out reporters and physically blocked them from getting into the funeral of mob boss Angelo Bruno.

I told him he bought himself a lot of ill will from journalists.

“He was like a father to me and I didn’t want them turning it into a circus,” he said.

Loyalty over self-interest.

That was the man. Icon and legend.

He was loyal to his friends, devoted to his daughters, and always respectful to the artists, mostly Black, who created the doo-wop music he loved so much. And his long-time love Keely.

We had a running gag. ‘What can I do for you, my pal?” He would say.

“Play the Del-Vikings,” I would reply. They were big in the ‘50s, the era that Jerry loved best. He always hated the British invasion for ending the doo-wop era.

So now he’s spinning in Heaven, entertaining the angels and hanging with music makers who preceded him.

So long, Geator. We are so much poorer without you.

34 thoughts on “The day the music died in Philadelphia”

  1. A wonderful tribute, Stu. Did not know he was a friend of yours. Jerry Blavat was of a prior generation to mine, so I never really “got” his whole scene completely. But I certainly love doo wop music, and I understand what an “icon” is. And he was certainly that to the people of this city.

    Boy, the heroes of my youth seem to be dropping like flies these days. Just yesterday the great singer/songwriter/curmudgeon David Crosby passed, not to mention my dear cousin, Marie, who LOVED Jerry Blavat. To me, all this is a sure sign that my time is coming to an end, though hopefully not for a few more years (or decades!). Change is the only constant. Time moves on and waits for no man. Enjoy every day on this here rock, because you never know which one will be your last.

    1. Stu: Loved your story on Blavat. You totally encapsulated the man, myth, and music legend. I interviewed him for 2 small newspapers, and he loved the profiles; my focus was on Catholic dance hop memories. We became friends after the pieces, and found out we had many mutual friends. There will never be another one like the Geator.

    2. I remember going to Memories in Margate and not having a great shore day. Everyone from our beach house at the time had left to go home to Philly and I was left alone with my time. I decided to check out Memories and it seemed I arrived in S Philly. Beautiful Italian women all with very tough looking guys, so I did not want to become a statistic and decided just to hang out. Lo and Behold in came Jerry Blavat working the crowd and with some convincing from the regulars, broke out into well known chant, that he was famous for throughout his dj days. Wow, what could had been a mundane day at the shore, become an exciting event, I was witnessing a star and Blavat’s famous appeal as the consumate entertainer and music man. Rest in Peace Jerry, you made a great day for my memories, you will be missed!

  2. Jerry was our neighbor on Overbrook Avenue. He had his studio in the garage so we always had music until Mom would go over and tell him to knock it off. He would come over and shoot hoops in our driveway.
    A true Philadelphia Icon 🎶🎙🎶

  3. What a generous guy he was, too. One day he popped into my office unannounced at WOGL-FM to tell me how good he thought the station sounded (we had taken it to oldies in late 1981, all the good rock and roll from the 50s, 60s, and 70s). It was a kindness on his part I’ve never forgotten. Rest in peace, Jerry. I’ll remember you at Mass.

  4. He was one of a kind. I remember how happy he was to run into you when we four went to the Palm for our annual birthday dinner. Actually, make that two one-of-a-kind guys.

  5. His friendship over the years was priceless. It was always a dream to have both of my kids when they became of age go to memories with me. I got that dream I still remember him yelling out she’s got the granddaughter with her! When actually, it was my daughter, I knew it was a joke because he never admitted he’s known me since I was young much younger great article. I am sure he is spinning those vinyls in heaven.

  6. Lovely tribute to a guy some of us knew from high school (South Catholic). He really was one of a kind. After you talked with him YOU had to catch your breath. Rest well my old friend .

  7. He was a music historian of the 50s- to 70s era. He knew EVERYTHING about every song and every group. I really respected his knowledge of that music

  8. Great tribute Stu, He used to come in to place ads with me in the Daily News . We would go to the Press bar for lunch. He asked the waitress to buy a drink for everyone in the place on him. Well over 50 people!

  9. Great tribute to Jerry who I had a lifelong friendship that began in High School, a wave on bandstand, numerous charity events, and where he lived in Society Hill Towers. His Margate club was his pride and joy and listening to his broadcasts with his memory of local kid’s names to the leaders in Government was astounding. He worked out at a gym where he would say hello to my daughter- and son-in-law who worked out at the same time. Very few knew of his prowess with a western fast draw along with Sammy Davis who was one of the quickest in Hollywood. He worked so many venues it appeared he was like a copy band in two places at once. I remember him waving as he drove by me on the Atlantic City expressway in his convertible running late for the next gig. The last time I saw Jerry was in Memories and it had been years since I had the pleasure of his company and just as if we talked the day before he yelled from the podium: “And there’s my man from the FOP Tom Garvey” a shout out and one of my favorite memories.

  10. That was wonderful, Stu. I guess I would not have expected any less from you. Some of what’s here seems to have shown up in Press Card. Even though I wasn’t really into the music scene as a kid, so much in this brings back intense memories of the Philly area way back. Thanks so much for such an entertaining tribute to Jerry!

  11. Wonderful tribute! Went to all his dances as a teenager from Chez Vous at 69th & Market to Wagner’s Ballroom up on North Broad St. For a group of Girls from South Philly to go out of the neighborhood to dance with boys from around the corner was all due to Jerry. He was the reason the music was always the best! He always brought us together to dance and Jerry created the fun! Memories proved it all, still bringing us together with friends. God bless you Jerry, may you enjoy eternal peace and happiness.

  12. After reading your tribute, I can honestly say that I am sorry that I never had the chance to meet Jerry Blavat. My loss.
    Stu, what a well written and sincere obituary. Thank you.

  13. You nailed it Stu but who would expect any less from you, a true wordsmith. As a radio guy who was more into a formatted approach, I always admired Jerry’s unique approach and how true to that he remained until his last performance. I was happy to have shared that with him the night he was inducted into The Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame. He was The Man! May he Rest in Peace!!

    1. Well written and captures the man , and his enormous heart and energy .
      I knew him I s ether last 40 years and he always made feel as though we were always together
      spiritually and professionally
      Never thought of him as aged but eternally , The Geator “
      Always in my memory lane
      Steve Cohen

  14. I enjoyed reading your beautiful, heartfelt tribute to Jerry.
    He always thought of people. In my limited personal experience with him for Ronnie Pennock’s Variety Club inauguration, Jerry was happy to attend and work. He would remember me after that at Memories in Margate, and when I ran into him occasionally. He was always complimentary and thoughtful.
    He is already missed by so many.
    Rest in peace, “ my man.”

  15. I’m so happy to read your words about your dear friend. Jerry’s reputation did precede him and I knew you would be the only writer to share his life values and memories authentically. Totally random Jerry Blavat memory of mine is actually with you. After you and I dined to talk CN8, The Comcast Network happenings, we had drinks with Jerry across from where we ate. I remember his big smile and the light in his eyes as you and he bantered as only good friends do. He was extremely nice to me and I was happy to meet him in a place he was at home vs on stage. And you said to me, “that’s Jerry.” It was a good night and a great memory. Take good care Stu.

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