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Ragavoy, born in 1930, grew up listening to classical music and playing the piano. His life changed course just after high school, when he got a job at an appliance store in a black West Philly neighborhood. In those days--this was 1948--appliance stores often sold 78 rpm records and record players, and salespeople played the latest product for customers. For the next five years, he listened to black gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, and the Caravans; R&B greats Charles Brown and Amos Milburn; and gutbucket bluesman John Lee Hooker, who became his touchstone. He soaked it all up, he says, speaking from his home near Atlanta, and "it came out as a natural part of my musical expression."
The first recording he produced, "My Girl Awaits Me" by the Castelles, in 1953, was his first hit. Ragavoy says it sold 100,000 copies. He moved on for a year to a gofer's job at Chancellor Records, a label that boasted Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Then he discovered the Majors, another vocal group, and while he claims he hated doo-wop, he wrote "A Wonderful Dream" for them under the pseudonym Norman Meade. He was saving his own name for works he planned to write for Broadway one day.
Norman Meade had a hot hand. "A Wonderful Dream" hit No. 23 on the pop charts in 1962. The disc sold three-quarters of a million copies, Ragavoy says, netting him $100,000. By the time it came out, he'd already moved to New York. When the record charted, he quit his job plugging songs for a publishing company and has been on his own ever since. He had met another songwriter at Chancellor, Bert Berns, and the two began collaborating. In 1963, on a trip back to Philly, Ragavoy met Garnet Mimms, a former gospel singer. "Cry Baby," a song Ragavoy wrote with Berns, was the first side he cut with Mimms. It went to No. 3 pop and sold a million and a half copies, according to Ragavoy.
Some have argued that "Cry Baby" is the first true soul song, marking the place where the black church first bleeds over into pop music. With the female backing group Sweet Inspirations welling behind Mimms on the chorus and his spoken interlude, it sounds like Sunday morning. When I ask whether that was something Mimms contributed, Ragavoy loses his patience.
"Of course, it was very gospel-inspired," he says. "That's what I brought to it. Garnet's the singer; I was the arranger, and the arrangement's gospel."
One day shortly after "Cry Baby" hit, Ragavoy's phone rang. A friend of his, an arranger, was making a recording with jazz trombonist Kai Winding and wondered whether Ragavoy had any good songs lying around. He promised to take a look; and then, in an hour, he says, he wrote "Time Is on My Side." It didn't do anything for Winding, but when Irma Thomas recorded it later that year, her stirring version inched up the charts--until England's newest hitmakers bumped her off.
"The next thing I know, I get a call from a publisher in England," Ragavoy told Goldmine last year. "They said they wanted to cut it with a group called the Rolling Stones, who I'd never heard of...Next thing I know, it's out and it's their first hit in this country. I was amazed 'cause they had sent me a copy four months before, and I listened to it and thought, 'What on earth is this piece of shit?' That's exactly what I thought. 'Man, I'm glad I got my $1,500!' Took me awhile to get used to the Stones...a coupla years, actually."
After Ragavoy's success with Mimms and "Time," jobs followed with Howard Tate, a former member of one of Mimms' groups. The song Ragavoy wrote for Tate with Mort Shuman, "Get It While You Can," may be the greatest soul song you never heard--inexplicably, it never dented the charts when it was released in 1967. The same is true for "Stay With Me," a song Ragavoy co-wrote for Lorraine Ellison; it stalled at No. 64 on the pop chart the year before.
All three songs have what I think of as Ragavoy's hallmarks: a grittiness grounded in gospel coupled with a dramatic, almost theatrically swollen crescendo. When I tentatively broach this, Ragavoy says, "Oh, that's my Puccini influence."
"I know Puccini as well as I know John Lee Hooker," he continues.
American soul, distilled from Italian opera.
"I'm being somewhat facetious, but I was always personally attracted to dramatic music--Ravel, Rachmaninoff. I can listen to Rachmaninoff and I'm glued to the chair."
Ragavoy, collaborating with Berns, had more success with Aretha Franklin's sister Erma in 1967 when they cut "Piece of My Heart." Erma Franklin never shone quite that way again, as far as I can tell, but for two minutes and 40 seconds she's immersed in an exquisitely delicate yet powerful anthem. Her pauses alone are sublime. When Janis Joplin took a run at the same song several months later, backed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, she got bogged down. It's a sludgy record.
"There's a very simplistic explanation," Ragavoy says. "Erma's record is performed by studio musicians who are just incredible, combined with the fact you have great background singers, great everything, period. There is not a wasted quarter note--it all means something. When you deal with these wonderful musicians in New York, or Nashville, that's a breed very few people are aware of; they're great executors of the material. As opposed to Big Brother, and most bands, period, [who are] lame musicians for the most part...Half these records are made because they think it's a fucking party. Big Brother, you hear it, it's raw, it's sloppy, and even though it was a hit, it's really a shame--although [Joplin] sure sang the hell out of it.