The Great Glory of the Geator

Tom Cardella
Tom Cardella

I’m probably the wrong person to write this column about Jerry Blavat. Because of my two left feet, I never attended one of the many dances he ran. Never went to his club called MEMORIES in Margate. Attended just one of the oldies concerts he presided over at the Kimmel Center. But I know what Blavat meant to Philadelphia. I know what he meant to scores of fans such as my wife and her friends. I crossed paths twice in my life with the Geator and came away amazed.

Jerry Blavat was quintessentially a Philly guy. He was quite simply the great curator of what is known as “Oldies” music. You can have “Wolfman” Jack and Alan Freed and all the guys on WIBG. The Geator was the best disc jockey of them all. And so much more.

Let the record show that Blavat debuted in 1953 on BANDSTAND working with Bob Horn. When Horn got into trouble and left the show, it was Dick Clark who replaced him. But it should’ve been Blavat. Clark went on to fame and fortune. Seemed like a nice enough guy, but not the hippest cat in the world. I can’t imagine Dick Clark doing the Twist. But Jerry on the other hand would’ve and should’ve been the guy chosen to host BANDSTAND. Can’t you just picture it? The Geator could’ve outdanced the teens who regularly appeared on the show. His untold number of fans knew, at heart, Jerry Blavat was the eternal teenager.

I watched Blavat perform five nights a week when he worked as a disc jockey on WHAT-AM. I worked as a disc jockey in the adjacent studio on WWDB, the sister FM outlet that specialized as the nation’s only 24-hour jazz station. Never were two shows so different. I played lengthy cuts of avant-garde music, interspersing the weather forecast or tidbits about the artist. The Geator, on the other hand, was handing out the “hot sauce.” I can picture him now, standing between the turntables, spinning the records with a sleight of hand like he was Magic Johnson. Jerry sang with the record. He became THE artist, not the DJ.

We never had one conversation during that time. Blavat was in his own world. You don’t talk to a star when he’s performing. It wasn’t only that his rhythmic gyrations were extraordinary. Blavat was on the RADIO! No one could see him perform, except me in the other studio. But that didn’t matter to the Geator. Only the music mattered.

Blavat kept the music alive. Doo wop could never die with Jerry Blavat as its promoter. No matter where he went. No matter the size of the station or its reach. Blavat played the music he loved — and in so doing, he kept generations of fans young. How could you grow old when the Geator never grew old? Jerry was the keeper of the flame for the ‘50s. There wasn’t a song or a group he didn’t know. He kept the performers relevant also. Darlene Love, one of Blavat’s mainstays, seemed as fresh and vibrant today as she did in her heyday.

I learned that Blavat’s musical knowledge extended far beyond the ‘50s. And it happened because our paths crossed one more time. I had my first and only conversation with him. Philadelphia was set to host the Republican Convention in 2000. It became the convention that nominated George W. Bush to become president for his first term in office. The excitement was palpable. A new century had begun. Philadelphia, a Democratic city, was nevertheless agog over being chosen to host the Republican convention.

Quite by accident, I found myself part of a high-powered group of volunteers that included major players in Philadelphia political and business life. I had retired from my civil service job and was looking for something to fill my hours. I made a few phone calls, thinking I could get some low-level job planning job for the convention. Kevin Feeney, who had worked for former Mayor Ed Rendell, was running the planning group. He invited me to join and I found myself rubbing elbows with the big dogs.

The ABC network had contacted Feeney asking for suggestions for where to focus its convention coverage. Members of our group recommended the usual subjects associated with this city such as its historical significance. I suggested that the network include a feature about Philadelphia’s great rock and roll tradition. And who better to interview, I thought, than Jerry Blavat?

I called Blavat to confirm whether he’d be willing to be interviewed by ABC. I got Jerry on the phone during a shift on the air. Blavat was interested. He proceeded to inform me that Philadelphia was known for more than rock and roll. I knew the city had given birth to numerous jazz performers, but I hadn’t realized that Jerry was also a repository of knowledge of more than just doo wop tunes. He proceeded to blow me away with his info about the great Billie Holiday and other Philly-based performers. I came away from the conversation realizing that Jerry Blavat was a treasure trove of musical history. He would be perfect for the network interview. Unfortunately, the network didn’t agree. Nobody thought to interview Jerry Blavat as part of their convention coverage.

Jerry Blavat was one of us. Our world is no longer as much fun without him. And now that he’s gone, we are no longer as young.