Posts Tagged ‘rock and roll’


Thursday, August 16th, 2012

[Excerpted from the book, “My Life in Showbiz and All that Jazz” by Bruce H. Klauber]

My earliest musical memory? Elvis Presley. I was four years old when I used to curl up for hours by a heating vent in our row home, playing “Hound Dog” over and over again on a record player that only played 45rpm platters. I so annoyed my family that my mother finally hid the recording.

I had never heard anything like the fire that Elvis had. Though he had appeared on television programs hosted by Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, it was on the top-rated “Ed Sullivan Show” that The Pelvis made his biggest splash. Watching Sullivan was a Sunday night tradition in our family, and many other families, and I eagerly anticipated seeing Elvis in action. The man was incredible, and I think I saw his first movie, “Love Me Tender,” a dozen times. In the years to follow, I saw every picture Elvis ever made, as lousy as the majority of them were. I was listening to the car radio in the summer of 1977 when the news of his death was broadcast. I still haven’t gotten over it.

Years later, I was driving home from my suburban Philadelphia office. It was in the fall and the sun was beginning to go down at around 6 p.m. All of a sudden, in the middle of the street, I saw Elvis Presley, in full Elvis regalia. Maybe all the talk was true. Maybe Elvis wasn’t really dead. I pulled the car over, began talking to him, and invited him to the jam session I was co-hosting that night in center city Philadelphia. “It’ll be cool, man,” I told Elvis. “No publicity. Come down and do a couple of tunes.”

“Maybe I will,” he said. “And thank you very much.”

Arriving home, I was white as a sheet. “Elvis” never showed up at the jam, and everyone I ever told about that scenario thought I was crazy. Six months later, I was telling a neighbor this story and found out there was a mentally challenged man who lived in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, where I was then living, who walked the streets dressed as—and impersonating—Elvis. I guess the real Presley is dead after all. Then again, who knows?

I’ve written extensively about Elvis through the years, with a concentration on those despicable, “tell all” books that proliferated after his death. The late author Albert Goldman, who also crucified Lenny Bruce in print, was one of the more guilty parties. I won’t deny I was curious. Those who loved Elvis often wondered why he made those terrible films, recorded even more terrible soundtracks to many of his pictures, never toured Europe, rarely challenged himself as an artist, and in the end, killed himself.

Musically, he synthesized elements of blues, and the sounds of early rock pioneers such as Louis Prima and Louis Jordan. What he did was authentic and listeners could tell he “felt it.” He was also a naive country boy who, early on, put his entire livelihood in the hands of a self-serving lout named Colonel Tom Parker, an illegal alien and gambling addict who once managed country singers Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams. Parker could never see beyond a dollar sign. For years, Parker talked of writing his autobiography, which he was going to title, “How Much Does it Cost if it’s Free?”

But the Colonel wasn’t an idiot. When Elvis’ stock began to rise, he was concerned about Presley’s rep as a rebel and one who was single-handedly inspiring juvenile delinquency. He needed to institute damage control, which is why he literally forced his client to go into the army, and later, attempted to transform him into another Crosby via all those non-threatening films. Who could be more white bread than Crosby? (If only the public knew then what the real Crosby was like.)

The strategy of The Colonel worked, but in the process, irrevocably damaged Presley’s stature as a musical artist and motion picture star. There was hope for him, when the Pelvis starred in his comeback television special of 1968, but then The Colonel took the traditional route by booking him often in Vegas, and in stadiums through out the country, many of them in the non-demanding hinterlands. In retrospect, simply because The Colonel was an illegal alien and had no passport, it is impossible to conceive that Elvis Presley never gave a live performance outside of the United States. And there would be no tampering with Presley image, either, which is why Parker vetoed what may have been transforming film projects for “his boy,” including a co-starring role with Barbra Steisand in “A Star is Born.”

Elvis Presley died, I maintain, because of frustration and bitterness and because he knew his true potential was not even partially realized.

Jerry Blavat: The Geator Heats up the Book World

Monday, May 7th, 2012

A “Jerry Blavat,” a.k.a. the “Geator with the Heater,” could not be invented today. Or any day, for that matter. In his impressive autobiography, as told to Steve Oskie, “You Only Rock Once,” the legendary Philadelphia broadcaster maintains that “the street” was his “classroom.”

What a street–and what a classroom–it was, as the Geator wisely and instinctively utilized those street smarts to fashion a tremendously successful career as entertainer, radio and television host, music visionary, music industry executive, promoter, talent booker, night club owner, deal maker, hit maker, almost-movie star, friend to celebrities, the rich, the powerful and the famous, from Sammy Davis and Frank Sinatra to Walter Annenberg and Sidney Kimmel.

Though an astounding six decades as an entertainment icon–beginning in the 1950s when he danced on television’s American Bandstand–he never lost his feel for his beloved streets of Philadelphia, and the street kids he called the “yon teens.” Today, those fans are the “beyond teens,” and they still love him and everything he does, whether hosting oldies rock shows at the Kimmel Center or doing fund-raising appeals for Public Broadcasting.

This charismatic, human fireball, seemingly had “it,” whatever “it” was, before he even hit 20. The record industry used Jerry Blavat as its ears in the early days and it became common knowledge that he could pick a hit. As head of the committee that picked the recordings to be played on Bandstand, the Geater was a stickler for ensuring that it was the “original” artists that got played, i.e., Little Richard’s version of “Tutti Frutti” rather than Pat Boone’s sanitized cover of it.

Though all of his years, he would never, ever sacrifice the integrity of the music or his love for it. As a consequence, the color-blind Blavat has kept dozens of artists from the golden days working, and he always tried to make sure they were presented properly. Despite lucrative offers, he would never change his innovative and electric, rapid-fire method of on-air delivery. Indeed, it could be argued that what Blavat did over the decades on WCAM and WHAT radio, to name two, foreshadowed rap as a valid musical form.

It wasn’t all “discophonic” for Jerry, and his unflagging loyalty to his friends–including American Bandstand’s first host, the tragic Bob Horn; and reputed Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno—hurt his career and virtually stopped it in its tracks for a while. Because of his friendship with the Bruno family, law enforcement officials showed the Geator no mercy, and investigated—read, hounded him—for years. Ultimately, he came up clean, and they couldn’t even get him for spitting on the sidewalk.

“You Only Rock Once” is fascinating and honest encyclopedia of the world of entertainment and music in Philadelphia and beyond. My hat is off to the Geator for recognizing the likes of Allen Sussell, Bernie Lowe, Kal Mann, Dave Apple, Artie Singer, Harry Chipitz, Sid Mark and many other figures who contributed so much to the evolution of the entertainment industry.

Blavat has good words for almost everyone—only Mike Douglas and Hy Lit are deservedly not cast in the brightest of lights—but one wishes he would have said more about friends like Sinatra and especially, his close association with Sammy Davis, Jr. I don’t doubt that, in the case of Davis, Blavat continues to adhere to the code of privacy. In a tabloid world where everyone is willing to yak it up for a few bucks, Jerry Blavat proves to be the pleasant exception.

One wouldn’t think Jerry Blavat to be a jazz maven, but it’s important to note that, believe it or not, he discovered jazz guitar icon Pat Martino; gave Wes Montgomery his first shot on national television via the Geator’s “Jerry’s Place” television program; and helped the sagging career egendary saxophonist Charlie Ventura, when Chas returned to Philadelphia after he was forced to leave Las Vegas under veiled circumstances.

I met Ventura during his stint co-hosting “Jerry’s Place” and ultimately formed a musical and personal association with Charlie Ventura, my musical idol, which lasted until Chas’ death in 1992.

If “You Only Rock Once” is ever made into a major motion picture, as it should be, there is only one man who could play the title character: Jerry Blavat. After all, while Bruce Springsteen may be “The Boss,” the Geator with the Heater is the Big Boss. With, naturally, the hot sauce.


Friday, April 20th, 2012

Television host, producer and broadcast pioneer Dick Clark has died at the age of 82.

Clark was one of a handful of Philadelphia-born broadcasters and performers who made it to the national stage–Ed MacMahon, of course, was another–and he pretty much stayed there, front and center, until felled by a stroke in 2004.

Those who knew Clark have been unanimous in their praise of him as a human being, almost granting him saintly status. Entertainer Tony Orlando claims that what you saw in Clark’s onstage persona was exactly the way Clark was in real life. Interesting observation. Perhaps Orlando tied too many ribbons around too many old oak trees.

Philadelphia radio host Bob Horn was the creator and first host of Dick Clark’s later claim to fame, television’s “American Bandstand.” Horn, who hosted from 1952 to 1956, was ousted due to a drunk driving and statutory rape charge. Though acquitted from the latter, Horn’s career was over. Clark replaced him as the host of “American Bandstand” in July of 1956. It spent a year as a local program emanating from Philadelphia until it was picked up for national broadcast by ABC in 1957. The program lasted–probably too long–in various guises until 1989.

Clark was in the right place at the right time. Certain powers that be in this country were quite, quite concerned about the newfound popularity of rockers like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry and the like, because, as you know, they were all no-account hop-heads who inspired juvenile delinquency. The world needed more personalities like Pat Boone, for Elvis to have his balls cut off by being railroaded into the army, and for a fresh-faced “rock host” who might somehow but a “safe face” on all this lurid music.

Clark was the guy, and no doubt he was sincere in his passions. Indeed, so honest-looking and fresh-faced was he, that he escaped the entire payola scandal–paying radio guys for airplay–of the late 1950s. Pioneer rock jock Alan Freed had his career ruined by the scandal. Clark simply said he had no knowledge of any artist he had an interest in being involved in such a terrible affair.

Dick Clark’s real contribution to television was as a producer. He was there at the beginning with reality shows, beauty pageants, blooper programs, dozens of game shows, and the legendary New Year’s eve broadcast. None of this was art, nor did it pretend to be. Clarks’s talent was in making money. Lots of it.

Some years back, I had an idea for a reality television show called “The World’s Greatest Drummer.” The weekly series would pit drummers–of all ages–against one another in competition, playing before celeb/drummer judges like Max Weinberg, Charlie Watts, Ringo, etc. Several production companies were interested, but before seriously proceeding, I wanted to take the concept to “the expert.”

While hosting “Bandstand,” Clark had a number of dancers who appeared week after week and ended up with their own followings and fan clubs. One of these vastly popular “regulars” was a West Philly guy named Tommy DeNoble, who eventually had a decent singing career and appeared in films like “Ship of Fools.”

I drummed for Tom way back when, and thought that might help me gain entrance into the offices of “the world’s oldest teenager.” I sent a note to his office, and lo and behold, Dick Clark himself called me on the telephone.

He was more than nice, stressed that he did not use email and responded to letters, etc., via a personal telephone call, inquired about our mutual friend DeNoble, and then addressed the issue of “The World’s Greatest Drummer.” Though he liked the idea, he maintained that because the program was limited to just drums, that the entire concept was just too marginalized to ever reach a wide, general audience. “What would you do as a follow-up?” he asked. “The ‘World’s Greatest Violin Player’?”

He was right and I knew it, and I’ll never forget that he took the time to respond in the manner he did.

Yes, Clark was in the right place at the right time, and that’s great for a start. But he had the vision, strength and determination to succeed, and to succeed for decades in a medium that often spits people out after mere moments.

More importantly, I think Dick Clark really and truly liked television. It showed.