Over the years, many disc jockeys have claimed a love for the music they play. A few of them have meant it. A fewer still have put their money where their mouths were. And of those, only one has been wildly successful in the process: Jerry Blavat.
When rock and roll emerged in the early '50s, and with it a rise in the popularity of the rhythm and blues records which shaped its sound, disc jockeys were successful because of their ears. They picked the music they played and their fans flocked to them… Show more because of their knowledge and taste, Their personalities and playlists were synonymous. By the '60s, for a variety of reasons including the payola scandal, radio announcers literally became disc-jockeys-- jockeying songs from an approved list. Their personas emanated between the records, not from them. The 70s not only brought an approved order of approved songs but also the advent of liner cards-- pages of pre-written phrases to be parroted directly by the performer. Disc jockeys were being told what to play and what to say-- and many were being handsomely compensated in the process.
Jerry Blavat took a different route. He was attracted to the business because of his love for the music. It was a relationship he wasn't willing to sever. His first exposure to "fame" came as a dancer on the original "Bandstand" television program, hosted by Bob Horn. In 1953, less than a year after the show's inception, a 13 year old Jerry perfected his first scam-- impersonating a 14 year old, the age necessary to get on the program. He became a favorite with the viewers and rose to the head of the coveted "Committee", the group of teens responsible for aiding Horn in the direction of the show. When Horn was fired over questionable circumstances a few years later, the rest of the teens welcomed new host Dick Clark. Belying his youth, Blavat displayed an early sense of the loyalty that would become his most prized character trait. He left the program rather than tacitly approve Horn's ousting. (The two remained close until Horn's passing in Houston in 1966.)
By the time Jerry graduated from high school in 1958, he was hooked not only on music, but on performing as well-- and he was working on a healthy resume to prove it. Promoting records (for Cameo-Parkway), working with performers (serving as Don Rickles' valet) and traveling with top recording stars (as road manager for Danny & The Juniors) gave him a front row seat for the roots of rock and roll. Living as a "roadie", Blavat amassed a wealth of knowledge and a bank account of contacts. Artists such as Jerry Butler, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gladys Knight and many more became friends and confidantes. The stories they told, coupled with the first hand experiences he had, unwittingly prepared Jerry for a career move he never thought he'd make.
Jerry got into radio in 1962, the result of a bet. Given the state of radio today, some might believe he was on the losing end of that wager, but Blavat, full of bravado, bet that he could do a radio show from a nightclub. The issue wasn't whether it was technically possible. What was on the line was whether he could convince a radio station to go along with it. The owner of the Venus Lounge bet against it. Obviously he didn't know Jerry, who promptly went to WCAM in Camden, New Jersey and purchased an hour of radio time (reimbursing himself from the proceeds of the bet, of course). For most performers, an ensuing "act of god" would have ended this career chapter-- but for Blavat it was simply a fortuitous beginning.
Since Jerry acquired the radio time, he was allowed to resell commercials within it, which he promptly did. He had it all figured out. And for a while it worked just like he thought it would. What he hadn't counted on was the snowstorm. The one that closed the nightclub. And the city. But nothing could close Jerry. He had sold the time and he was going to air those commercials. (Loyalty may be the trait that Jerry prizes most in himself, but onlookers will attest to tenacity being the real key to his staying power. Nothing will stop this guy. And everything has tried.) So doing the only unreasonable thing, Blavat ignored the 'stay off the road' warnings and made it to WCAM's studios where he, his commercial announcements and his records (the ones he used to dance to on bandstand, the ones he promoted on Cameo-Parkway, and the ones he just plain liked that no one had ever heard-- flops and flipsides) set up shop.
If you want to light a radio audience on fire, there is no better propellant than a blizzard. When snow immobilizes a city, kids tune in to find out if schools are closed, adults listen to hear if they've got to report to work and everyone stays glued to the disc jockey's every word, in part because there's nothing else to do when you're housebound. The only way Blavat could have had a more captive audience would have been to broadcast from prison. Captive or not, what the audience heard was captivating. They'd never heard anything like it. And they'd never heard so much of it. The storm that immobilized the listeners also immobilized Jerry's replacements, so his one hour of evening radio time turned into all night. He continued his frenetic pace until the morning guy showed up. Listeners didn't know which was better-- his patter or his platters-- but they did know the number of the station and they dialed it.
Just as an exhausted Jerry was ready to fall asleep, WCAM's general manager phoned and wanted to know what the hell he did. (Usually when this call comes, it's the end of your career, not the beginning.) After finding out, the GM informed a bemused Blavat that he was a smash. His club gig turned into a radio gig and Jerry Blavat turned into "The Geator WIth The Heator".
Exactly what that phrase means has been the subject of much discussion. Even long time fans aren't precisely sure. But there is logic behind the seemingly nonsensical but appropriately rhyming handle (every jock with soul spoke in rhymed couplets in the '60s-- in recent times the records rap, but back in the day the rap came from the disc jockey between the songs which had something now nostalgic: a melody).
Geator came from alligator-- gator, or geator, depending on your Florida accent. To hear Blavat tell it, 'a geator would lay in the mud and bother no one unless you came close. Then it would snatch you up.' That's how it was with Jerry. Once you dialed by 1310 and caught his act, he snatched you up like an alligator. He was hot, almost too hot. Like a car heater in the dead of winter, he started out warming you but quickly overheated you to the point that you'd break out in a sweat. Some felt it was what he said, others claimed it was the way he said it, but for most it was the music, that mesmerizing sound they weren't hearing on the popular stations.
But make no mistake about it: while Jerry Blavat may well be the best known disc jockey in Philadelphia, he's never worked on a highly rated station. His chosen approach of buying time outright (and later in his career, an entire station), allows him to remain free to program the sound as he sees fit, answering to no one but his audience. Fortunately Blavat has business sense because the only way this approach can be viable long term is by knowing how to market the airtime-- and yourself. Jerry is a master at both.
The Geator coupled his growing popularity on the air (which by 1963 resulted in regional syndication of his program on small stations throughout the Delaware Valley ranging from Atlantic City to Allentown) with appearances off the air at dances, clubs and events. In the mid '60s, was not unusual for Jerry to see 5,000 kids a week in person, nor much of a stretch to claim he'd remember 3,000 of their names the following week. His appearances became so frequent that for a time he needed a helicopter to get from one gig to the next.
Today the helicopter is gone but the frantic schedule remains. Throughout the year, he can be found somewhere on virtually any night, and in the summer months he's in weekend residence at "Memories In Margate", the New Jersey Shore's hottest night spot which he's owned and operated since 1972.
But Blavat's entrepreneurial spirit didn't stop with playing records. He formed record labels (most notably Lost Nite which issued countless oldies compilation albums treasured by collectors to this day, and Crimson which had the Soul Survivors' "Expressway To Your Heart"), opened record stores (the Record Museum chain was his), and arguably began the "oldies" format. A number of people claim that distinction but to our recollection, no one else in 1962 was playing the music of rock and roll's past. And for top 40 music in the early '60s, there wasn't much of a past-- if you were relying on hits, that is. Jerry relied on a sound. Even before the term was widely used, "Geator" and "oldies" were synonymous to his audience. Then, and to this day, he lived by the phrase, "where we don't only play the oldies, we create them." The year was inconsequential, the artist didn't matter, the label was not a factor-- A side, B-side anything on vinyl qualified if it had the sound. (If we have to describe that sound, you're at the wrong site.)
In 1965, Jerry made a quantum career leap, combining his on air demeanor with his in person style, launching "The Discophonic Scene", a television show which took him to a new level of mass appeal respectability. Unlike his radio career, where his show was always the standout segment on otherwise obscure radio stations, "The Discophonic Scene" aired on network-affiliated VHF television channels. First on WCAU-TV 10 and later on WFIL-TV 6, "The Discophonic Scene" was ultimately syndicated by Triangle Publications and was seen across the country every weekday in over 40 markets.
Differing from most television shows where the host is a small part of the action behind the scenes, "The Discophonic Scene was in every way, Jerry. Relying on the contacts he made earlier in his career, Blavat awakened early each morning to personally book the likes of Fats Domino, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas and many more. Being a fan himself, the rule was live performances, not the badly mouthed lip-syncing that identified similar programs. In front of the camera there was also a difference-- Jerry was more like the kids than their parents. He not only resembled his "yon teens" as he referred to fans, but he danced like them too. After all, only a few years earlier he was in their place on "Bandstand".
Blavat's television success led to numerous network TV appearances including "The Mod Squad" (with lifelong friend, Sammy Davis, Jr.), "The Monkees" (where playing himself, he fell for Davy Jones who was dressed as a girl), "The Toinght Show" and "The Joey Bishop Show". He's also been in several movies such s "Desperately Seeking Susan", "Baby It's You" and "Cookie".
But Jerry Blavat's real legacy is the one he created on the radio-- the one that endures to this day. The one where "The Geator With The Heator" jumps out of your dashboard blaring a heart stopping song that you've got to hear. The one where "The Boss With The Hot Sauce" brings back the past. In 1970, Jerry returned full-time to his radio roots and he hasn't been off the air or out of the clubs since. It hasn't always been an easy road, but it's the only one he'd choose to travel. As for those of us who consider ourselves fans of that special sound, the one that takes us where we want to go-- we're just grateful to be invited along for the ride.
- Biography © Rollye James (www.rollye.net)
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