I’m torn. I don’t want this column to be an endless funeral parade as we lose legendary figures from the golden age of classic soul. On the other hand, these people made our world a better place with their music, and tribute must be paid. So I hope you’ll hang in there while I celebrate their work.
We lost Jerry Ragovoy this week. Ragovoy was one of the greatest soul songwriters and record producers. He authored or co-authored hits like “Time Is On My Side,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Stay With Me.” Ragovoy often wrote with Bert Berns. A prime example of their work is the Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters hit “Cry Baby.” I celebrated Ragovoy’s work with a feature on the Lorraine Ellison version of “Stay With Me” in this column about six months ago.
You might be surprised to learn that the versions of Ragovoy’s songs that you are most familiar with are cover versions. For example, “Piece of My Heart” was originally recorded by Erma Franklin before it became an enormous hit for Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. “Time Is On My Side” (written under the pseudonym N. Meade) was written for trombonist Kai Winding before being recorded by Irma Thomas. The hit version by the Rolling Stones came a year later.
In the end, Jerry Ragovoy may be most remembered for the Janis Joplin versions of his songs. In addition to “Piece of My Heart,” Joplin recorded definitive versions of Ragovoy’s “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder),” “Get It While You Can,” and the aforementioned “Cry Baby.”
Ragovoy also wrote a song called “I’m Gonna Rock My Way To Heaven” specifically for Joplin, but she died before she could record it. In fact it was never recorded or performed by anyone until it was included in a show called “One Night With Janis Joplin.” The showed premiered in Portland on May 27, 2011, and Ragovoy was in attendance that night. He finally got to hear his song, written so long ago, performed live. A few weeks later, he died. Jerry Ragovoy was 80 years-old.
If you love great songwriting, and great songwriters, seek out Ace Records songwriter series. They are imports, but well worth your time and money. In 2008, Ace released a compilation called Time Is On My Side: The Jerry Ragovoy Story. Other volumes in the Ace series celebrate the work of great songwriters like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Chip Taylor, Burt Bacharach, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. They’re all worth owning.