(Originally written for Side Dishes)
I was reminded about composer, arranger and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy when recently writing about Lorraine Ellison (he wrote Ellison’s monster ballad, “Stay With Me”) and a friend let me know that there was a recent anthology put out by the UK’s Ace Records, highlighting his greatest works. (NPR’s Fresh Air recently had a piece on him as well.)
It was quite a revelation for me; I knew Ragovoy was an important part of Philadelphia’s music history but never knew the extent of his contributions, least of all that he wrote “Time Is On My Side” made most famous by the Rolling Stones but originally written for Kai Winding. That’s just the tip of his vast career accomplishments – little did I know that he was behind some of my favorite old songs and listening to this comp, perhaps some of favorite new ones too:
One of the biggest hits in either Ragovoy or Mimm’s respective catalogs, this searing ballad was originally penned by Ragovoy and another songwriting great, Bert Berns. Though billed to the Enchanters, Mimms’ usual group actually doesn’t even appear on the record. Instead, the voices backing him up included the power trio of the Warwick sisters (Dee Dee and Dionne), along with Estelle Brown. To add insult to injury, with the success of “Cry Baby,” a #1 R&B hit, Mimms left the Enchanters soon after to pursue his own solo career.
If the Enchanters missed Mimms, they didn’t waste much time in replacing him with William Gilmore and armed with another Ragovoy composition and arrangement, the group struck out with this sublime little, gospel-tinged ballad (check out that ethereal organ in the background). Maybe it’s just Gilmore’s style or maybe Ragovoy was listening to a lot of Chicago radio at the time but this song has always struck me as being reminiscent of the Impressions’ styles from the same era. Great song either way.
Aretha Franklin: I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face
From Runnin Out of Fools (Columbia, 1964)
Co-written with Chip Taylor, “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” was originally recorded by Justine Washington and also recorded by Pat Thomas with Ragovoy arranging. The song would gain several more covers, including by another Ragovoy collaborator, Dusty Springfield, but personally, I’m most partial to this 1964 version by Aretha Franklin. Check out this rare video footage of Aretha performing the song. What is so impressive about the songwriting here is how that title phrase is turned around in meaning as the song evolves.
Janis Joplin may have made the song famous but like many of her best known hits (including several written by Ragovoy), “Piece of My Heart” originated first in the world of R&B, in this case, with Erma Franklin, older sister of Aretha. Erma’s performance here is one of the all-time soul-crushers – she unleashes such an unstoppable force of passion and wretched pain. Love the piano on the arrangement too; those keyboard strokes match Franklin’s own hammer strokes. (Note: this was another of Ragovoy’s songwriting collabos with Bert Berns).
While I consider myself a fan of the “sweet soul queen of New Orleans,” I had never heard this 1966 recording of a Ragovoy written and arranged song for Imperial and it absolutely blew me away. It’s not just that Thomas’ vocals are predictably on fire but the arrangement here is absolutely aces, especially in how it subtly builds to the chorus where Thomas and the backup singers light things up to a whole next level of greatness.
This is perhaps one of the most unlikely of Ragovoy’s hits – he had been hired to work with Makeba to singing American/English material but the night before they recorded, he had seen Makeba perform mostly African songs at a gig and was awestruck at the possibilities of having her record something closer to her own roots rather than simply tackling an American songbook. From that, “Pata Pata” was born and Makeba had a signature hit that also became a major smash in the Latin music world.