Gifted record producer Ragovoy also penned Rolling Stones, Joplin hits

July 20, 2011

Jerry Ragovoy, a songwriter and record producer who combined pop craftsmanship with the intensity of gospel music and whose hits included “Time Is On My Side” and “Piece of My Heart,” died July 13 at a hospital in New York after a stroke. He was 80 and lived in Stamford, Conn.

Over the years, entertainers such as the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin reached the top of the charts with Mr. Ragovoy’s songs. Many more, including South African singer Miriam Makeba, benefited from his work as a gifted, often fiercely exacting, producer.

As a songwriter, Mr. Ragovoy frequently partnered with Bert Berns and other tunesmiths from the storied New York hit factory known as the Brill Building.

Mr. Ragovoy’s “Time Is on My Side,” written under his frequent pen name Norman Meade, was the first U.S. Top-10 hit for the Rolling Stones, in 1964.

His gospel-influenced compositions were favorites of Joplin and particularly suited to her gut-wrenching delivery. She recorded several of Mr. Ragovoy’s compositions, including her signature “Piece Of My Heart,” which he co-wrote with Berns and first produced for Aretha Franklin’s older sister Erma in 1967.

“They are beautifully constructed songs that require a singer whose passion and emotional delivery can test that construction,” said rock critic Anthony DeCurtis.

“There is such a yearning in his writing,” DeCurtis added. “These are songs that packed an emotional punch in their choruses without being corny. They build. There’s a laying out of the emotional premise, and then the chorus packs an emotional wallop.”

Joplin also recorded Mr. Ragovoy’s “Get It While You Can,” “Cry Baby” and “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder.” They had been written and produced earlier in the 1960s for Howard Tate, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters and Lorraine Ellison, respectively.

Mr. Ragovoy’s accomplishments were not restricted to R&B or rock music.

He shared a songwriting credit with Makeba for an English verse and a new arrangement to the 1967 folk song “Pata Pata.”

Makeba initially approached Mr. Ragovoy about producing an album of show tunes, but he encouraged her to stick to her native music. As a producer, he won a 1972 Grammy Award for best score from an original cast show album for “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” which featured a book, music and lyrics by Micki Grant.

Jordan Ragovoy was born Sept. 4, 1930, in Philadelphia, where his father was an optometrist. He was exposed to music through his mother, an opera enthusiast who played piano and sang.

Mr. Ragovoy first worked as a record buyer for a small appliance store in a predominately black neighborhood.

With the store manager, he started a record label that resulted in a regional hit in 1953 for a local doo-wop group, the Castelles. Mr. Ragovoy was soon working as a staff arranger for another Philadelphia label on records by teen idols Fabian and Frankie Avalon.

Moving to New York in the early 1960s, Mr. Ragovoy initially intended to write for Broadway shows. Instead, he found a calling writing pop and R&B songs.

Jazz trombonist Kai Winding first recorded Mr. Ragovoy’s “Time Is on My Side” in 1963 as a predominately instrumental piece with lyrics only in the refrain. It was later reworked by lyricist Jimmy Norman into an R&B hit for Irma Thomas in 1964 before the Rolling Stones took it into the pop charts that same year.

In 1966, Mr. Ragovoy became the East Coast artist and repertoire man for Warner Bros. records. That same year, he produced the Lorraine Ellison hit “Stay With Me” with a 51-piece orchestra. He had been asked to put the orchestra to use — they were being paid union scale — when Frank Sinatra cancelled a Warner session.

The 1967 album “Get It While You Can” by soul-blues singer Howard Tate, often regarded as Mr. Ragovoy’s finest production work, yielded four Billboard hits.

Tate, an impassioned vocalist who struggled with addiction, descended into homelessness by the 1980s. But a renewed interest in his early recordings prompted a belated and well-received reunion between producer and singer, the 2004 album “Rediscovered.”

In 1969, Mr. Ragovoy opened his own studio, the Hit Factory in New York. There he produced albums for Paul Butterfield, Bonnie Raitt and Dionne Warwick before selling the property in 1976.

Survivors include his wife, Beverly Matson Ragovoy of Stamford; two daughters; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Musicians regarded Mr. Ragovoy as a perfectionist in the studio, and he didn’t deny it.

“Artists usually get the glory which, for the most part, they deserve, and the producer stays in the background,” Mr. Ragovoy once said.

He added: “With every singer I’ve ever worked with, I was like Hitler when it came to the vocals. Every time I produce something, it’s as if I’m still trying to prove myself. Every note, every song, every project that I immerse myself in, whether it’s an arrangement or whatever, all of it is a unique challenge.”

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