Jerry Blavat, D.J. Who Channeled the Soul of Philadelphia, Dies at 82

Jerry Blavat, a bookmaker’s son from South Philadelphia who rose from head-turning teenage dancer on a precursor to “American Bandstand” to widespread acclaim as the most influential disc jockey in the Delaware Valley thanks to his third-rail energy, fantastical wordplay and finely honed instincts for the particular rhythms of his native city, died on Jan. 20 in Philadelphia. He was 82.

His longtime partner, Keely Stahl, said the cause was myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease that weakens the skeletal muscles.

With his rat-a-tat patter and crooked Jack-o’-lantern smile, Mr. Blavat (pronounced BLAV-it) displayed otherworldly skills in promoting under-the-radar vinyl — and himself — in a career that began in 1961 with a 10:30 p.m. Thursday slot on tiny WCAM-AM in Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Christening himself the “Geator With the Heater” (“geator” being Blavat-ese for “gator,” an animal as voracious as the disc jockey himself) and the “Boss With the Hot Sauce,” he woofed, howled and rhymed his way to local fame, particularly among a generation of young Philadelphians in the 1960s, whom he affectionately referred to as “yon teens” (“yon” was a twist on “young,” which, in his view, sounded Shakespearean).

“It’s hard to explain to an outsider what kind of energy and influence he had,” said the singer, songwriter and syndicated radio host Ben Vaughn, who came of age listening to Mr. Blavat’s show and later became a close friend. “He defined the sound and the sensibility of the city.”

Purchasing his on-air time by selling ads himself, Mr. Blavat steered clear of program directors and rigid formats, and as a result he had the freedom to upend the conventions of early-’60s pop radio by spinning little-known singles, some of them several years old and many of them by Black artists who were largely unknown to white audiences.

Among the many performers Mr. Blavat presented on his nationally syndicated weekly television show, “The Discophonic Scene,” were the Supremes. Credit…Jerry Blavat

Throughout the ’60s, Mr. Blavat spun the latest singles by artists like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Smokey Robinson. “Whenever we were in Philly and the Geator was playing our music, we always knew we’d have a hit,” Mr. Robinson wrote in a blurb for “You Only Rock Once,” Mr. Blavat’s 2011 memoir. But Mr. Blavat also made it his trademark to unearth underappreciated gems by R&B groups like the Intruders or Brenda & the Tabulations.

His unflagging support of Black artists made an impression on many young white Philadelphians, some of whom would become stars themselves.

“I tell people everywhere I go that I’m the product of the Philadelphia music scene,” Todd Rundgren said when he inducted the band the Hooters into the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame in 2019. “People ask me, what does that mean? I tell them it comes down to one thing: I grew up listening to the Geator. He played the music that would have been called race records at the time, the music that was made south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And that’s why so many white kids in Philly grew up wanting to sing R&B.”

For Mr. Blavat, success rested on one set of ears: his own. “If I don’t dig it, it could be my father out there grooving on the record and I won’t play it,” he was quoted as saying in a 1966 profile by the novelist Bruce Jay Friedman in The Saturday Evening Post.

He could be stubborn in his refusal to abide by industry trends — for example, he largely ignored the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania. “I sensed that it just didn’t have enough soul for my kids,” he told Mr. Friedman. “The Stones, yes. The Beatles, no. So I’d go up to Fonzo’s restaurant and the upper-class kids would say, ‘How come no Beatles?,’ and I’d say it’s just not my schticklach, not my groove.”

Gerald Joseph Blavat was born on July 3, 1940, in South Philadelphia, the youngest of two children of Louis and Lucille (Capuano) Blavat. His father, known on the street as Louis the Gimp, favored sharkskin suits and Stetson hats, had ties to the local Jewish mob and ran an illegal bookmaking operation, according to Mr. Blavat’s memoir. His mother worked in a jewelry store, as well as at Philadelphia’s naval shipyard during World War II.

“My mother taught me love,” Mr. Blavat told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2011. “My father taught me the streets, the nightclubs, how to hustle.”

An avid dancer from an early age, he used that hustle to talk his way onto “Bandstand,” a local television show featuring teenagers dancing to the latest hits, at age 13, a year shy of the minimum age requirement. (The show, hosted by Bob Horn, later evolved into Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”) With his flashy moves and electric personality, he was soon a neighborhood celebrity. His musical ambitions, however, lay far beyond the dance floor.

Mr. Blavat at an in-store appearance promoting “The Discophonic Scene.” He didn’t just present acts on that show; he was out on the floor, showing off his moves.Credit…Jerry Blavat

Chasing any opportunity, he did stints as a road manager for Danny & the Juniors, the Philadelphia doo-wop group best known for the No. 1 hit “At the Hop,” while still in high school, and as the comedian Don Rickles’s valet. When he was 20, he used his outsize salesmanship to scrounge up enough sponsors to buy his first $120 hour of airtime on WCAM.

Despite the limited reach of the station’s signal, word spread quickly. “Kids would park on the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River, as close to the transmitter as they could, so they could listen to the Geator,” Mr. Vaughn said. “There was a whole scene going — dancing, heavy petting, everything you could think of. Just classic teenage rock ’n’ roll passion.”

Before long, Mr. Blavat was hosting record hops drawing up to 2,000 teenagers in ballrooms around the city. In the mid-1960s, he produced and hosted a nationally syndicated weekly television show, “The Discophonic Scene,” similar to “American Bandstand” but with Mr. Blavat actually out on the floor, showing off his moves, and with the artists performing live and not lip-syncing.

As the decades rolled by, Mr. Blavat remained a cherished and ubiquitous figure on the Philadelphia cultural scene, hosting radio shows on WXPN and other stations in the region as well as an annual celebrity-dotted revue at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the city’s marquee performance hall.

His reputation would not remain entirely unsullied. His friendships with Philadelphia organized crime bosses like Angelo Bruno and Nicodemo Scarfo brought various allegations of mob-related activity over the years.

In 1992, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation called Mr. Blavat to testify in a hearing about mob influence in the state’s liquor business, including allegations that Mr. Blavat had paid a “street tax” to Mr. Scarfo to keep union organizers away from Mr. Blavat’s popular Memories in Margate disco on the Jersey Shore, and that he had served as a front for a yacht purchase by Mr. Scarfo.

Mr. Blavat at a parade in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day 2021.Credit…Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images, via Getty Images

Mr. Blavat cited the Fifth Amendment, and in later interviews described his relationship with local crime figures as merely personal. “I’m a performer,” he said about his mob associations in a 1995 television interview. “I’m friends with everyone.”

Such controversies did little to slow his momentum. Ms. Stahl said he continued to spin his oldies on local stations seven nights a week, and to drive all over the region to perform at record hops for his old fans, and in many cases, their grandchildren.

In addition to Ms. Stahl, Mr. Blavat is survived by his sister, Roberta Lawit; his daughters, Kathi Furia, Stacy Braglia, Deserie Downey and Geraldine Blavat; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Despite achieving nationwide exposure in the 1960s with “The Discophonic Scene” and appearances on “The Monkees” and “The Mike Douglas Show,” Mr. Blavat was never interested in making the compromises it would take to abandon his roots in Philadelphia, Mr. Vaughn said.

“He had offers to go national,” he said, “but they told him that they needed him to be less Geator, because what he does doesn’t make sense outside of Philadelphia. Everything he says rhymes, and he makes up words that don’t even exist. In Philly, we didn’t even question it.”

“To his credit,” he added, “he passed on every one, because he didn’t want to lose us.”

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