'60s songwriter/producer Jerry Ross gets Philly's Walk of Fame nod

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Hit meister Jerry Ross , today, in his Northeast Philadelphia office, surrounded by his music and the memorabilia of a career that took what was in his head and put it in yours.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Hit meister Jerry Ross , today, in his Northeast Philadelphia office, surrounded by his music and the memorabilia of a career that took what was in his head and put it in yours.
Posted: October 23, 2013

WHEN Jerry Ross is inducted into the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame on Thursday, he tells me, his mind will be on the stars. Not the stars whose music he has produced over a long career - Jay & the Techniques, Spanky & Our Gang, Jerry Butler, Dee Dee Warwick, the Duprees, the Dreamlovers, the Sapphires - but an astronaut named Jerry Ross (no relation). But more on that later.

The earthbound Jerry was born in Philadelphia, in 1933, in time to be positioned for the musical explosion that would change America and the body of world music. Jerry was part of that change, producing the background music of many peoples' lives.

As a kid, he got into bed with a radio under the covers and listened to the powerful stations that could be heard across America, bobbing his head to the big bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey.

He loved music. He wanted to be a disc jockey. He wanted to write songs. He wanted to play a trumpet and be Harry James. He wanted to sing and be Howard Keel. He wanted, he wanted, he wanted.

His parents indulged him with music lessons, but Jerry knew that there were better trumpet players, better singers than he. That's when he told his parents that he wanted to be a songwriter and music producer.

"You might as well be an astronaut," scoffed his father.

Jerry's telling me his story in his jammed offices in a Northeast shopping center. He once shared offices with Kenny Gamble, in Center City, but Jerry hated the commute hassle and took space a few minutes from his home.

The second-floor office is Jerry's music womb. The walls are lined with pictures from his heyday, awards, gold records, family pictures, posters. His desk is a cluttered arc of notepads, papers and tons of discs and cassettes. There's a keyboard alongside his desk and a treadmill behind it.

This is the end of Jerry's career, which began with his military service during World War II. He was assigned to Armed Forces Radio, where he learned everything about broadcasting - from news to sports to music.

When he mustered out, he used the GI Bill to enroll in Temple University. A teacher got him an audition with broadcast pioneer and icon Jack Steck, at WFIL-TV (now, WPVI), then located at 46th & Market.

His audition went like this: "The red light came on, they handed me a Daily News" and told him to improvise a commercial. He got the job and quit Temple to work full time.

At that moment in time something happened that was to change Jerry's life, or at least direct it onto a new path. Bob Horn, the host of WFIL's "Bandstand," was fired, and a guy named Dick Clark, then host of WFIL radio's "Caravan of Music," was shifted to TV for what would become "American Bandstand."

Jerry got to host "Caravan" three times a week. The rest of the time, more importantly, he was Clark's booth announcer. That positioned him to meet everyone in American pop music, creating a contact list that would be invaluable later.

At "American Bandstand," "I learned everything that goes on in the music business," he says, and he will be inducted into the Walk of Fame as a songwriter, record-label owner and producer. I understand the first two, but what does a producer actually do?

It's like being a film director, but more, Jerry explains, leaning back in his swivel chair, a Polo cap on a head that is snowy white.

In the recording industry, the producer is a "music architect," making all decisions from writing or buying the song, finding the right artist, hiring the crew "and telling them what I was looking for in a sound." That's the creative part, followed by the business part - promoting the music, getting it distributed, into the stores and on the radio.

The first artist Jerry signed was Kenny Gamble, then a 17-year-old with a smooth voice. The relationship blossomed into the partnership of Gamble and Ross, before there was a Gamble and Huff. They wrote the Supremes' smash, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," with Leon Huff.

Jerry then went out on his own, seeking new artists and new sounds. He frequently was pointed to new bands by local DJs.

"He was one of the first producers and writers and promoters who understood rhythm and blues and black music, which was very unusual at that time," says Jerry Blavat, who will emcee Thursday's ceremony.

Not content to be local, Ross nosed around Europe looking for talent and discovered Holland's the Shocking Blue, whose "Venus" went to No. 1 in 1970. "They didn't even grunt in English," Jerry chuckles. The band sang "Venus" phonetically, and Jerry used his "American Bandstand" contacts to get them national bookings.

"Venus" wasn't his biggest hit. As a songwriter, it was "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." As a producer, it was Bobby Hebb's "Sunny," which boasts 560 cover versions. It is No. 25 on BMI's top songs of the 20th century.

As he moved up in the recording industry, his titles eventually included A&R (artists & repertoire) director for Mercury Records, and Motown vice president for new talent.

"That's what I'm about," says Jerry, "developing new talent."

What also gives him satisfaction is that BMI - which represents artists' performance rights - says that every five minutes, some music from the Jerry Ross Songbook is being played somewhere. "That's a reward," Jerry says modestly, "when someone appreciates your body of work."

As he stands there Thursday listening to his introduction, Jerry will be thinking, "It took Jerry Ross the astronaut three days to get to the moon, it took me 50 years to get here. But here I am."

The kid who wanted, succeeded.


Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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