It's been a good and bad month for Jerry Blavat, Philly's "Geator with the Heater."
First, Blavat was hit by the passing of an old Philadelphia friend, a man whose career the platter-spinning celebrity launched: the Soul Survivors' Richie Ingui, one of two brothers behind Expressway to Your Heart" and other blue-eyed soul singles. "A terrible thing," Blavat said after a luncheon tribute to Ingui's career. "I love those guys. Life is short, pal."
On the celebratory side – one where the Soul Survivors' collective voice will be given its due in a surprise finale – is Blavat's first big live event of 2017. This tribute to 1950s-'60s gospel, soul, and doo-wop is another of his joyful musical revues whose backing orchestration finds "the Boss with the Hot Sauce" and longtime arranger Mike McCourt returning to the original arrangement of each artist's finest, most-recognizable work, with a 30-piece orchestra to lift the vocalists.
"This is my 38th Kimmel show, and the secret to what we do is this: re-create the song as the original artist and its audiences remember it," says Blavat. "I know many of the guys have passed, but as long as I have one member of an act who knows the initial feel for the music as I do, I can make magic."
Blavat and McCourt might adjust the keys to suit older vocalists' wear and tear, but the results are always lush, as the rush of real strings, reeds, and brass ("as opposed to synthesizers and small rhythm sections normally backing them"). It's like nothing Eddie Holman ("Hey There Lonely Girl") or the Chi-Lites ("Have You Seen Her") -- two of this weekend's many acts -- have witnessed since their heyday.
A celebration of doo-wop legend Kenny Vance and the Planotones, featuring Ladd Vance and Johnny Gale, as well as the tribute to crooner Johnny Maestro with the Crests will benefit from the same Technicolor sound and staging.
"We did a show recently with Chuck Jackson after which Smokey Robinson called me and said, 'Geator, you added 20 years to Chuck's life,' " Blavat says. "That's what we bring to these guys – the sound of the way it was. These singers deserve to be highlighted in an atmosphere as grand as the Kimmel. People young and old leave my shows buying tickets to the next event without knowing the lineup (Blavat told me off the record who April's star is, and it's a doozy). "This sound is timeless, eternal."
Speaking of eternity, the gospel portion of Blavat's showcase this weekend is one that is new to the Geator's live programing, but certainly not new to his listening habits. The 80-year-old gospel vocal quartet the Dixie Hummingbirds have forever been a crowd favorite, but not so long ago, Blavat got hold of a song they did ("Morning Train") with Sound of Philadelphia singing legend Bunny Sigler. "That song was as fresh as when rhythm and blues had its start – I mean, gospel was R&B before R&B was around. That's how I got the idea to make gospel a part of this reunion show."
Around the same time as the Hummingbirds/Sigler collaboration, Blavat worked with Cameo-Parkway goddess Dee Dee Sharp on a Maltshop Memories cruise and spoke to the queen of "The Mashed Potato" about her gospel roots. "Cameo's Kal Mann found her singing in a church when she was 13 years old, man," says Blavat. "Her roots were in gospel, so we're going to have her at a piano, after she's done with 'Gravy,' going into her old gospel tunes before she does 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.' You'll see, hear, and feel how all of these old sounds are connected. That's the point of all this. And it's going to be beautiful."