RIP to the great Philadelphia DJ personality Jerry Blavat, the legendary “Geator with the Heater.”
I got turned on to the Geator a million years ago, when I auditioned for a Morells spinoff band when I was in high school in Missouri. The Morells were pen pals with a like-minded singer in Philly named Ben Vaughn, and they wound up recording a couple of Ben’s original songs such as “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” and “Growin’ a Beard.”
I auditioned with Maralie Whitney, keyboard player for the Morells, who had recently divorced Lou Whitney, the leader and bass player of the Morells. Maralie had all of Lou’s stuff, as she was still living in the house they shared during their band years. She told me about Ben Vaughn, and how Ben had sent them dozens and dozens of cassette tapes over the years. There were tapes of his band, the Ben Vaughn Combo, tapes of his original song demos, and a bunch of on-air cassette tapes of a legendary Philadelphia disc jockey, “The Geator with the Heater.” Ben seemed to be a bit obsessed with the Geator.
I borrowed all the tapes and, as most seventeen-year olds do, I neglected to return them. I got a big education from my brief interaction with the Morells folks (I didn’t take the gig with Maralie—it would have meant quitting high school and there was no money to be made. Some of you folks might find it interesting that the other guy auditioning to be in Maralie’s band was a college guy named Jim Finklea, who decades later would turn up in Nashville as “Joe Buck Yourself”—it’s a small world, after all.) I got to meet my guitar hero, D. Clinton Thompson (one of the world’s greatest, no exaggeration). I got some sage advice from Maralie’s ex-husband Lou Whitney (“Now listen, kid, the best advice I can give you is to quit, right now, while you’re ahead.” Lou’s acerbic, smart-aleck wit has stuck with me to this day). I got to jam and play music with older people I really looked up to. And I got to borrow those cassette tapes.
Regarding those cassette tapes, I quickly found out why Ben Vaughn was so obsessed with Jerry Blavat. For one thing, on his radio shows, The Geator played the greatest mix of music—rockers, R&B saxophone honkers, doo-wop, and ballads suitable for making out in the back seat of a car. Then the Geator would talk—not only introducing the records, giving dedications to a slew of people whose names sounded so familiar it’s as if he had memorized them all, but also just riff, sometimes over half a record if he felt like it. He would talk about how these records made you FEEL, and how hard it was to have a broken heart, but that everything would be better with time. I was hooked as well. To this day, I think Jerry Blavat was the most hypnotizing, seductive, entertaining rock ’n’ roll disc jockey of all time. Man, there was just something magic about his voice. The thing that blew me away was that these air-check cassette tapes that Ben had sent to the Morells were from the 1980s, but all the time while I was listening to them, I thought they were from the 1950s or early 1960s. He was timeless.
Many of you are probably unfamiliar with Jerry Blavat. This leads me to the other great thing about the guy. He WAS Philadelphia. The guy oozed Philly out of every pore. He knew and loved that city, and unlike today’s on-air personalities who broadcast from anywhere to be heard anywhere on the planet, the Geator was a Philly presence for six decades. One of the things we’ve lost in the digital internet age is the concept of the local personality. This was a huge thing back in the day. Jerry Blavat was Philly’s disc jockey. Sure, there was Dick Clark, who went on to national acclaim, but Jerry WAS Philly. He was hip. He had that connection to the street. He knew what the kids liked, and he gave it to them. Dick Clark couldn’t wait to get into corporate board meetings, but The Geator couldn’t wait to go M.C. a Little Richard show to a bunch of teenage kids packed into some rental hall.
A bit later, I found out that The Geator recorded a whole series of albums, released as “golden oldies” albums for his fans, where he did the same thing he did on his radio shows—played old records and talked over them. A couple of them, For Yon Teenagers Only” were so maddeningly influential in my life, I can still pretty much recite every line The Geator said, as he gave his own philosophy on love and life and how it related to teenagers (and I was eighteen or nineteen years old when I was spinning these records). The on-air character he portrayed so vividly was like entering a whole different world, a realm where you could escape whatever troubles you had and just let his voice and these ancient, obscure doo-wop records flow all over you. I can dig out any one of those albums now and still feel that feeling of peacefulness and relaxation wash over me. The guy really was a master at his craft.
And what a nom de plume. I still have no idea what a Geator is, or why he has a heater. It matters not. Decades ago, Jerry Blavat decided he would become “THE GEATOR WITH THE HEATER” (sometimes also inexplicably spelled “HEATOR”; the story is detailed in his great, funny, lurid autobiography, You Only Rock Once), and he inhabited that role like no other human could. He was a goddamn force of nature. The Geator with the Heater, the Big Boss with the Hot Sauce.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about the history of rock ’n’ roll music in Wildwood, New Jersey. I knew that Jerry Blavat would have some good insights to those early days when all the Philadelphia kids went down to Wildwood for the summer, where they would listen to bands like The Treniers and Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. Having stayed in touch with Ben Vaughn over the years, I wondered if Ben could put me in touch with The Geator. Ben was happy to help, and he GAVE ME THE GEATOR’S PHONE NUMBER.
There are few things in life that make me nervous, but simply picking up the phone and calling Jerry Blavat, the Geator with the Heater, was one of those things. I dialed the number, heard the phone ring, and then an all-too-familiar voice picked up on the other end. It was him. There was that voice. There was that laugh.
Jerry kept me on the phone for over an hour, telling me all about the golden era of Wildwood, New Jersey, all the music, all the fun, all the while making ME feel like the most important person in the world, hanging on my every word before telling me all kinds of wild stories from the glory days. He was laughing, he was serious, he was entertaining. A one-person show. The whole time, I was thinking to myself: “Holy crap. It’s him. It’s really him. I’m talking to THE GEATOR.” Thanks again for that, Ben.
The Geator kept going—he never stopped. Through the decades, he stuck with what he knew best, making people EXCITED about rhythm and blues and doo-wop and rock ’n’ roll. He continued on-air, and also did thousands and thousands of record hops and personal appearances. He knew everybody. He knew all the great, obscure records. He was indefatigable. The guy just kept going and going, like the Energizer Bunny.
Today I woke up to the sad news that Jerry Blavat has passed, just a few weeks after the death of Philly’s other long-standing rock ’n’ roll hero, Charlie Gracie. Both of those guys were so full of life, it’s hard to imagine a world without them. It really is an end of an era. There will never be another “Geator with the Heater.”