‘What is Philly without the Geator?’ A city mourns the loss of an icon

Jerry Blavat poses for a photo

Jerry Blavat and Friends (Kimmel Cultural Campus)

“There are a lot of sad people in Philadelphia today,” said musician and radio host Ben Vaughn, about the death of Jerry Blavat. “He was a source of joy and happiness for so many people.”

Blavat died early Friday morning from complications due to myasthenia gravis, a nerve disorder. He was 82.

Known as the Geator with the Heater, Blavat had been part of the fabric of the greater Philadelphia area for seven decades.

As a teenager growing up in South Philly in the 1950s, he would sneak into the TV studio for the daily dance show “Bandstand,” later to become “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark, where he wowed then-host Bob Horn with his dancing skills and musical taste.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by WHYY (@whyy)

Blavat’s insatiable energy for music and his gift for rapid-fire patter propelled him into radio shows, television appearances, and dance halls for the rest of his life, along the way gaining the accolades of politicians and celebrities, a Jersey Shore nightclub, and possible ties to organized crime.

“It’s very much a Philadelphia story,” said Philadelphia DJ Cosmo Baker. “Philadelphia is a city that really celebrates its characters and celebrates its idiosyncrasies. Jerry Blavat was the living embodiment of all that.”

From his nonsensical moniker Geator with the Heater, to his total recall of encyclopedic details of music history (you never heard him struggle to remember a date or a name), to his penchant to talk over the music he was playing, the Boss with the Hot Sauce was a personality that generations of Philadelphians embraced, and he embraced them back.

“What we’re talking about makes no sense to anyone outside of the Delaware Valley,” said Vaughn, who grew up in Collingswood, New Jersey, and is now based in Los Angeles.

“The Geator is not a real word. He called us Yon Teens and claimed that came from Shakespeare. I’ve read Shakespeare and I’ve never seen Yon Teens in there,” he said. “We never questioned it because he was so real, and so authentic in his passion for music.”

Jerry Blavat poses with Dionne Warwick
Event host Jerry Blavat and Marian Anderson Award recipient Dionne Warwick pose for photographers, ahead of a gala and award ceremony, on Tuesday, at the Kimmel Center. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Although Baker is not a DJ in the mold of Blavat — he spins mostly hip hop and jazz without the old-school hipster banter — he calls the Geator one of the greatest DJs ever.

“In 2023, by and large, people who are music consumers really lean on automation, really lean on algorithms, really lean on the ubiquitous cloud of music which isn’t even referred to as music. It’s content,” said Baker. “Curation is an art. This is what he did, and what he did impeccably.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Early in his career, Blavat would buy air time on local stations and sell his own ads, in order to have complete control over what songs he played. He was an early advocate of music by Black artists that was often marketed to just Black audiences. Where many radio stations played white artists covering songs by Black artists, Blavat played the originals.

“If you liked what the Geator was doing you had to go to him. He had no competition at all. He was the Geator and I went for it 100% when I was a kid,” said Vaughn. “Being true to yourself was really the message I got.”

Blavat was known not only for his deep musical experience, but for the unflagging energy he brought to his performances for almost 70 years. At 82 years old, he was still booking himself for gigs six days a week. Just last October, he was one of the featured entertainers on an oldies-themed cruise liner.

Even as an older man, the king of the oldies never seemed to get old.

On Jan. 10, just ten days before he died, he wrote a letter to his fans on his website explaining why he had to cancel some events due to a health complication caused by a torn shoulder, which revealed an underlying nerve disorder. “I look forward to being back with you shortly,” he wrote.

Jerry Blavat DJs a set
The legendary disc jockey known as “The Geator with the Heater” and “The Boss with the Hot Sauce” has died at 82. (6abc)

Philadelphia radio station WXPN, where Blavat hosted a weekly radio show on Saturdays at 6 p.m., will use the time slot this weekend to re-broadcast a special production from 2021, “Lost Dedications.” Blavat and Vaughn sat together and read previously unopened fan mail from 1962, in which teenagers hand-wrote letters to Blavat requesting song dedications for their crushes.

Jerry Blavat and Mayor Nutter congratulate the Roots, who were honored as one of 7 new Walk of Fame stars outside the Kimmel Center Monday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

About a dozen letters were lost for almost 60 years. Vaughn said Blavat’s biggest concern about unveiling those letters was that he had accidentally overlooked them 60 years ago and did not honor their requests at the time.

“Every time we open a letter, the air inside that envelope was from 1962,” said Vaughn. “The emotions of the kids, who are now not kids, are, like, frozen in amber.”

WHYY-FM will also re-broadcast “Lost Dedications,” on Sunday at 11 a.m.

“I think Philadelphia is in for an identity crisis without the Geator,” said Vaughn. “Who are we? What is Philly without the Geator? Most of us don’t remember a time before the Geator.”

A public funeral for Jerry Blavat is scheduled for the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Saturday, Jan. 28. A viewing will commence at 9 a.m. with a service at 11:30 a.m.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal