It never occurred to Jody Gerson that her upbringing was unusual.
When she was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, her family co-owned and operated the swanky South Jersey nightclub, the Latin Casino.
Starting in 1961, when the venue moved from 13th and Walnut Streets to Route 70 in Cherry Hill, its bookings were star-studded: Diana Ross, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra all played there.
“From when I was an infant, we would go to the Latin every Sunday for the matinee show,” Gerson recalls of the club owned by David Dushoff and her grandfather, Dallas Gerson. After Dushoff’s death in 1972, her father, Charlie Gerson, booked the room.
"I didn’t know how unique my childhood was compared to other people’s. My memories are sitting ringside at the Latin and seeing the most incredible entertainers. The Supremes. The Temptations. Teddy Pendergrass. Ray Charles. The great comedians of the time: Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal.”
Gerson’s music-business education began by watching superstar acts perform while divvying up dinner-theater egg rolls with her brother, Bill, on Sunday afternoons.
Since then, she’s gone far. She made a name as a talent spotter by signing Norah Jones, Lady Gaga, and Alicia Keys (when the songwriter was just 14, in 1996). In 2015, Gerson became the first woman to run a major music publishing company when she took over as chairman and CEO of the second-largest in the world, the Universal Music Publishing Group.
Billboard named her Executive of the Year in 2015, and ranks her as the 14th most powerful person in the music business.
On Tuesday, Gerson will be recognized in her hometown. A plaque bearing her name will go into the ground on the west side of Broad Street when she’s inducted into the Philadelphia Music Alliance’s Walk of Fame.
Along with Gerson, the 2019 Walk of Fame class includes big names surprisingly not in already: the Philadelphia Orchestra, Sound of Philadelphia stalwarts the O’Jays, 1980s “All You Zombies” hit-makers the Hooters, and WMMR-FM (93.3) DJ Pierre Robert.
Also scheduled to be immortalized are disco queen Evelyn “Champagne” King, known for her 1977 hit “Shame,” and the late arts philanthropist Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton.
All will then be honored at a gala Tuesday night at the Bellevue Hotel, where the artist inductees will perform.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee Todd Rundgren will induct the Hooters. Philadelphia concert promoter Larry Magid will give the speech for Gerson, whom he calls “a girl from Philly who made it to the top in this man-eat-man business, armed only with her brain and a winning personality.”
Gerson credits her Philly-area childhood with teaching her the ins and outs of the business, even if she wasn’t aware she was learning them.
She first developed her own taste in music after Penn Valley neighbor John Kalodner, who would go on to become a music critic and powerful executive, brought over a 45 of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and played it on her portable record player. “I was, like, that is my jam!” she recalls.
The Latin was a storied venue where James Brown recorded a live album in 1967 and Jackie Wilson in 1975 had a heart attack on stage from which the soul singer would never recover.
Gerson learned by observing. “In the front of the house, I would watch the maitre’d and see how you sit in the back of the room or right up front, based on what you gave the guy,” the 57-year-old exec, who has three children, says from her Los Angeles office. “And then backstage, I realized what made talent different from me. I knew I was meant to do something in music."
“I would see the artists being nervous backstage, or sweating, or somebody throwing up, or have to be pushed onstage. And then they would get onstage, and all of those fears would be masked. The lights were on and the orchestra was behind them and they performed a great show ... I knew even back then that I was never going to be in front of the stage, I was always going to be supporting talent from behind.”
The Latin Casino closed in 1978 after real casinos opened in Atlantic City, and the venue was reborn as Emerald City, a disco and rock room that briefly showcased acts like R.E.M, the Ramones, and Muddy Waters before closing in 1982.
By then, Gerson was gone. She went to Northwestern University in Chicago, and interned with concert promoter Bill Graham in San Francisco and The Mike Douglas Show in Bala Cynwyd. After college, she got a job photocopying sheet music at publisher Chappell Music in New York.
“I didn’t know what music publishing was. It was the job that was available to me at the time, but it turned out to be the perfect career, because I love pop music. I love songs. I love songwriters. And for all the effect and influence that Gamble and Huff and Linda Creed had on me, I realized my job was to find the next Gamble and Huff.”
Publishing drives the music business, but Gerson jokes that many of her friends don’t understand her job.
“Anytime you hear a song, whether it’s played on an elevator, or on a stream on Spotify, or you buy the download, that song has to be licensed and paid for. ... I represent the writers of the songs. It’s my job to try to get the most amount of people to hear the song.”
Gerson is sympathetic to artists fighting for higher royalty rates from Spotify and other streaming services. “It’s critical that innovation be completely interlocked with fair compensation for songwriters,” she told Music Business Worldwide this year.
And she’s bullish on the state of the business, where revenues are rising after years of decline. She acknowledges that the streaming era favors superstars over mid-level songwriters, but sees a bright side in that over the days when artists were paid only when an initial purchase was made.
“The beauty and potential upside of streaming,” she says, “is that every time you play a song, that song is getting paid for, forever.”
Gerson had her first big success in the 1990s by signing Atlanta rappers Arrested Development and, soon thereafter, songwriter-producers Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin.
Being raised in the Main Line’s Penn Valley, she benefited from “a white privileged life,” Gerson says. But “I grew up around incredible African American people and talent and with a great respect for the culture ... and the sense that music really is the great unifier.”
Her track record for finding female artists is impressive.
“As a woman running a company, it’s important to use my platform to support women in particular. And I do think I have a knack for identifying great, strong female talent.”
She met a teenage Keys in 1996. “I loved the tone of her voice. She had something.” And she believed Gaga when ”she told me she was going to be the biggest star in the world.’”
Besides the mega-deals Gerson has struck to acquire the catalogs of Bruce Springsteen and Prince, she attributes the 40% growth at Universal since she took over to growth in global markets and streaming, and “I think we have bet on the right talent.”
Recent examples include face-tattooed rapper Post Malone, teen goth phenom Billie Eilish, Spanish flamenco pop star Rosalia, and Philly rapper Tierra Whack, brought to the company by Universal’s Philly-born A&R person Sterling Sims.
“I just saw those videos” — on Whack’s album Whack World — “and thought, ‘We have to have her.’ She’s so creative and so brilliant that it’s my honor to support her vision and help her get where she wants to go.”
Gerson says that being inducted into the Walk of Fame, with her mother, Kate, present, “is very emotional for me."
“I haven’t lived in Philadelphia since I graduated from high school in 1979,” she says. “To be honored like that in my hometown? I only wish my dad and my grandfather could see it. Philadelphia is who I am.”
Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame
Walk of Fame induction ceremony, noon Tuesday on the 300 block of S. Broad St. Free.