You might think that reading the dictionary or diagramming sentences is the best way to master language. But the Geator makes an excellent case for dancing lessons.
For the uninitiated — or for those unaccustomed to reading about a Philly music legend in a grammar column — the Geator with the Heater is Jerry Blavat, the Boss with the Hot Sauce, My Main Man, Pots and Pans. As a DJ, emcee, and all-around entertainer, Blavat has used his unique, highly rhythmic take on language to get “yon teens” (as he called them back in the day) and “beyond teens” (as he calls them now) out on the dance floor. As he’s rapped over songs throughout a 60-year career in show business, the language of the Geator comes not from a deep study of syllabic verse, but from his roots as a dancer, where he learned how rhythm informs both music and language.
“If you’re a dancer, there’s a rhythm that you hear in music that goes along with what I say,” said Blavat in a recent interview. “I have the rhythm of a dancer. That’s the secret of it.”
Blavat, who hosts his 41st Kimmel Center revue on Saturday, got his start dancing on the original Bandstand, back when the Philly-based show was filmed at 46th and Market. When he ended up accidentally hosting a Camden radio show in the middle of a snowstorm 60 years ago this month, he sprinkled his patter with the kind of rhyming and unique command of language that would become the hallmark of his six decades behind the microphone.
Even in a phone interview, he naturally falls into the fast-paced on-air cadence that’s become his trademark: “When I would be rocking and rolling, it’s time to rock, don’t be ’shamed, mention the Geator’s name, here we go with the hottest show on the radio!”
Rhyming for the sake of catchiness — another word for “being easy to remember” — is as old as storytelling, and serves several very practical purposes. Three millennia before the Geator chose Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” for his theme rap, the Chinese Shijing employed rhymes to ease the memorization burden of storytellers responsible for passing poetry from one generation to the next. William Shakespeare alternated prose and verse to indicate character change: As both Hamlet and King Lear descend into madness, their language breaks down from florid verse to rambling prose. Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhyming skills, plenty of Americans now know more about 10-dollar founding father Alexander Hamilton than they do about anyone else in revolutionary history.
For Blavat, command of language is about more than just rhyming: He practices concision by necessity.
“If there are 24 bars before you hit the lyrics, you’ve got to be musically inclined,” he says. When radio jocks used to talk over the instrumental intros to songs, they would follow a clock to know how many seconds they had before the lyrics hit. Not Blavat, though, who uses beats to keep his patter as concise as necessary. “I never used the clock,” he says. “I have a clock inside me.”
Which sounds like a way more engaging way to get students to write concisely than diagramming sentences.
Kimmel Center Presents Jerry Blavat Disco, Rock ’n’ Roll and Soul, Sat., Jan. 25, 8 p.m. $35-$95. Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad St. 215-893-1999. kimmelcenter.org