The Eulogizer: Philanthropist George Ross and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

George Ross, 77, philanthropist

Philanthropist George M. Ross, whose most recent project, the National Museum of American Jewish History, was the crowning achievement of decades of fundraising and leadership in Philadelphia, died July 8 at 77. More than 700 people attended a memorial service for Ross at the museum.

An ailing Ross sat with celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld, as well as Vice President Joseph Biden, at the Philadelphia museum’s gala opening last November in the culmination of a decade-long effort in which he raised $154 million for the project.

The New York Times described his effort to build the museum as successfully resisting “the gravitational pull of the nation’s usual cultural capitals” while convincing donors “of the need for another major museum, given the formidable stock of museums of Jewish art and history in New York, Los Angeles and Washington.”

In a statement, the museum said that Ross’ “vision and passion were critical to the creation of our new Museum,” and that his life embodied the museum’s “very spirit,” which testifies to the success Jews have had in the United States.

The museum was the last in a long line of projects and organizations in Philadelphia, Jewish and non-Jewish, in which Ross played a part, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Drexel University, from where he graduated and became chairman of its board of trustees; the Philadelphia Orchestra; Walnut Street Theatre and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

"George Ross was a pillar in the Philadelphia Jewish and secular community," said Federation CEO Ira Schwartz.

"His first thought was always, ‘How can I help the city?’ " said Joe Camarda, who worked with Ross at Goldman Sachs for 30 years. Ross, who was born George Martin Rosenkoff in West Philadelphia, had joined the investment firm in 1959. 

In 1985, Ross co-founded Operation Understanding with former U.S. Rep. William Gray, which works with young African-American and Jewish leaders to develop a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.

"He was an unstoppable force," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. "We will miss his commitment, we’ll miss his ability to get things done, we’ll miss his passion for doing things that reflect well on all of us.”

Jerry Ragovoy, 80, songwriter

Songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, an “important behind-the-scenes force” whose soulful tunes provided Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones with some of their biggest hits, died July 13 at 80.

"Jerry was a giant of soul, R&B and rock songwriting and record production," said Jim Steinblatt of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Music website writer Richie Unterberger said that “some of the seminal producers and songwriters of the soul era were not African American or nearly as young as the audience buying most soul records. Ragovoy was a case in point; he was a white Jew from Philadelphia.”

Ragovoy’s "Cry Baby" is considered by some to be "the first true soul song,” as it merged pop and gospel. It topped the R&B charts in 1963 in a recording by Garnet Mimms. Ragovoy and a partner wrote "Piece of My Heart" for Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s older sister, which made it to the top 10. But most pop music fans likely know "Cry Baby" and "Piece of My Heart" through the scorching versions by Janis Joplin.

Ragovoy wrote "Time Is On My Side" for jazz trombonist Kai Winding, but it became a hit for Irma Thomas and, then, in an almost note-for-note cover version, by the Rolling Stones.

He was born Jordan Ragovoy in Philadelphia and studied classical music, but became steeped in gospel and rhythm and blues when he worked at an appliance store in an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. He produced a recording by a local group in 1953, sold 100,000 copies of "My Girl Awaits Me" and turned music into his career. Ragovoy founded the Hit Factory recording studio in New York City in 1969, and also produced and arranged music for performers such as Bonnie Raitt and Dionne Warwick.

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