RIP Jay Black, Whose Americans Helped Keep American Music Alive

Jay Black, the name by which the music world knew the kid born David Blatt, slammed into one of the most frustrating dilemmas in the popular music game and beat it.

As a teenager in Brooklyn in the 1950s, Blatt loved vocal group harmony music. Unlike many other guys who also loved it, he had the voice to sing it.

So he formed a vocal group called the Empires at Brooklyn’s Tilden High School. The Empires were good enough to get a record deal with Epic, but by the time their first single was released, “(A) Time and a Place,” vocal group music was shifting. It wasn’t the Platters and the Del Vikings out front. Radio more and more wanted the newer sound of the Tymes and the Majors and the Orlons, who themselves were being gradually overtaken by the emerging powerhouses of the Phil Spector groups, Stax-Volt and Motown.

So just about the time a fan like Blatt had gotten to the stage where he could become an artist and carry on the sound himself, the market for that music was deflating.

Then he caught a break. Another New York group, Jay and the Americans, had lost its lead singer, John “Jay” Traynor. That often kills a group, but in this case the other Americans went hunting instead for a new lead. Their guitarist, Marty Sanders, suggested his friend David Blatt.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who managed Jay and the Americans, liked Blatt’s voice, but not his name. They wanted the group to have continuity. Thus did David Blatt become Jay Black, and maybe just to keep him company, two other group members also changed their stage names. Howard Kirschenbaum became Howie Kane and Kenny Rosenberg became Kenny Vance.

After a couple of warm-up singles that went nowhere, they were in the right place at the right time when Atlantic decided not to release a Drifters recording called “Only in America.”

It was a catchy, upbeat endorsement of the American dream, which perhaps made it appropriate that when the Drifters’s vocals were erased, they were replaced by the voices of Jay Black and the Americans. The record went to №25 on the charts, proving that record buyers were perfectly happy subbing in Blatt for Traynor as their “Jay.”

In 1964, the year the Beatles arrived and helped knock most of the remaining ’50s legacy sounds off the charts, Jay and the Americans hit №3 with “Come a Little Bit Closer,” which earned them an opening spot on the Beatles’s first American tour.

By this time they had moved past the pure 1950s vocal group sound. But they built their songs on strong harmonies and Black’s powerful lead voice, two defining holdovers from earlier vocal group hits. The roots were there.

Nor were Black and the group a passing fluke, as they scored further radio hits with the semi-novelty “Let’s Lock the Door” and what became their signature ballad, the almost operatic “Cara Mia.”

They had less chart success as the ’60s rolled on, but they kept recording, and often turned back to the vocal group hits with which they grew up: “There Goes My Baby,” “Hushabye,” “Since I Don’t Have You,” “This Magic Moment.”

Jay and the Americans spawned several notable alumni, including Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who were in the Americans’s band before peeling off and becoming Steely Dan.

Vance helped them on that path, and by the 1970s he had broken off himself to form the Planotones and become a successful music producer, director and creator for films like American Hot Wax, Animal House, Looking for an Echo, Hairspray and Eddie and the Cruisers. He was music director for Saturday Night Live in 1980–81.

Jay Black stayed with a shifting cast of Americans into the 1980s, playing the rock ’n’ roll revival circuit. While much of that circuit focused on 1950s acts, Jay and the Americans were welcome, because of their deep roots in 1950s music and Black’s powerful voice.

He was among those who apparently didn’t get the memo that the music of his youth had become yesterday’s news. When he sang, it wasn’t.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”