R.I.P. Jay Black, 1938-2021

Jay Black (far right) and the Americans
Getty Images

Here’s a rock and roll trivia question for you: who opened for The Beatles at their first American concert in 1964?

The answer: Jay and the Americans, fronted (in their second and best known iteration) by Jay Black, neé David Blatt. As his former bandmate, Sandy Yaguda, tells the story, when Jay and the Americans were on stage at the Washington Coliseum, the fans loudly chanted “We want the Beatles!” while the Americans were performing, Jay Black felt he had to react. “Jay, being who he is,” Yaguda told the Vinyl Dialogues blog in 2020, “went out and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m glad you all came out to see us tonight.’ And they all cracked up. That won them over, so they shut up and listened to us and, when we were done, gave us a big round of applause.”

Black had an astonishing voice, with a four octave range, and could sustain those high notes for an impressively long time. Here he is singing one of the group’s hits, “Cara Mia.”

Cara Mia was written by Mantovan and originally covered with great success by David Whitfield, but Jay and the Americans made it their own, mostly because of those astonishing, sustained high notes by Jay Black.1

That voice – The Voice, as Jay Black was later billed – could make you forgive a lot. Which is just as well, because there was a lot to forgive. Jay Black was a gambling addict whose addiction cost him multiple marriages and helped break up the band. It eventually drove him to bankruptcy. He was a tax cheat, who at one point owed the IRS some $500,000. It was the IRS’s auction of the band’s name that cost him that association at the end of his life. He was a close friend of mobster John Gotti, sang at the weddings of Gotti’s son and daughter, and attended his criminal trial.

Black – born as David Blatt – was from the Queens, New York, and as you might expect listening to him, started out as a doo-wop singer. Marty Kupersmith, who performed as Marty Sanders, had been in two of Blatt’s doo-wop groups before becoming one of the Americans; when the first Jay, Jay Traynor, left Sanders invited Blatt to replace him. According to the New York Times, Blatt was selling shoes at Thom McAn at the time. Blatt agreed to change his stage name to “Jay” as a condition to joining the band.2

A string of hits followed, including “Come a Little Bit Closer,” nearly a novelty song saved by Black’s voice;3 the anthemic “Only in America” (an absolutely irony-free song, back in the day); and “This Magic Moment”:

The band broke up in 1973. Black had a solo career, but not many new hits. He toured regionally in the tristate area, mostly to sold out shows, doing those great old songs.4

WC saw Jay Black solo, at The Quiet Knight, probably in 1974, with his girlfriend, the Cat Thief. As she noted, Jay’s voice as too big for the room.

1 Music trivia question number two: what was the most popular British band before The Beatles? Mantovani. “Cara Mia” was written by Tulio Trapani (the nom de plume of the song’s co-writer and arranger Mantovani) and Lee Lange (Bunny Lewis, Whitfield’s producer).

2 The story of how “Blatt” became “Black,” possibly apocryphal, is that when Blatt appeared on the Mike Douglas show, Douglas misheard “Blatt” as “Black.” So David Blatt became Jay Black. Only in America.

3 Written by songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, as well as Wes Farrell. It was Boyce and Hart’s first top 10 hit. Not their last, of course, but the one that put them on the musical map.

4 During part of his solo career, Blatt toured and was backed by two guys named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the guys who later formed Steely Dan.