Get It While You Can: The Legendary Sessions (Mercury) suggest, "only to fade away?"">
Howard Tate comes back to get it while he can
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
How does a performer " tap the rim of greatness, " as the liner notes for Howard Tate’s Get It While You Can: The Legendary Sessions (Mercury) suggest, " only to fade away? "
For the 61-year-old Tate, perhaps the most promising soul singer ever to land in obscurity, it took a fusillade of bullets. The high-conked peacock of a vocalist — who continues a long-overdue comeback at the House of Blues this Wednesday — was in his early 30s and had made two marvelous albums for the Verve label, 1967’s Get It While You Can and the follow-up Ain’t Nobody Home. His singles " Stop, " " Ain’t Nobody Home, " and " Look at Granny Run Run " had reached the R&B Top 20. " But I was having trouble getting paid record royalties, " he recounts. " An associate of mine told me, ‘I know somebody who can get your money for you.’ So I was introduced to Lloyd Price and his manager, Harold Logan. I had no idea they were connected with the mob. "
Tate signed with Logan and Price, the latter also a noted soul artist. The two men ran New York City’s Turntable club and label. Tate cut an album for Turntable, and on the day of its release he got a call from Logan. " ‘Harold, I got your money,’ he told me. I said, ‘What do you want me to do, come by?’ He said, ‘Call me back.’
" Well, I later learned from the FBI that Harold’s killer was there with him when I spoke to him. He got gunned down, and I was the last one to talk with him. I was just devastated. And I was fed up with the business. I said, ‘To heck with it. I will stop and go into something else.’ "
So Tate became a Prudential insurance agent and raised a family. He sold pieces of the rock until 1994, when he says he heard the voice of God " call me to the ministry. It scared me half to death. " Tate, whose father had been a preacher in Philadelphia, got a job in a shelter to learn how to care for the drug- and alcohol-addicted homeless. " I saw so many people in trouble and my heart went out to them. During my time in the music business, of course, I had seen many people go down that path. " Today, Apostle Tate, as he’s known to members of his Gift of the Cross outreach ministry, operates a chain of shelters in central New Jersey. " I’ve never given up singing, though. I’ve been singing in church all along, so I haven’t lost anything. "
In fact, Tate’s even regained the drive to perform his own secular material. This spring he played his first club dates in nearly 30 years, at New Orleans’s Circle Bar during the Crescent City’s annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. Fronting a band of musicians from Mississippi and New Orleans selected under the guidance of the producer of his ’60s gems, Jerry Ragovoy, he sucked a sellout crowd into a time warp. Witnesses describe the shows as fire-and-brimstone soul workouts full of the falsetto cries, gospel-style repetitions, and other swooping decorations that made Tate’s tenor so explosive in the first place. His vocal passion, which was comparable to that of the greatest soul performers (Aretha Franklin, Sam Moore, James Brown, Solomon Burke), along with Ragovoy’s musicians and definitive arrangements, had prompted artists from Janis Joplin ( " Get It While You Can " ) to Jimi Hendrix and Hugh Masekela ( " Stop " ) to B.B. King ( " Ain’t Nobody Home " ) and Ry Cooder ( " Look at Granny Run Run, " a novelty that seems to foreshadow Viagra; it was also sampled by Brand Nubian) to cover his recordings.
Tate seems to be the missing diamond from the crown jewels of American soul music, a victim of Verve’s lack of experience in the then-bursting soul market. The collection Get It While You Can: The Legendary Sessions, released in 1995, has almost all of his Verve recordings. The original Get It While You Can album, in particular, is so good that before it was originally released, in ’67, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called Ragovoy at home to let him know that his own Muscle Shoals studio crew — the Alabama band who backed Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett on their definitive hits — were calling it the " Bible. " Not only are Tate’s performances of " Part Time Lover " and " Get It While You Can " equal to the best that soul music has ever offered, but his session players are a who’s who of ’60s greats, bassists Chuck Rainey and Jerry Jemmott, guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale, and keyboardists Paul Griffin and Richard Tee among them. Then there’s songwriter/producer Ragovoy, who wrote or co-wrote more than half the songs on Tate’s Verve discs, including both title tracks, and served as conductor and arranger. Ragovoy has claimed that " Howard Tate’s style is my style — I gave it to him. All of the vocal gymnastics that he does are essentially my concepts. "
Tate offers this response: " I compare myself to Allen Iverson [the Philadelphia 76ers basketball star]. He came out of college with raw talent, loaded with it, but he didn’t know what to do with it. That was the same situation I was in with Ragovoy. I had the voice — the big voice — but didn’t know what to do with it. Jerry coached me, and through his coaching I developed a style that has lasted through the years. "
It was singer Garnett Mimms who introduced Tate and Ragovoy. Mimms and Tate had been members of a doo-wop group called the Gainors, their first professional outfit, in North Philadelphia. The Gainors split when Mimms began recording with Ragovoy as a solo artist and Tate hit the road with organist Bill Doggett’s big band. " I had only sung around Philadelphia with the Gainors and with a Christian group before I went with Bill, " Tate recalls. " That was my first taste of the real music business. We played all over, in the large clubs and in cotton warehouses down South. They would move the bales of cotton and could put maybe 5000 people in those places. We played some dates with Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Ray Charles. That’s where I learned to really perform. I learned how to sing over a big band. You’ve really got to know how to stay in tune, because the band is so loud you can get tone deaf. You need to know how to overcome that and stay in key. "
Tate is far from tone deaf. Word-of-mouth raves about his New Orleans performance have prompted offers from promoters, but so far he’s chosen just a few dates. The House of Blues engagement will be his third concert in as many decades. Instead, he’s been putting his musical energy into making a new album with Ragovoy. " It goes back to that Get It While You Can vein. We have captured that sound again, and all I can tell you is it’s going to blow your mind. " This time, however, Tate intends to get paid. After all, he remains a man with a literal mission. " I want to buy houses for the homeless, for the ministry, and I want to build a sanctuary for the Lord. I asked the Lord before anything started to happen with my musical career again to bless me with $5 million to do the things I want to do for him before I die. I hadn’t even talked to Jerry Ragovoy for 30 years. Then all of a sudden I was in the supermarket one day and Ron Kennedy [a vocalist in the Blues Notes] says, ‘Hey Howard, they’re looking for you.’ "
" They " was WNJC disc jockey Phil Casden, who’d begun asking for information about Tate’s whereabouts during his Jersey City–based R&B oldies show. Thus rediscovered, Tate was singing in New Orleans half a year later. " They actually thought I was dead, " he says; then he chuckles. " I look at it as if God is blessing me in this way, because I asked him to provide me with as much money as he knows I need to get these properties. We have rehabs within our Christian shelters, but I want to buy a facility just for that purpose. There are a lot of things I want to do. They are good things, and I think God will be pleased with them. So that is what motivates me into coming back. "
Howard Tate plays the House of Blues, 96 Winthrop Street in Harvard Square, this Wednesday, August 1, with a band of local all-stars: guitarist Chris " Stovall " Brown, saxist Gordon Beadle, trumpeter Scott Arruda, Ray trombonist Greene, keyboardist Bruce Bears, bassist Wolf Ginades, and drummer Marty Richards. Tickets for the 9 p.m., 18-plus show are $10. Call (617) 491-BLUE.
Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001