Interview by Jason GrossFrom Georgia to Philly to a church combo to R&B groups to solo fame to mob-land murder to retirement and disappearance to re-discovery, soul singer Howard Tate has led quite a life. From humble gospel roots, Tate had a series of prime soul hits in the late '60's. Now preaching in his own church in New Jersey, Tate came from virtually nowhere after having his fans and associates search for him for the last 20 years- understandable since not only his remarkably nuanced voice tickled the fancy of many musicians (from Grand Funk Railroad to David Johansen) and soul nuts but also that his songs found their way into the repertoire of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and B.B. King. Luckily, an ardent fan named Phil Casden who on his radio show had been begging listeners for years for any information about Tate. Remarkably, this panned out at the beginning of the year, leading to an amazing comeback for Tate with triumphant shows in New York and New Orleans, the former of which left me blubbering in joy after the second set. Now, Tate is returning to his native Georgia to reunite with his old producer/songwriter, the legendary Jerry Ragovoy, for a new record before he takes off on a European tour, not to mention the fact that Tate's classic sides are on their way to coming back into print so that everyone can enjoy the music. Think VH-1 would wanna profile him for 'Behind The Music'?
Infinite thanks to the inimitable Phil Casden for his help with this article and for performing the public service of helping to bring Howard back to us.
PSF: You were originally from Georgia. How young were you when you're family moved to Philly?
I must have been about three or four- I was a baby. We migrated north from Eberton, Georgia, near Macon. Years later, I went back and played Macon, Georgia, we must have (had) 20,000 people in the place. They said 'Now, from Macon Georgia, Howard Tate!' There's guys standing there saying 'that guy's not from Macon!' (laughs)
PSF: How did you get interested in music before your career began?
As a child, around kindergarten age, I started listening to the big gospel groups: the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, the (Sensational) Nightingales. I fell love in love with the gospel groups back there at that time. My father was a minister and naturally, I was in the church. So I got a chance to hear a lot of that and I took a liking to it.
Singing just interested me from as far back as I can remember. I started trying to sing around the house. My father would hear me and he became the assistant pastor at a Baptist church in Philadelphia. He asked me at about eight years old, 'why don't you learn a song and you can sing in the church before I give a sermon.' And I did that. He would encourage me so much. He would say 'you know, you sound great' and 'why don't you learn another song?' I did and I would listen to the radio and the gospel groups and I would learn those songs. That was the kind of gospel that interested me. Mahalia Jackson and all of them. And I continued to sing in the church.
PSF: What was it about those gospel groups that really struck you?
They were so professional. They would hit those notes and they were so precise. They could execute with such precision. Of course you know, that's my style. That struck me. You just had to be gifted to do that. And how versatile they were, especially Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirers and the Dixie Hummingbirds, Swan Silvertones. They were just almost perfect! Of course, with my style, I attribute it a lot to the groups. They were just so GOOD. They were professionals and I tried to be that way. You notice my records and my style- I fight for perfection. Of course, I have a producer who's the same way so we go like hand in glove.
PSF: What was the music scene like in Philly when you were growing up there?
Back there in that day, Jimmy Reed was big. B.B. King, Fats Domino, Screamin' Jay Hawkins were the biggies in that era. Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, the big bands. The blues too- Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and all those guys. That's what I heard them play at the restaurants and at all the jukeboxes.
PSF: So blues was important as gospel was to growing up?
Yes it was. I attribute gospel to being a derivative of blues, and vice versa.
PSF: How did you first enter the 'music business'?
At around ten years old, my two nephews wanted to sing with me. We started singing as a trio. We'd sing every Sunday before my father brought the sermon. At about 14 or 15, another gospel group came to my father's church to do a concert. That group consisted of Garnet Mimms, who later became a big star, and Sam Bell and Little Joe Cook. That group was named the Evening Star but they changed their name to the Belairs at this time. Joe Cook had left them and they were in search of a second lead singer with Garnet Mimms- he was the only lead singer they had at the time. Cook had left and recorded pop music with a record called "Peanuts." So that left them short.
They came that day and my group did a song on the program. They heard me and they liked my voice. They said 'why don't you come over and try out with us?' I liked that group and I heard a lot about them and they were very good. I went over (on) their rehearsal night and tried out with them. They liked my voice and they said 'will you join this group?' And I did. That's what really started me, in the music business.
We did programs around Philadelphia and the Metropolitan area. One evening, we were doing a program in a big church. Sam Bell wrote a song that I did a lot of falsetto on. Mercury Records sent a scout out (there) to look for talent. They heard us sing and they heard me leading this song. They fell in love with my voice. They said 'we'd like to get this group and this lead singer to record with us.' This was around when I was about 16 (mid 1950's).
We had a meeting about it and we really didn't want to stop singing gospel- we were deeply rooted in it. But we made our minds up to give it a try and we did that. We went and recorded for Mercury Records. The producer they assigned us was Clyde Otis, who was producing Brook Benton at the time. He produced some songs on us and they didn't do very much. After several recordings, I left the group and went with Bill Doggett as his vocalist. I traveled all over the country with him.
PSF: How did you get to meet up with him?
I was performing in a nightclub in Philadelphia. After we started singing pop music, I didn't go back to the church or anything. I started doing little gigs around Philadelphia, in the nightclubs. I was singing there one night and I did a show and I was using a lot of falsetto there. Bill Doggett was passing through. I didn't even know he was in the club. He heard me and he sent for me. He said 'listen, I really like the way you sing. I'd like you to come to New York to interview with me.' So he set a date up and I went to New York. He put me up in a motel and paid all the expenses and everything. He said 'listen, I'd like to hire you. We're going on tour and I'd like you to meet us, join the band in Savannah Georgia.' I agreed to that, he paid for the ticket and I went with him. I'll never forget it- I caught the train down to Savannah and met the band there. We traveled all through Georgia, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, New Mexico, California, everywhere. This was around '60, '61, '62.
Atlantic Records was trying to find me while I was with Bill Doggett but I don't know what the problem was. Bill could never reach an agreement with them or something. But they had heard me and they wanted to record me back then. Atlantic wanted Bill Doggett's band to record behind me. So I made up my mind and left him.
When I got back to Philadelphia, Sam Bell came by the house one morning and the group had changed its name again to Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters. They had recorded a record on United Artists for a man named Jerry Ragovoy. I heard the record, it was "Cry Baby." That record hit so fast and so big, they didn't know what hit them! (laughs)
So Jerry Ragovoy was just starting and he was very poor at this time. In fact, he had a one-room apartment in New York and his wife used to have to wait until I'd leave rehearsal so she could go to bed. Garnet Mimms told him about this singer down in Philadelphia called Howard Tate that had a pretty good voice. He must have had some recordings of me or some tapes where Jerry heard the voice. He liked it so he sent for me through Georgie Woods, who was a disc jockey in Philadelphia. Woods went on the radio and said 'if anyone knows where Howard Tate is, tell him to call the radio station.' Somebody heard it and they called me so I called the station. Georgie's partner, Bill Fox, told me to get in touch with Jerry, and I knew who he was 'cause "Cry Baby" went to number two on the top 100 for Billboard. He said 'he wants to record you.'
PSF: That was the first time that you were tracked down through a radio station, just like now.
Yeah, that's exactly right! It's funny. But you know, I've always been a private person. I've never hung out in a lot of night spots where people could actually put their hands on me. I was always a home-body. If I wasn't singing somewhere, I was usually at home or gone fishing. That was the type of thing I did- I lived a low profile.
Anyway, I got in touch with Bill Fox and Jerry got me to come out to New York. He had a song called "Half A Man." He wanted me to learn that and I did. I went in the studio and recorded it for Utopia, that was the label they had at the time. It didn't do anything. So he says 'I don't think it's your singing but it's the material. I'd like to bring you back in and record you again.' I went in and he had three songs: "Ain't Nobody Home," "How Come My Bulldog Don't Bark," and "Look at Granny Run." I learned those songs and as I said, his wife would have to wait until I left to go to bed. I don't think he got paid for "Cry Baby" at the time so he was still dirt poor.
PSF: When you first met Jerry Ragovoy, did you feel there was a professional chemistry there?
No. When I first met Jerry, he could produce but you know, I was young and I couldn't see... I was listening many times but I really couldn't hear. Had I, I'm sure we could have had a better relationship back then. We have a great relationship now of course. I can see the genius of this man (now). We're doing an album now and to watch him work... He always fought for expertise. He fought tooth and nail to get hits, to get the best for Howard Tate. But I couldn't see that back then. Of course, I was probably a little young and head-strong. When you're young like that, you get a little uppity, besides yourself. (laughs)
You were there at the show- you heard us do a new song called "Sorry Wrong Number." Great song! The time we put into that song, the arrangements and the hours. We got some things on top of that too. But I can see that now and I can appreciate that. Our relationship is just great now. I stay in his house when I go down to Georgia. We eat together so we can live together. And we're going to come out with this great album, which is going to top anything we've ever done.
PSF: But back then, you're saying there was some kind of conflict between you two?
It was about money- that was the only problem I ever had with Jerry. Back then, it wasn't just Jerry: companies didn't pay. You made your money on the road but you didn't get paid from the company. They had a way of taking it. It wasn't just with me- it was with all those other performers. (ED NOTE: need we say that not much has changed?)
When you go back and look at King Records and Chess Records and how they had all those big singers that sold all those records and they took the money from those people. Look at what happened to Ruth Brown! Unbelievable! But it happened and it happened with me back there. I'm starting to get some money now but I'll never get what I really should get. I know that.
But it's a new day now. I thank God that I'm getting a second chance to come out with another album.
PSF: What did you think of Jerry's material?
I always thought it was great. He wrote great material for me. The problem was with Jerry, the reason that I should have been the biggest artist in the world back then... I'm not beating my own drum but I didn't know any aritst that could compare with me singing-wise. However, I spent YEARS hitting those notes and coming down through there and not missing a beat and being right in tune and being as perfect as I can be. The problem was, and Jerry was a genius as a producer. But Verve, they didn't know how to market me.
PSF: What exactly did Verve do that was wrong?
They were into jazz. They didn't know how to market rhythm and blues. That album (Get It While You Can) would have sold millions. Evidence of that is... someone just called me and told me that one of the albums went for $127 on Ebay. This man Jerry is a genius and he latched on to a singer that really, really felt in his heart and in his mind, in his soul when he wrote for me.
PSF: So the songs you did with him were written especially for you?
Yes. And this new song "Sorry Wrong Number," he went back and pulled that from years ago. I've seen this man and how he's fighting for material. In his mind, he hears Howard Tate's voice. He knows my voice better than I know it!
PSF: You were talking about your vocal style before. One thing that struck me isn't just the range there but how you were just emoting every single word you sang.
Yes, that's exactly it. Because with my style, I try to reach out and capture the audience. People are so great. I feel as though when I'm performing, they deserve to get all that I got to give. Therefore, I try to come to come with expertise and sometimes I have to slack up to not get out of tune with some of the notes I hit. But I'm right back with force, power. That's my style and that's what I try to do. Because the people, they're the greatest. They deserve to be really entertained. They do.
PSF: In a recent interview, Jerry was saying that he had a lot to do with helping you to shape your singing style. Do you see it that way?
Well, he did. Other times, I've compared myself to (basketball player) Allen Iverson- when he came out of Georgetown, he had the raw talent but all he knew how to do was go down the court and throw the ball in the basket. He couldn't win any games that way. You gotta be a team player.
Well, I had the voice, the big voice but I didn't know what to do with it. I was hitting falsetto everywhere in the songs. It would become monotonous. Jerry knew where to tell me to hit it at, where to not hit it at. He lived and he lives now Howard Tate's style. He knows where the falsetto goes, to get the most impact. You could say that he created the style. He deserves the credit for that.
PSF: How did you those sessions with Jerry go at first?
I learned those songs that Jerry gave me and we went in the studio after he signed me with Verve. We recorded with Eric Gale and the boys- they were the greatest musicians in the world.
PSF: They had separate arrangers for the rhythm section and the horn section there. That was pretty exacting, wasn't it?
The arrangers were only writing Jerry's ideas. When you got the horn arrangements, they just copied it down. But all of that was Jerry. Jerry arranged, he wrote it, he produced it. For him to write all the music out, it would just be too awesome. So he would get the horn arrangers, Artie Butler, Paul Butterfield and those guys, and they would copy his ideas. But he would be telling them what to write. He did the whole package.
PSF: Not long after you started recording with Jerry, those Verve singles were R&B hits. Was that a big surprise, a big thrill for you?
Absolutely. They put "Ain't Nobody Home" out and it just mushroomed into the top of the charts overnight. I was doing construction work as a mortar mixer supplying the brick layers, making good money. I came home from work one day with mud all over my face and my clothes, just filthy. I was getting ready to go up the steps to the house and Bill Fox was out there in his Cadillac. He blew the horn and said 'Listen, you got to catch a plane and go to Detroit. The record just went to number one there and went to number one in several cities.' By now, they were banging the record in Philadelphia like every half-hour. So I said 'let me go and get showed and cleaned up.' He said 'You don't have time for that! We got you booked on the plane- you gotta go now. Here's a thousand dollars, grab something (to) wear out there. You're performing at 20 Grand with Marvin Gaye.' (laughs) So he says 'The national promotion man for MGM/Verve are going to pick you up at the airport.'
So when I got to the airport, of course people were looking at me like I was crazy or something. I don't know how they ever let me on that plane. When I got off the plane, a limosine was waiting for me there. I never heard an intro for a number one record (on the radio) so the jock annoucned it and here comes "Ain't Nobody Home." (laughs) Well, I'll tell you, that was the greatest feeling in the world.
PSF: It sounds like it happened so fast. You're doing construction and then suddenly, you're a star. Wasn't your head spinning from that?
Yes, it happened so fast! You never dreamed that you could go to work one day and you're mixing mortar for fifteen brick layers who's about to kill you, working like maniacs. Then the next day, you're a big star all over the world. It's unbelievable! But it's the only business that I know unless you're an Ivy League or some type that you can go to sleep a poor man one night, wake up next morning and be a multi-millionaire.
PSF: You were probably touring after that?
Of course. We went on from there to play the 20 Grand with Marvin Gaye. From there, we went on tour with Joe Tex, B.B. King, the Drifters. There were ten of us, ten big acts out there. I worked for 20 years on the road with all the big acts- Jackie Wilson, Pickett, James Brown, Temptations, all of them. That's how it happened.
PSF: When you were touring with people like Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, did you pick up or learn anything from them?
(I) learned a lot. Joe Tex had to teach me how to dress. The thousand dollars they gave me to go to Detroit to buy something to wear, I put 800 in my pocket, went and bought a hundred dollar suit and I thought it was fine! I didn't know. Then I went and bought a pair of $29 shoes, I thought they were fine. When I went on the stage that night, Marvin Gaye went on before me, and this man had a suit on that must have cost $1000. He would turn one way and it would look yellow and silk, he would turn the other way and it would look green. The shoes he had on must have cost $500. I said 'look, this money here, I could take some of this money back home.' I went and when they called me on there and the women are screaming and hollering and I got this big record and when they saw me with this outfit on, I saw the disappointment come over their faces! (laughs)
But I went on tour with Joe Tex and he showed me how. He said 'here's where we get our suits made.' It was a place in New York so I called them up. They said 'We got six suits for Little Anthony and you're his size- you can take them 'cause we'll just make him some more.' So they sent me the suits. Joe took me to where they have those patent leather shoes, cost $200 a pair but they were sharp. He showed me how to dress and everything. I went from there. I didn't know how to dress- I'd never been on the road before like that, in the big time.
PSF: Did you learn anything from these other artists in terms of performance?
I learned a lot about how to perform. I learned a lot about how to control an audience and how to work an audience to the max. How to work with the mike. Joe was great at that. I'm a little rusty with that now. I'm getting back in shape. I'm practicing. It's an art. You reach out to the audience and walk and talk to them a while and things like that. I learned a lot of that from Joe Tex and all the big artists that I was out there with.
This is the first time this year that I've performed in 20 years so I'm getting back in shape. I never thought I'd be back again but God has called for it so what can I do? I know the people deserve it. I have to give them what they want. We want to leave a legacy here. So we want to do a few more albums for the people. One of the all-time greats, John Lee Hooker, just passed and when Howard Tate passes, I want to leave a legacy.
PSF: What did you think of the covers of your songs that were done by people like B.B. King and Janis Joplin?
I thought they did a great job and I was proud of the fact that they did the songs. I felt blessed and I still do. Janis did "Get It While You Can" and Jimi Hendrix did "Stop." Jerry and I really feel blessed that they did our music. And they did a great job on it.
PSF: Why did you leave Verve and Jerry?
It was nothing but money. I loved the way Jerry produced but I couldn't get money. I don't know who exactly was the problem at that time. I don't want to start throwing stones but it was more than likely Verve.
See part 2 of Howard's interview
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