Unlike Dobie Gray — another soul singer whose recent death reminds us an era has passed — Howard Tate never had the career-defining hit that matched voice with material in the popular mind. Yet Tate was one of the greatest soul singers, with a thrilling and perfectly controlled falsetto that worked in tandem with immaculate phrasing and intonation. Tate's greatness isn't merely a matter of technical excellence, however — there was always an eager but hurtful edge to his voice that embodied the spirit of a Southerner transplanted to the big, dirty city, where success and failure await with open arms.
Tate quit music in the late 1970s after cutting a series of singles for the Verve label that produced a couple of minor R&B hits — Janis Joplin cut "Get It While You Can," one of the superb songs producer Jerry Ragovoy wrote for Tate during this period. In a typical soul-music relationship between artist and producer, Tate sang Ragovoy's sophisticated and very uptown compositions with impeccable soulfulness. Such classic recordings as "Stop" and "Ain't Nobody Home" represent the peak of North American soul — not to be confused with Northern soul, although I'm sure the average British soul fan reveres Tate — cheerfully divorced from Southern roots.
Collected on the 1967 album Get It While You Can, Tate's Verve singles caught the notice of connoisseurs, but didn't produce any hits. Further efforts on Lloyd Price's Turntable label were issued in 1970 as Howard Tate's Reaction, while Ragovoy and Tate got together again for 1972's Howard Tate on Atlantic — Tate's second-best full-length, and a minor classic of soul.
What happened next to Tate transpires dimly — frustrated by his lack of success, and perhaps feeling like a puppet of Ragovoy's production style and songs, Tate left his wife and family in New Jersey (Tate had spent most of his adult life around the Philadelphia area), became a crack-cocaine addict, and disappeared into the streets. It now seems obvious that Tate still had it in the mid '70s, with a few excellent but unnoticed singles with Ragovoy and some obscure releases made on Tate's own label.
Tate didn't go disco in the manner of such aging soul stars as Johnnie Taylor, and when Tate got clean in the mid '90s, he was poised for a comeback that actually occurred in 2003, when the singer recorded the full-length Rediscovered with Ragovoy and played dates to respectful crowds. With covers of songs by Prince and Elvis Costello, Rediscovered revealed that Tate's voice was as amazing as ever, but the comeback was problematic.
Working with young producer and arranger Steve Weisberg, who had met Tate in 2004 during rehearsals for a Hal Willner-produced tribute to Randy Newman in Los Angeles, Tate made the very ambitious full-length A Portrait of Howard, which featured great playing and arranging along with Tate essaying material by Newman, Lou Reed and Nick Lowe. Weisberg got to know Tate well during this period, which included a memorable 2006 appearance at Grimey's New & Pre-Loved Music — accompanied by Weisberg's piano, Tate sang a few songs, and delivered a long, rambling speech about religion that should have given anyone present an insight into the workings of a troubled man.
"The vision we had for [A Portrait of Howard] was to make him more of a song stylist, someone who could sing something more than R&B and blues," Weisberg says. "To try to cross genres a little bit — that was the vision.” Still, the record stands as a teasing indication of what Tate could have done as a soul-inflected stylist of American song.
Always bedeviled by money issues — remember, Tate never had that big hit on the order of Gray's "Drift Away" — Tate nonetheless delivered a solid record. It didn't sell, of course, and Weisberg remembers a complex man.
"Howard was very guarded as a person," Weisberg says. "You could probably figure out what he was really thinking, if you tried. He tried to play a political game a lot of times, and he had a very dark side. When you took away all the layers, there was this sort of player, street person who was figuring out his next strategy to survive."
I sensed this quality in Tate when I interviewed him in 2006 and chatted with him at the Grimey's performance in October of that year. For example: Tate's actual birthplace seems to be in dispute. Most sources say he was born in Macon, Ga., but Tate told me he was born in a Georgia town called "Eberton" — a place that does not seem to exist. He also told me his birth date was Aug. 14, 1939, but is that correct? The man was endlessly charming and elusive.
Tate released a fine 2006 live full-length and then came to Nashville to record Blue Day with Jon Tiven, a producer who had already worked with Don Covay, Donnie Fritts and many other soul artists. Tiven says Tate seemed eager to get back to work, but remained cagey about money.
"Howard had been so — in his mind, anyway — bamboozled in the past, he and I could never fashion a contract," Tiven remembers. "But Howard had kept his voice in really, really great shape all those years, so he was instantly recognizable as himself."
Released on a small roots-oriented label in 2008, Blue Day featured songs by Tiven along with production that was somewhat more soul- and blues-influenced than Weisberg's record. Taken together with the best tracks from Portrait, the live record and Rediscovered, it makes a portrait of a great singer who remained sadly under-recorded. If LaVette relied on her taste in material to make her point as a modernized soul singer and the somewhat dry-voiced Solomon Burke simply rolled over the songs his producers suggested, Tate proved himself an altogether subtler and trickier vocalist during this period.
In later years Tate struggled with money problems and with ill health. He never got his hit, and may never get his due. Jerry Ragovoy died earlier this year. Leaving behind five children, Tate seems to have nursed his share of bitterness over the way he thought the music business treated him. "He didn't get the high-profile gigs in the '60s and '70s, but the truth is, you only get the high-profile gigs if you have a hit," says Weisberg. "There just wasn't enough grease paying for him to have the hits."
And what was the enigmatic Tate really like? Weisberg sums it up neatly: "Howard was someone who really wanted to be the king, so he could magnanimous. Up on stage, he was one thing; alone with his thoughts, it was a different matter altogether.” Tate died on Dec. 2 in Burlington, N.J., from complications of multiple myeloma and leukemia.