Ain’t Nobody Home Out on the Floor
Two losses in the music world within the last week hit especially hard.
The music of Howard Tate, who died last Friday at the age of 72, entered my world about a dozen years ago. And it did so in the same way that a lot of the work of veteran soul artists has found its way to me: via another singer. In the middle of a show at Chapel Hill’s lovingly frayed Local 506, Kelly Hogan knocked me over (for, oh, the third or fourth time that evening) with a sly, syncopated soul number. A little research in the form of e-mailing Bloodshot world headquarters in the hope that Ms. Hogan would reply – true to form, she did – revealed that the nugget in question was “Stop,” a song written by the gifted, versatile, and now departed Jerry Ragavoy and put on the musical map by one of Ragavoy’s favorite vocalists, Howard Tate.
With all due respect to Chinese philosophers, while the journey of 1000 miles begins with one step, the journey of 1000 songs often begins with a mix tape or, in this case, a cover song in a music club. The biggest moment on my Tate trek was the reissue of his late-‘60s masterwork Get It While You Canby the good people at Hip-O Select, supplemented with the always-welcome bonus tracks. That record’s title cut, a falsetto-driven wonder that sounds the way yearning feels, alone would be enough to consider Tate’s career worthy of celebration. But there were plenty more gems where that came from, with “Shoot ‘em All Down” and “Ain’t Nobody Home” joining “Stop” and “Get It While You Can” to form my ultimate Tate four-pack. And for those who require a roots component even in their soul singers, Tate offered fine takes on “Girl from the North Country” and the Band’s “Jemima Surrender” on a self-titled 1972 release.
The ‘80s were a lost decade for Tate, who battled drug addiction and lived in a homeless shelter for a while, but he fought his way back to a fulfilling second act. In the ‘90s, he worked as a counselor and a preacher, and he had a musical comeback in the ‘00s. An album was released in 2003, the aptly titled Rediscovered. That record is a bit too blues-based for my taste, but the Elvis Costello-Ragavoy cowrite “Either Side of the Same Town” and revisiting of “Get It While You Can” keeps it on my shelves. A couple other new recordings followed, including a live album and A Portrait of Howard, the latter highlighted by a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Homewrecker” (and song that also received a compelling soul treatment by Janiva Magness on last year’s The Devil Is an Angel Too).
Tate performed at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans a few years back, and he was in great spirits and even better voice. And thus I had the good fortune of witnessing that four-pack being delivered from 20 feet away.
Dobie Gray, who passed away on Tuesday (reports differ on whether he was 69 or 71), didn’t stop at two acts; he had more like a half-dozen. He started out making highly danceable soul music as epitomized by “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “See You at the Go-Go,” and the Northern Soul classic “Out on the Floor.” He then went on to – hold on now – act in the musical Hair, play in a psych-soul band, hang with Max (“Jethro”) Baer, Jr. and Paul Williams, write songs for George Jones and Don Williams, and become the first black artist to perform for integrated audiences in South Africa.
There were other accomplishments for sure, but the point is that Dobie Gray was much more than “Drift Away” – although for me that would have been plenty. I loved it when I first heard it as a 12-year-old in 1973, and I’ve never tired of it (a state at least partially maintained by not paying attention to the Gray-visited cover by Uncle Kracker in ’03. I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Rod Stewart’s version on Atlantic Crossing.). There’s an undeniable warmth to Gray’s recording of “Drift Away” – a characteristic, really, of all his stuff from his smooth country-soul, “We Had It All” period – to the point that it always feels to me like someone just fired up a wood-burning stove whenever the song’s familiar opening hits ear. The lyrics from Mentor Williams, brother of Paul, are standard-issue music-as-savior fare, but man does Gray sell them. And that’s the great Reggie Young whose guitar so expertly stokes that stove. Consider this: Barney Hoskyns, in his essential country-soul document Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted, cites “Drift Away” as one of the top 40 country-soul songs of all time alongside Ruby Johnson’s “I’ll Run Your Hurt Away,” Etta James’ “Almost Persuaded,” Kip Anderson’s “I Went Off and Cried,” and others all worthy of their own blog entry. But that’s another day.
Get that beat while you can, boys.
Howard Tate – “Get It While You Can”
Howard Tate – “Ain’t Nobody Home”
Dobie Gray – “Out on the Floor”
Dobie Gray – “Drift Away”