Howard Tate – When I was a young man
“I was ignorant back then. I probably thought the size of the blues and soul field was greater than it really was. I should’ve known better, because records had to cross over to become monumental hits. And today, it’s not a large market, that’s for sure.”
— Howard Tate
Hailed as a great soul singer, as an extension of a masterminding producer, and as a legend known for a handful of classic sides, Howard Tate was neither alive nor dead for a quarter-century. He seemed simply to have disappeared, leaving fans to wonder what had happened to the singer with the heart-stopping falsetto and mile-high hair.
But Tate is in the midst of a minor renaissance. Like many of his contemporaries, he’s gracefully making the transition from obscurity to the well-lit world of the working musician. He released two records in 2006: Howard Tate Live, which illustrates his mastery of the conventions of soul performance, and an ambitious studio album, A Portrait Of Howard, that deftly avoids the cliches of soul.
In conversation, his voice is tired and a bit scratchy. But that voice, which can be cutting, rounded and world-weary, seems to distill a lifetime of breaks and hard knocks into the simplest of statements.
Tate, now 67 — his birthdate, August 14, 1939, seems almost invariably to be rendered incorrectly — has been touring and recording since he was sought and found by a New Jersey disc jockey in 2001. His new studio record, released by Solid Ground Productions in September, is a 65-minute song-suite, strikingly different not only from Tate’s highly regarded late-1960s Verve recordings, but from his previous record, 2003’s Rediscovered, which was produced by Jerry Ragovoy, the man who arranged and wrote for Tate throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s.
A Portrait Of Howard is the result of an unlikely partnership, even given the recent spate of soul revival records that have paired Bettye LaVette with Joe Henry, Candi Staton with Mark Nevers, and Solomon Burke with Buddy Miller. (Those collaborations produced fine work, apart from the obvious frisson of hearing Nevers, say, add odd noises to Staton’s interpretation of a Will Oldham song.)
Tate’s record pairs him with 43-year-old arranger and producer Steve Weisberg, a highly trained musician who, like most serious players, has big ears for all music, but whose affinities are with jazz, not soul.
Tate called after returning from two weeks playing with Weisberg in France, Belgium and Italy. He speaks unpretentiously about his experiences making the sometimes challenging record.
“I wanted to do a different type of music, an album more in tune with today, that showed the flexibility of my abilities to sing,” he says. He sounds a little distant; in addition to the string of European dates, he’s just gotten back from attending the funeral of his brother-in-law, Charles Presley. “So I thought that I needed a younger producer, whose head was geared in a different direction, but who could still capture me in the light I had been received by the public, in the soul field.”
For Weisberg, who was a composition and arranging major at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, making a record with one of the era’s most elusive and acclaimed soul singers was something his early career didn’t seem to foretell. Weisberg worked with producer Hal Willner on the 1985 Kurt Weill tribute Lost In The Stars (“That was my first professional record, my recording debut,” he says), and later on Willner’s Stay Awake compilation, which reinterpreted music from Disney movies.
Tate met Weisberg during the rehearsals for a 2004 Willner-produced live tribute to Randy Newman, Shock And Awe, held in Los Angeles at UCLA’s Royce Hall. “Hal heard Howard when he did one of his comeback dates at the Village Underground in New York,” Weisberg says. “I think Hal was hanging out with Lou Reed at the show; Lou had told Hal about Howard. They went to check him out — this was in 2003 — and Hal thought he would be great for the Newman material. He was available, and Hal assigned him three songs.”
The Newman songs — “Louisiana 1927”, “I’ll Be Home” and “Every Time It Rains” — became the centerpiece for Portrait. Reed plays guitar on the record, and also contributed a song.
Rehearsals for the Newman tribute illustrated a clash of musical cultures. Pete Thomas, the drummer on Elvis Costello’s classic recordings, played in the Royce Hall show and on the majority of the Portrait songs.
“Howard is a soul singer, and if he feels the power, he’s just gonna go off,” Thomas says. “But the horn players…were sticking religiously to the charts, making a fuss. My friend Davey [Faragher], the bass player, he just turned ’round to the guys — he’s a mellow guy — and said, ‘This is soul music, just fucking tacet [be silent]’.”
Weisberg found Tate a quick study. “I’d spoken to him briefly on the phone, to make sure the keys were OK, because, essentially, those Willner shows are, rehearsal day before the show, do the show,” he says. “The first day I met him was rehearsal, and it was very nice. He was a little scared, I guess, but we’re all a little scared.
“When he opened his mouth at rehearsal, it was amazing. Goose bumps. When we did the show, he brought the house down, standing ovation. It sounded like this was the kind of stuff he’d been wanting to do for a long time. There was another arranger working on the show, but I insisted I do [Tate’s] arrangements. I didn’t know who Howard was prior to that, but then I did my homework and I heard his old recordings and went, ‘I gotta work with that guy.'”
What Weisberg heard on those recordings was a remarkably accomplished body of American popular music. Tate’s Verve sessions — including indelible performances such as “Ain’t Nobody Home” and “Get It While You Can” — are some of soul music’s high points, and the resulting LP, Get It While You Can, was a fan’s holy grail for years. (Mercury’s 1995 reissue is out of print; Hip-O Select’s Get It While You Can: The Complete Legendary Verve Sessions is presently available.)
“Me and Ragovoy, we made some great records, great albums, maybe some of the best of all time,” Tate says. What distinguishes Tate’s Verve work, all cut between 1966 and 1968, is the sublime lightness of the conception. Where some soul music stayed close to the ground, Tate and Ragovoy’s music was sophisticated, sparkling — uptown. This is partly a matter of geography: Tate’s Verve sides were cut in New York City and at Rudy Van Gelder’s famed New Jersey studio, with session musicians such as guitarist Eric Gale and bassist Chuck Rainey.