The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Soul Man Howard Tate, 1939-2011
The great soul singer Howard Tate has died at age 72. After decades in obscurity, Howard Tate Rediscovered (2003) reunited him with songwriter/producer/arranger Jerry Ragovoy, and we feature the full unedited version of Andy Schwartz's liner notes for that album——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
On the night of July 21, 2001, in a subterranean Manhattan nightclub called the Village Underground, a packed house buzzed with anticipation. As the lights went down and the Uptown Horns band kicked off the first song of the set, a short, stout, nattily dressed man stepped to the microphone. And with the first notes of that first song, Howard Tate reclaimed his rightful place in American music.
We looked at Howard and Howard looked at us, and it was hard to say who was the more shocked and surprised to see the other. Just a few short years before, neither would have guessed that this moment would ever come to pass. But he who once was lost, now was found. And we, who once were blind, now could see: That before us stood one of the greatest living soul singers—indeed, one of the greatest of all time.
In the spring of 1967, a few months before his 28th birthday, Howard Tate released a self-titled debut album (later reissued as Get It While You Can) that became a revered classic of the '60s soul era.
Born August 14, 1939 in the rural hamlet of Eberton, GA, Howard Tate had moved with his family to Macon and then Philadelphia, PA. His father preached in a Baptist church, and Howard sang with a youthful gospel group, the Bel-Aires, that later recorded a few unsuccessful r&b singles as the Gainors. When the group broke up, organist Bill Doggett recruited Howard as the vocalist for his popular combo.
Meanwhile, ex-Gainors Garnet Mimms and Sam Bell formed a new group called the Enchanters and in 1963 scored a breakthrough hit with 'Cry Baby.' At No. 4, 'Cry Baby' was the first "deep soul" record to crack the Top Ten (as well as a No. 1 R&B hit). It was, as author Robert Pruter later wrote, "a gospelized production so full of soul-saving, fire-and-brimstone ecstasies of the Black sanctified church that it singularly stood apart...Never before had the public heard any¬thing so intense and so emotional on Top 40 radio."
The 1995 CD reissue of Howard Tate's Verve debut, long out of print. Sealed copies are listed on Amazon.com for up to $200.
'Cry Baby' was co-written and produced by Jerry Ragovoy, a white Philadelphian (born September 4, 1930) who moved to New York in the spring of 1962. While Howard Tate was grinding out one-nighters with Bill Doggett, Ragovoy was expanding and refining his idiosyncratic style on records by such gifted, church-bred singers as Lorraine Ellison (the monumental 'Stay With Me') and Irma Thomas ('Time is On My Side,' a Ragovoy co-write later taken Top Ten by the Rolling Stones). Ragovoy's carefully crafted arrangements and stately piano playing grafted elements of opera, Broadway, and Romantic classical music onto such proto-soul archetypes as the Impressions' 1958 hit 'For Your Precious Love.'
Tate and Ragovoy began working together within weeks of Howard's departure from the Bill Doggett band. When his first Ragovoy-produced single 'Ain't Nobody Home' hit the R&B chart in August 1966, Howard was mixing mortar on a Philadelphia construction site. Still wearing his soiled work clothes, he was hustled onto a flight to Detroit to open for Marvin Gaye at the fabled 20 Grand.