Go Ahead, Call It a Comeback

In 1975 Philadelphia soul singer Howard Tate went to work selling securities for Prudential. He released a couple of self-produced singles after that, but gradually he put his bumpy career in music behind him. Despite scoring three top-20 R & B hits in the late 60s and making one of the greatest soul albums of all time–Get It While You Can (Verve, 1967; the title track became a signature tune for Janis Joplin)–Tate had gotten the kind of raw deal too common in music-biz stories: unpaid royalties, unscrupulous managers, missed opportunities.

But as difficult and disappointing as his performing years were, there was worse in store for him. In 1976 his 13-year-old daughter died in a fire; grief led him to divorce his wife of two decades in 1981. He began using cocaine, and by 1985 drugs had taken over his life. He lost his job. “I was depleting everything I had, my savings, my retirement plan,” he says. “It got worse and worse, and it took me down so low until I became homeless.” He spent most of the next ten years across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, hustling to support his crack habit. Then in 1994, he says, he heard a voice from God. Tate, whose father had been a Baptist preacher, turned to religion and eventually started a church in New Jersey, ministering to drug addicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill.

By the time Tate’s complete Verve recordings were reissued on CD in 1995, most soul aficionados assumed he was dead–including Jerry Ragovoy, the producer and songwriter who had been his most effective collaborator. But one Philly-area DJ, Phil Casden, hadn’t given up hope: whenever he played Tate’s songs on his show he asked listeners to call with any information about what had become of the singer. Ron Kennedy, a onetime member of Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, heard one such request. He ran into Tate in late 2000 and mentioned that Casden was looking for him; Tate, who’d sworn off the music business, didn’t take the tip seriously. But when they crossed paths again at a supermarket on New Year’s Day, Kennedy was more persuasive, telling Tate he had royalties coming his way. Though skeptical, Tate agreed to meet with Casden, who quickly posted news of his discovery on the Internet. Within days a writer in England had called Tate for an interview; the writer then contacted Ragovoy, who was shocked to learn that Tate was still alive. He got in touch with Tate the next day and soon was suggesting they work together again. Tate was reluctant, but saw it as a chance to make money for his church.

Later that year Tate gave triumphant performances in New York and New Orleans and began recording with Ragovoy in Atlanta. This month the Private Music label released Rediscovered, his first new album since 1972. In an industry where overuse has made the word comeback nearly meaningless, the singer’s return is nothing less than inspirational. While the material and production on the new album leave it well short of the records Tate made in the 60s, his voice–a creamy, gospel-rooted cry crowned with an otherworldly falsetto–is undiminished in its power, range, and expressiveness.

Decades ago Ragovoy–author or coauthor of the soul crossover classics “Time Is on My Side” and “Piece of My Heart,” among others–wrote Tate’s greatest songs. From elegant blues to powerhouse ballads to up-tempo stompers, all addressed the classic soul themes of romantic longing, loss, and recrimination. On the new album he sticks to the same formulas, but his writing doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Tate’s voice. While most of the songs are at least passable, a few are flat-out embarrassing. “Organic Love (100% Natural)” bogs down in inanities like “This world we living in gets crazier by the day / And the companies are throwing us a chemical bouquet,” and as you might guess from the title, “She May Be White (But She Be Funky)” is even worse.

There are some standouts, however. In “Sorry Wrong Number” Tate dodges an old flame’s call, fighting the temptation to rekindle a bad relationship; when he sings “I made myself forget you / I’m not about to let you back in my mind,” he uses his trademark falsetto to give the lines a quaver of painful uncertainty. “Either Side of the Same Town,” by Ragovoy and avowed Tate fan Elvis Costello, describes an ex-couple trying simply to coexist in the same city. And “Don’t Compromise Yourself” could be a mission statement for Tate, who has thus far continued his ministry work. The most surprising choice is a cover of the Prince hit “Kiss,” which Tate tackles with sublime shouts and cool entreaties.

The remaining songs are ordinary at best, but such is Tate’s skill that he generally transcends the material, the sound–overbright and overcompressed–and the arrangements. (On only one track can an actual bass be heard–mostly Ragovoy, who seems to be stuck in the late 80s, plays the bass lines on a keyboard.) Since the album’s release Tate has been playing dates with a full band, and it’s onstage that his talent ought to show best; unfortunately, no Chicago shows have been scheduled.

Sound Investment

Last month the National Endowment for the Arts awarded an $18,000 grant to Experimental Sound Studios and Link’s Hall to fund the formation of the Creative Audio Archive, to be housed at ESS. At the core of the archive will be hundreds of recordings from the 1980s performance series at Link’s Hall curated by Michael Zerang, documenting appearances by influential improvisers like England’s AMM and Californian Henry Kaiser, writers ranging from David Sedaris to Maxine Chernoff, and local musicians who would go on to greater recognition, including guitarists Jim O’Rourke and Marvin Sewell.

The archive will also hold audio from ESS concerts, festivals, and radio broadcasts over the last 17 years, as well as studio and live recordings of improvised music by Sun Ra, Joe McPhee, and Luther Thomas, among others. Lou Mallozzi of ESS says the organization hopes to obtain other collections of recorded music and performance that are currently inaccessible to the public: “The idea of the archive is not necessarily to own all of this material, but to become a safe house for it, to duplicate it and make it available for study, and to publish it in the on-line catalog.”

Writer, musician, and producer John Corbett will be the archive’s manager for its first two years. Mallozzi plans to begin transferring analog recordings to the digital domain by the end of the summer, and sections of the catalog should start to appear on the ESS Web site next spring. Academics, journalists, and other interested parties can inquire then about access to the material.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Koshtra Tolle.