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WIRE FROM THE BUNKER: Meet Howard Tate

Howard Tate

Art by NIALL MCCORMACK

Houlon2BY JONATHAN HOULON This week’s Wire concerns Philadelphia’s own late great R&B legend, Howard Tate. I’ll send this one out to another late great Philadelphian, my dear friend Peter Stone Brown who passed away earlier this year. Peter, of course, was known both as a formidable songwriter and as one of the world’s leading “Dylanologists” as recognized in David Kinney’s book of the same name. Kinney tells a wonderful story about how Peter, as a teenager, mowed the words “Fuck You” into his parents’ lawn in Millburn, New Jersey where he grew up. They don’t make teenagers like that anymore, do they? Texting FU just doesn’t show the same commitment as mowing it into an overgrown lawn. I am deeply saddened by the fact that Peter, whose brother Tony was the bass player on Blood on the Tracks, won’t be around to hear Bob’s new record Rough and Rowdy Ways when it drops next month. But, in a way, I’m grateful that Peter isn’t around for this COVID jazz. He’d been ill for a while but his exit was relatively peaceful compared to the horrific COVID deaths that seem to be the exclamatory signature of this awful virus. You ever have thoughts like this? I remember when the Towers fell, I thought to myself: well, at least my dad, who had died three months earlier, isn’t around to see THIS. I dunno. Maybe Peter will hear Dylan’s new one. Perhaps they’ve got Spotify up in his spot in the sky. (*ugh*–The Editor)

In any case, while revered primarily for his Dylan know-how, Peter was also an incredible student of what is sometimes called “American Roots Music”, including R&B, and he is the one who turned me on to Howard Tate in the mid-90s, well before the then lost soul legend reemerged around the turn of the century. Howard Tate was born in Georgia in 1936 but migrated to Philadelphia as a child and made a name for himself initially backing Garnet Mimms. Somehow producer/impresario Jerry Ragovoy — whose son, Seth, incidentally is another leading Dylanologist and was also one of Peter’s associates — heard Howard’s voice on a demo and was blown away — as one should be! Ragovoy would go on to call Howard one of the top 10 R&B singers of all time and there’s an argument to be made that he may even rate higher. Like Al Green and Prince, Tate had the ability to effortlessly shift into pitch perfect falsetto, sometimes in the course of single note, as well as the power of, say, Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. Ragovoy recognized Howard’s gift and wrote up an album of extraordinary material for his protege to sing. Get It While You Can was originally released on Verve in 1967 and, when it didn’t get anywhere, released by the very same label again in 1969, where it again sank without a trace. It became a holy grail of sorts for soul aficionados — none other than Janis Joplin mined it for the title track which became one of her show stoppers — until it re-appeared in 1995 on Mercury. (Hip-O Select did a limited edition of 5000 and that’s the one you want if you can find it. I have #0174. Good luck with that!)

Howard would go on to record two more records (one with Lloyd Price and another with Ragovoy). And then he disappeared in 1974, abandoning music in favor of insurance sales. At some point, he lost a child in a house fire and, overcome with grief, ended up on the streets of Camden, falling victim to the crack epidemic (what’s with these ‘demics, man?). Howard pulled himself together and eventually founded a ministry in south Jersey and his native Philadelphia. But Ragovoy couldn’t shake the sound of his voice and, in 2001, after many years of trying, he was finally able to locate Howard and convince him to return to the biz. Howard Tate 2.0 released three well-received records, starting with the aptly titled Rediscovered produced by Ragavoy, before passing in 2011 in Burlington. I am very grateful that I was able to see Howard perform a homecoming show in Camden during the period of his resurgence. I can tell you that his legendary pipes were more than intact. The man SANG!

Richard Robinson — who went on to produce Lou Reed’s solo debut and whose wife Lisa is a wonderful rock scribe/NYC scenester (check out her book!) — wrote in the 1969 Get it While You Can re-issue liner notes that “telling you about Howard with my white words is nearly futile.” Indeed, Richard. But what the fuck, these are crazy times, so I offer you these five tastes of Tate in chrono:

“Get It While You Can”: I could have picked any song from Howard’s debut. It’s that good. But I choose the title track to show you that, while Janis did it justice, Howard owned it. Check out the way he stretches out the word l-oo–ooooo-oo-ve. In the age of Idol, vocal histrionics have become an unfortunately common component of our cultural currency. Howard, however, ain’t about histrionics — he’s about TRUTH. Dig?

“What’ll I Do?”: Howard’s sophomore effort, Reaction, originally released on Lloyd Price’s Turntable Records in ’69, pales in comparison to his debut. Yet, it has its charms including this gospel-y ballad that works despite the syrupy strings. I normally don’t go in for this sort of thing, but with a singer of Howard’s strength there arises an interesting aesthetic tension between the sugary setting and the gritty voice. Producer Price and his co-conspirator Johnny Nash claimed that Reaction was recorded in Jamaica. False. It was recorded in NYC just like the Ragavoy debut. An early example of reverse marketing, perhaps?

“Girl From the North Country”: Ragovoy returned for Howard’s third and self-titled release from 1972 on Atlantic and I’ll be damned if this isn’t the coolest cover of a Dylan song I’ve ever head, at least in the R&B idiom. Listen to the way Ragavoy re-harmnonizes our Nobel Laureate’s love song and how Howard gives it a soul shout while retaining its longing and hope. Genius. I’m pretty sure, as you might have predicted, that this is the first Tate song that Peter played for me.

“Either Side of the Same Town”: A bespoke number from the pen of Elvis Costello, a longtime Tate champion himself. This song is from Rediscovered, the album that Ragovoy produced upon locating Howard in his Camden exile and convincing him to give the music business another shake. Costello did a credible version of this song himself on his Delivery Man LP but, again, you gotta hear Howard’s take. Costello was clearly influenced by legendary soul songwriter Dan Penn in writing “Either Side” and Howard seems to be channeling the also criminally under-rated James Carr’s vocal on Penn-penned “Dark End of the Street”.

“How Do You Think It Feels”: Here’s one from Howard’s penultimate platter. I previously wrote about this song in a piece about my favorite covers of Lou Reed songs. I don’t know who the Steve Weisberg Orchestra are but they sure did a beautiful job re-casting Howard’s voice in an entirely new light. Naturally, he kills it. Here Lou Reed asks the musical question: “How do you think it feels when you’re speeding and lonely?” Howard knew. Howard knew.

So check Howard out, ya’ll, and get it while you can!

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