On a Friday last September, patrons of the Circle Bar in New Orleans dazedly stumbled out as the sun began to rise. With random strands of hair plastered to their faces, sweat-soaked T-shirts clinging to their bodies, and gator-sized grins, it was as if someone had slipped them a hit of Ecstasy and deluged them with saltwater. They weren't drunk -- they had just witnessed something that critic Cleothus Hardcastle described as "A miracle akin to a resurrection ... soul music's very own Lazarus [risen] from the dead."
A long-lost soul man, Howard Tate, had come out of hiding.
The club had been jam-packed with sweaty record-store clerks, slurring bohemians, and weird old people in Shriners' hats who were part of a secret music sect known as the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, whose mission statement reads, "Mystic Knights continue their quest of bringing lost blues, rock 'n' roll, country, and soul to the forefront with the same aplomb with which King Arthur's men of long ago searched so zealously for the Holy Grail." This covert club was responsible for booking Tate, along with a pickup band of session pros including the East Bay's own Freddie Roulette, with his lap-steel styles.
When Tate hit the stage that night, a wave in the crowed shifted suddenly to the right and then to the left as the short black man with a bright red suit and gold-framed glasses smiled and sauntered up to the band. The horn section began to play the opening bars of an upbeat soul-stroll, and Tate rose his finger in the air like an electrified ecclesiastic, belting out the beginnings of a concert that made the walls sweat like a three hundred-pound man eating spicy jambalaya on a hot summer's day.
Most of the people in the crowd never thought they'd be dancing to an intimate live performance of a lost soul legend whom most of them presumed dead.
But it was a dead man's party in New Orleans, and the host was not only alive, he was on fire.
If you've never been to Village Music in Mill Valley, don't go inside looking for the new Hives, Vines, Strokes, or any other flavor-of-the-month CD. Take that shit to Sam Goody. Village Music sells vinyl. The musty musk of old records is the first thing you smell upon entering, and a quick panoramic glance reveals endless layers of records that quite possibly could be the only structural foundations holding up the building. Then there's the gray-bearded proprietor behind the counter. John Goddard owns Village Music, and he has the power to raise the dead.
"Here was a guy who sang better than most ... a true soul legend," says Goddard about Howard Tate, whom he has recently invited to play the Bay Area. "He cut an amazing LP, toured for a while, recorded some more, and then just fell off the face of the earth."
Adored mostly by vinyl fetishists, musicians in the know, and even the most jaded of bespectacled music critics, Howard Tate could have been bigger than Sam Cooke and maybe even Otis Redding if the Verve record label hadn't dropped the ball on his 1966 debut album Get It While You Can. "Everyone thought Howard Tate was dead for years, until somebody recognized him in a New Jersey grocery store just over a year ago," says Goddard. The person who recognized Tate in the produce aisle of a Shop-Rite was none other than Ron Kennedy of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Kennedy put Tate in touch with Phil Casden, a disc jockey in New Jersey who often played songs from Tate's first album on his radio show. Casden then put the word out on an Internet newsgroup. Soon after, a British journalist contacted Jerry Ragovoy, Tate's mentor, producer, and friend who was the mastermind behind Tate's remarkable recordings. "I've spent years trying to find him," a stunned Ragovoy told him.
"Well, I just talked to him yesterday," the journalist replied.
Howard Tate landed three minor hits on the R&B Top 20 chart from his debut LP Get It While You Can, including the strolling "Ain't Nobody Home" (later recorded by B.B. King) as well as the bluesy, soul-pop sing-along "Look at Granny Run Run" (later covered by Ry Cooder) and the gospel-funk epic "Stop" (later covered by Buddy Miles with Jimi Hendrix' Band of Gypsys and then by the James Gang). And although Tate never had a hit with it, Janis Joplin made the album's title track famous on her 1971 album Pearl. On his recordings, Tate's singing swings from a stalwart tenor to high up on his trademark falsetto -- a range that defied as much gravity as his towering pompadour. His vocal flourishes dip in and out of country-inspired styles deeply steeped in rich gospel and gritty blues. His voice can put shivers up your spine and comforting warmth in your belly like you were crawling out of the swimming pool into the hot tub.
Tate -- who, despite his many years under the radar, still seems infused with an endearing conceit -- was never surprised that so many people covered his work. "Well you know what that proves?" he asks, his upbeat voice bouncing out of the speakerphone. "It's that all the heavies listened to our music. I knew back then that we were great. I knew that nobody was better." His speaking manner is that of a seasoned reverend, with an animated accentuation that carries with it more character than even his singing inflections. Although his words come off as bragging and boastful, his conversational tone sounds like nothing more than the words of a man confident in himself and his producer. When he stirs the fire in the timbre of his speech, you can visualize his finger being raised and shaken in the air like a true preacher man.
"I knew that our bad breaks came because Verve didn't know how to market my type of music," he says. "We should have sold twenty million copies of the Get It While You Can album, and it's Verve's fault for that! But all the greats -- Jimi Hendrix and all them -- they were listening!" The man's music speaks for itself, but the fact that his recordings never made him a household name seems to have left Tate with a slightly salient undertone of bitterness. Perhaps he blames the hardships of his life that were to come after Verve never pushed his debut on the audience that made artists such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, and Clarence Carter set for life. Verve could've worked each song as an individual hit, had it known what it possessed at the time. Instead the album was damned to the kind of obscurity experienced by artists such as Eddie Hinton or Big Star.
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