Howard Tate, the Georgia-born and Philadelphia-raised singer who dropped out of the music business in frustration after the often-brilliant albums he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s failed to reach a wide audience, died Friday in Burlington, New Jersey.
The 72 year old soul singer, who died of multiple myeloma and leukemia according to Rolling Stone, returned to recording and performing in the 2000s after a chance encounter in a South Jersey supermarket led to his rediscovery.
Working with Philadelphia producer and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, Tate recorded one undeniable classic album: Get It While You Can, a 1966 release on Verve whose title track became much better known when sung by Janis Joplin.
With agile phrasing and a keen falsetto, Tate's voice bears a resemblance to Al Green's. But on cuts like "Look At Granny Run Run" (covered by Ry Cooder) and "Stop" (recorded by Jimi Hendrix) and Ain't Nobody Home (later done by both B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt), Ragovoy skillfully took Tate's down home sound uptown, with sophisticated urban production.
Neither his debut nor the subsequent Reaction (1969) and Howard Tate (1972) earned him a wide audience, and Tate, who had sung with organist Bill Doggett and his fellow North Philadelphia soul man Garnet Mimms (in the doo-wop group The Gainors) early in his career, wound up disappearing from the music business altogether, with his absence making his legend grow stronger.
Without music in his life, Tate, who was raised in the neighborhood around 13th and Norris Streets, sold insurance, and raised six children. He started drinking after his daughter was killed in a fire in his Wynnefield home in 1976, he told the Inquirer in 2004, and after his marriage crumbled, his life took a harrowing turn.
"I turned to cocaine, and it was the worst thing I could have ever done," he said. "It destroyed my willpower. I became homeless, roaming around those drug neighborhoods in Camden. I actually thought I was going to be found dead in an alley. It was like I was waiting to die."
Instead, however, the Baptist preacher's son turned to the Lord. In 1994, he founded the Gift of the Cross Church and began preaching in living rooms in West Philadelphia and South Jersey.
Presumed dead by many, he ran into a former member of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in a Willingboro supermarket on New Year's Day in 2001, who told him that an oldies DJ, Phil Casem of WNJC in Sewell, N.J., had been making inquiries about his whereabouts on the radio.
Two years later, Tate returned with Rediscovered, an album that included "Either Side Of The Same Town," a song Elvis Costello and Ragovoy, who died earlier this year, wrote for Tate. With his remarkable voice miraculously preserved after nearly three decades out of action, he returned to performing, and released two more albums, A Portrait of Howard (2006) and Blue Day (2008).
Mimms, who is pastor of the Bottom Line Revival Church in Cheltenham, on Tuesday recalled the days when he sang lead and Tate sang tenor in the Gainors, a quintet that came together after Mimms got out of the U.S. Army in 1958.
"We were very close," said the 78 year old Mimms, who introduced Tate to Ragovoy, and had his own Ragavoy-penned classic soul hit, "Cry Baby" in 1963.
"He was a very nice dresser, and very famous with the young ladies," Mimms said of Tate. "He was an all outgoing guy, and his falsetto was unique. I had a high range myself, but I couldn't do that falsetto stuff he did. He could come out of his natural, and go right into it. He had a great voice."
"Ain't Nobody Home" is below.