From Sunday, Feb 27, 2005

Howard Tate needs a hit, and thinks he'll get one covering "Let It Be. "

Never mind that the R&B singer has an album's worth of material in his own story of hitting big - and rock bottom - in the music business.

Tate stormed the charts in the 1960s, disappeared in the 1970s, became a homeless crack addict in the 1980s, found God in the 1990s, and - it's a miracle! - was rediscovered, in a Willingboro supermarket of all places, on New Year's Day 2001.

Soon, he had a new CD, rave reviews, and gigs around the globe.

Things were going so well, Tate figured he'd clear a million last year.

Ken Stehlik couldn't have been happier about the singer's comeback.

Tate owes Stehlik money from a couple of disastrous business deals.

And with Tate raking it in again, Stehlik figured he could finally collect and shake off the shame of the dumbest investment he ever made.

"I was a fool," Stehlik declared. "I won't be a fool again. "

Stehlik, who was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, suffered a fatal heart attack Wednesday night, one day after our interview.

His family requested that this column run today anyway, as planned.

Stehlik's lawyer, Donna Cettei, said she would press on with her client's claims against the singing sensation.

The trouble is, in spite of Tate's success, he's hardly living large.

"I can't pay him what I don't have," Tate argued when I stopped by his humble cottage on the Rancocas Creek last week.

The unlikely partners met at Tate's front door in the late 1980s, when Stehlik was collecting money on his part-time paper route.

The singer told Stehlik that he had a couple of hits stuck in a recording studio. He just needed a few bucks to finish and ride them up the charts.

Stehlik's musical tastes run more to jazz, but he dug into his pocket for $2,500 and persuaded family members to pony up another $2,500.

"I was all ears," Stehlik explained. "I wanted to make some money. "

Tate took the cash and polished up "Sweetness" and "One Armed Bandit," about Atlantic City.

The songs went nowhere. The money vanished. Then, so did Tate.

Years later, after the he resurfaced, he told Stehlik that he had a plan to turn the 45-single into a CD they could sell at a show in the Poconos.

This time, Tate needed $3,500.

"He was different. He was a minister," Stehlik rationalized as he explained how he got suckered again.

"He said: 'Sometimes the Lord has to bring you down to bring you up. ' "

Stehlik got so sick of dwelling on the debt that he took Tate to court, getting judgments against the singer that now total nearly $10,000.

The tally climbs each time Tate claims he is not in contempt - he's just too poor to pay.

That's right: Tate's attorney, Frederick Wilhelms, says the star is financially worse-off than his fans.

Bonnie Raitt may call Tate "simply one of the greatest soul singers ever," but he hasn't profited from praise.

Rediscovered, the much-hyped comeback CD, sold only 15,000 copies.

Tate's old-school soul sound has no home on modern radio.

And because he tours with a large band, his expenses are expansive.

"If Howard ends up with $200 at the end of the night, he's doing well," Wilhelms said. "It's a vicious cycle."

Stehlik's attorney, Cettei, isn't a fan of musical excuses or sob stories:

"He's got money. He's hiding it. "

Tate seems almost as fed up with the cruelties of the music business as he is with the relentless pursuit.

"I'm not Prince, on the road 300 nights a year," Tate complained to me.

"I'm not Norah Jones, selling millions of records. "

"We need a hit," he says, like "Let It Be" was for the Beatles. "We got to connect with the people. "

Connect away, Cettei says, but Tate had better get back on the road or in the recording studio, fast.

She's not giving up just because her client died.

"I'm not doing this out of vengeance," she said. "I'm doing it because this is what Ken wanted. "

It's what he is owed.