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2:00 pm
Mon December 5, 2011

Howard Tate, Soul Singer, Dies At 72

Originally published on Mon December 5, 2011 5:22 pm

Soul music lost one of its great voices last week. Singer Howard Tate died Friday after a battle with cancer at the age of 72. Tate had made his name with a string of classic records including "Get It While You Can," before sliding into obscurity and addiction. But Tate got sober, found religion and he enjoyed a successful encore career over the past decade.

Tate's first turn at the music business came in 1966, when the single "Ain't Nobody Home" hit the R&B charts.

As Tate told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2003, fame came so quickly that it took him by surprise.

"I came home from work one day," he said, "and a big limousine was sitting in front of the door. And they said, 'You gotta get in here right away. You gotta get a suit. You're playing with Marvin Gaye tomorrow night.'"

Tate grew up in Philadelphia, and got his start singing in his father's church. He was discovered by the late Jerry Ragovoy, a producer and songwriter. In 2003, Ragovoy told me he was impressed by Tate's smooth tenor and falsetto soaring.

"The potential of his range was extraordinary," he said. "I thought that Howard was maybe the only artist that I heard who could execute what I had in my mind as a writer." Their collaboration reached its pinnacle with Ragovoy's classic song, "Get it While You Can."

But while Janis Joplin and others had success covering his songs, Tate never made much money from his recordings, as he told NPR's Liane Hansen in 2008.

"Back in the day, you know, we just didn't get paid, at least black artists didn't," he said. "Because things weren't set up the way they are now, you know, with the managers. So we had no protection, and who knows what happened to the money, you know, along the way."

Tate walked away from the music business in the 1970s and got a job selling insurance. Tragedy struck his family a few years when his 13-year-old daughter died in a house fire. Tate's marriage fell apart, and he turned to cocaine, as he told Fresh Air in 2003.

"I thought drugs would alleviate that depressed feeling that I had. Which was a crucial mistake," he said. "It only led to destruction, homelessness, and all of that. That's what happened."

For about a decade, Tate lived on the streets of Camden, New Jersey, working odd jobs to get by. "I would walk 30 miles to get $20. I would beg people: 'Let me clean your garage. Let me wash your car. Let me cut your lawn. Let me clean your gutters.' Just to get $20."

Finally, in 1994, Tate checked himself into a rehab clinic. He was born again. He started working as a preacher. He didn't know if he could still sing — until in th he went into the studio again with Ragovoy in the early 2000s.

"When I opened my mouth and I stepped up to the mic, I knew it was a miracle," he said. "Jerry didn't know it. But I was thanking God that he had blessed me to still have the voice."

After 2003, Tate enjoyed a second career, recording a handful of albums and playing to appreciative crowds around the world, but he told NPR he had a higher goal in mind.

"I was so thrilled and happy when God set me free from being a drug addict, and I wanted to share that with those that are out there suffering," he said. "But they need to know there's hope, and the hope lies in God. So that's why I decided to come back."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Soul music has lost one of its great voices. Howard Tate died Friday after a battle with cancer. He was 72 years old. Tate made his name with a string of records, including "Get It While You Can." He later slid into addiction and obscurity, but he revived his career in the last decade of his life. NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Howard Tate's first turn at the music business got off to a promising start in 1966, when the single "Ain't Nobody Home" hit the R&B charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOBODY HOME")

HOWARD TATE: (Singing) Once upon a time, a long, long time ago...

ROSE: As Tate told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2003, fame came so quickly that it caught him by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TATE: I came home from work one day, and a big limousine was sitting in front of the door, and they said, you got to get in here right away. They gave me a thousand dollars. They said, you got to get a suit. You're playing with Marvin Gaye tomorrow night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOBODY HOME")

TATE: (Singing) Ain't nobody home. Yeah. Ain't nobody home.

ROSE: Howard Tate grew up in Philadelphia and got his start singing in his father's church. He was discovered by the late Jerry Ragovoy, a producer and songwriter. In 2003, Ragovoy told me he was impressed by Tate's smooth tenor and soaring falsetto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JERRY RAGOVOY: The potential of his range was extraordinary, and I thought that Howard was maybe the only artist that I heard who could execute what I had in my mind as a writer.

ROSE: Their collaboration reached its pinnacle with Ragovoy's classic song "Get It While You Can."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET IT WHILE YOU CAN")

TATE: (Singing) Get it while you can. Get it while you can. Get it while you can. Don't turn your back on love.

ROSE: But while Janis Joplin and others had success covering Howard Tate, Tate himself never made much money from his recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TATE: Back in the day, you know, we just didn't get paid, at least black artists, because things wasn't set up the way they are now, you know, with the managers. So we had no protection, and who knows what happened to the money along the way?

ROSE: Tate walked away from the music business in the 1970s and got a job selling insurance. Then his 13-year-old daughter died in a house fire. Tate's marriage fell apart, and he turned to cocaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TATE: I thought drugs would alleviate that depressed feeling that I had, which was a crucial mistake. It only led to destruction, homelessness and all of that. And that's what happened.

ROSE: For about a decade, Tate lived on the streets of Camden, New Jersey, working odd jobs to score.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TATE: I would walk 30 miles to get $20. I would beg people, let me clean your garage, let me wash your car, let me cut your lawn, just to get $20. I would want that drug so bad.

ROSE: Finally, in 1994, Tate checked himself into a rehab clinic. Tate was born again and started working as a preacher. He wasn't sure if he could still sing until he went into the studio again with producer Jerry Ragovoy in the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TATE: When I opened my mouth and I stepped up to the mic, I knew it was a miracle. Jerry didn't know it, of course, but I was thanking God, you know, with all my heart and soul that he had blessed me to still have the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LEARNED IT ALL THE HARD WAY")

TATE: (Singing) I learned it all the hard way. Can't you see I repented for my sins? Oh, I sit right here by my window, hoping you will come back again.

ROSE: After 2003, Howard Tate launched his second career, recording a handful of albums and playing to appreciative crowds around the world. Tate enjoyed the overdue attention, but he also said he had a higher goal in mind for his comeback: to show other drug addicts that there's hope. Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LEARNED IT ALL THE HARD WAY")

TATE: (Singing) This is my true confession, darling. That I just can't make it here without you. Oh, I made you lots of promises.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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