Fresh Air Remembers Soul Singer Howard Tate

Dec 9, 2011
Originally published on February 5, 2012 7:28 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on October 27, 2003.

Soul singer Howard Tate, who rose to prominence in 1967 with the hit "Get It While You Can," died on Friday. He was 72.

Tate made a comeback in the past decade, after disappearing for nearly 30 years from the music industry; he'd been living on the streets doing whatever he needed to feed his drug habit. But Tate got sober, found religion and started recording again with Jerry Ragovoy, the first producer and songwriter he'd worked with in the industry.

In 2003, Tate and Ragovoy — who died in July of this year — joined Terry Gross for a wide-ranging conversation about their careers in the music industry. Highlights from that conversation appear below.

Interview Highlights

Jerry Ragovoy On Tate's 30-Year Disappearance

"Howard sort of disappeared around 1972, and I just accepted that as a fact of life and didn't do anything about it. In the early '80s, I started getting phone calls from various club owners across the country. In fact, some even in Europe were calling, looking for Howard Tate to book him in clubs. And I said, 'Well, I'll try to find him for you,' and that went on for I would say close to 10 years. ... And one day, I got a call from a journalist in London, England, who told me that he's doing an article about Howard Tate in one of the magazines there, and would I mind answering some questions, such as, 'What was it like to work with Howard in the studio?' And I happened to comment — I said, 'Really?' I said, 'You know, I've been looking for Howard for about 10 years.' And the journalist replied, 'Oh, really? I spoke to him yesterday.' And it was like, 'What?' Anyway, I got Howard's number and I called him. And soon, we were talking about the possibility of recording again."

Tate On His Early Years Collaborating With Ragovoy

"I thought we could set the world on fire. And our very first record was a hit, 'Ain't Nobody Home.' And the second one was a hit and 'Stop' was a hit, you know, but it was hard to cross over back then, of course, but we were tearing the charts up."

Tate On His Song Being Covered By Janis Joplin

"I never heard Janis sing ['Get It While You Can'] until I came back. Of course, when I left the music industry, I just completely cut myself off from it ... and I didn't listen to radio or anything like that. And so when I heard the story and how her record was such a hit, and I heard her sing it when I came back, I was amazed."

Tate On Leaving The Music Industry In The '70s

"I walked away from the music industry altogether, because I might have been a little high-strung and might have misinterpreted some things at that time, as we all do, and I — it was financial issues, and I might have misunderstood some facts back there, and I'm sure I did. And so I walked away from it, very bitter. You know, right or wrong, I was very bitter and, you know, that's what happened."

Tate On His Drug Addiction

"I would walk miles to make $20 and run right back to the dope man. And then I'd walk another 20 miles if I had to, till I got that next $20. I'd do that from morning to night for almost 10 years of my life to support that habit."

Tate, On Singing For The First Time In 30 years

When I opened my mouth and I stepped up to the mic, I knew it was a miracle. And 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."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross. Singer Howard Tate recorded a string of soulful hits in the 1960s then disappeared for the rest of the century, only to resurface in 2001 to enjoy a new wave of popularity and make some new, highly acclaimed recordings.

He died last Friday at age 72, so we wanted to listen back to the interview Terry Gross recorded with Howard Tate and producer/songwriter Jerry Ragovoy in 2003, The year Howard resurfaced with an impressive comeback album.

During Howard Tate's missing years, he had been living on the streets doing whatever he needed to do to get money to feed his drug habit. He placed some of the blame for his downward spiral on a fire that destroyed his home and killed one of his children.

Eventually, Tate found religion, cleaned up his act and became a minister in 1994, and he re-teamed with Jerry Ragovoy, with whom he first worked back in the '60s. Ragovoy, who died in July, wrote the song "Get It While You Can," which Tate recorded in 1967. Later, it was covered by Janis Joplin.

Joplin also recorded Ragovoy's songs "Try," "Crybaby" and "Piece of My Heart." The Rolling Stones recorded Ragovoy's song "Time is On My Side." Before we listen to Terry's interview with Tate and Ragovoy, let's listen to a song written by Ragovoy from Tate's 2003 comeback CD "Rediscovery."


HOWARD TATE: (Singing) Sorry, wrong number. Ain't nobody here by that name. No use reminiscing 'cuz this time I just won't listen. Don't need the pain, oh no. I'm sorry, wrong number. Baby, you're just, just wasting your time. I made myself forget you, but I'm not about to let you back in my mind, oh no.

(Singing) There was a time I lived only for you...


Now Howard Tate, you started singing in church. Your father was a minister in a Baptist church. You grew up in Macon, Georgia. You were born in Macon, Georgia, and then as a boy moved to Philadelphia.

TATE: That's right.

GROSS: So what kind of preacher was your father?

TATE: He was a Baptist preacher and folk preacher, you know, and I started singing in his church, I guess at about seven or eight years old.

GROSS: So when you made that transition from singing in church to singing on stage, what were some of the changes you had to make?

TATE: Well, just to learn the melodies, that was really the only thing because the voice was there, and I used the same technique and approach to the songs. So that was basically the only changes I had.

GROSS: And what about in your image, your look?

TATE: Well, that had to change a lot. I had to grow a pretty high pompadour back then.


GROSS: Oh, I have a great record right here from your first album, the "Get It While You Can" record. Your pompadour looks like about four inches high.

TATE: Yes, it was really high. And of course, you know, Joe Tex(ph) taught me how to dress when I went on the road because the first, very first show I did out in Detroit at the 20 Grand, I didn't know how to dress, and I was playing with Marvin Gaye, and he looked like a million dollars - no, he looked like $5 million - and I just didn't know how to dress.

And Joe Tex pulled me aside, and he said: Look, man, here's where we get our suits made. And they booked me on the tour with him shortly thereafter, and I went up in New York and had half-a-dozen suits made. And he showed me where to buy the shoes and all that kind of stuff and buy those $300 patent leather shoes. And so that's how that came about.

GROSS: Howard Tate, let's talk about how you ended up disappearing for so long from the music industry. First of all, when did you and Jerry Ragovoy stop working together? You're such a great match, as we just heard.

TATE: Well, after we did the Atlantic LP, "Howard Tate," we separated. I walked away from the music industry altogether and - because I had - I might have been a little high-strung and might have misinterpreted some things at that time, as we all do, and I - it was financial issues, and I might have misunderstood some facts back there, and I'm sure I did.

And so I walked away from it, very bitter. You know, right or wrong, I was very bitter and, you know, and that's what happened.

GROSS: Jerry Ragovoy, what's your version of that story?

JERRY RAGOVOY: Well, there's very little to contradict. He simply disappeared, and I never knew what happened to him.

GROSS: Didn't say goodbye, didn't say our collaboration's ended?

TATE: No, no flowers.


GROSS: And were you aware of what Reverend Tate was just describing, that he was feeling very bitter about his financial standing within the music industry?

RAGOVOY: He sort of disappeared virtually overnight, and I never had to - had the opportunity to discuss why, how or when. It just happened, period, he was gone.

GROSS: So where'd you go when you were gone?

TATE: Well, I went back, and I sold insurance for a while, but I was so depressed until I fell into the drug scene, and I couldn't get it out of my mind that I hit so fast when we came out of the stall. We came out, and we - they released "Ain't Nobody Home," and I was working.

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 $1,000. They said you got to get a suit, you're playing with Marvin Gaye tomorrow. That's how fast I hit.

And right behind that, "Look at Granny Run" and "Stop." And so that kept flashing back in my mind because there must be so many thousands of artists that cut records, millions, and they can't hit. And I came out of the chute and hit, you know, big time.

And so that flashed back through my mind, and that - 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.

GROSS: What was your drug of choice.

TATE: Cocaine.

GROSS: An expensive choice.

TATE: Expensive choice, and it'll completely destroy you, and it destroyed me. It's a miracle that I'm sitting here, and I'm back.

GROSS: Okay, so first of all I'm having a hard time picturing you selling insurance. Okay, so you're selling insurance for a while, and then there was also something else that happened in your life: Your house burned down. And I think that was a turning point for you, also.

TATE: Yes, that was something else to depress me. I lost a daughter, 13 years old, in a house fire. And behind that, my marriage was - we - I went through a divorce. And so it was just a devastating period for me. And I thought the more drugs I did that, you know, that would be the answer. But it wasn't the answer.

GROSS: Did you ever say to yourself - did you ever look around at the other people who were doing what they were doing to feed their habit and look at the drug dealers who you were buying from and look at the other homeless people who you knew and say to yourself: What am I doing here? I'm Howard Tate. I'm a recording artist. I'm a terrific soul singer. What am I doing here?

TATE: Well, there was times when I would, within myself, remember who I was and where I'd come from and the success I had had. But cocaine, those drugs destroy your very will. They destroy everything about you, your pride, everything. And I lived for the drug. There's wasn't many times I realized I had fallen into that subculture with that subculture, and I was trapped there. And least that's what I thought because I never thought I'd make it out alive.

GROSS: Did you sing at all during that period, and I don't mean performing, I mean, just singing to yourself?

TATE: Never sang a note. I never sang a note all those years. In fact, when I - Jerry, I met Jerry in New York, and he says I'm going to send you a couple of demos. If you learn these songs, I'm going to have you come to Atlanta to see how you sound on them. He sent me the demos, and the truth about the matter, Terry, I never once opened my mouth to sing those demos, not once.

I could not bring myself to listen to the singer that he had on the demos for me to learn the songs by, and I could not bring myself to sing those songs. I only did it when I got down to his studio and stepped up to the mic and opened my mouth, and it was all there.

GROSS: Let's hear another track, and it's a song that you did together many years ago, that, Jerry Ragovoy, you wrote. And a lot of people will also know this song from Janis Joplin's version of it. And the song is "Get It While You Can." Before we hear it, Jerry Ragovoy, what inspired the writing of this song?

RAGOVOY: I wrote that in the very middle - in the middle '60s with Mort Shuman, and we simply just wrote it because we thought it was a message that was very powerful and almost universal and almost surely have longevity. And that was one of the reasons we wrote it.

GROSS: And how did Howard Tate end up singing it?

RAGOVOY: Well, we thought it came out so terrific in our own opinion, I decided to do with Howard and did an arrangement, and we recorded it, and several months later, Janis Joplin recorded it.

GROSS: Had she heard his version? Is that what happened?

RAGOVOY: Oh absolutely. That was the reason she recorded it.

GROSS: And Howard Tate, how did you feel when Janis Joplin not only recorded it but had this huge hit of it? Like, it was a song that was more associated with her than with you because most people had heard her version. More people had heard her version than yours.

TATE: Well, I never heard Janis sing this song until I came back. Of course, when I left the music industry, I just completely cut myself off from it, and I didn't listen to radio or anything like that. So when I heard the story and how her record was such a hit, and I heard her sing it when I came back, I was amazed.

GROSS: When was this? Was this like recently?

TATE: Well, it was two years ago, close to three years ago.

GROSS: That's amazing to me that you'd be so disconnected that you wouldn't even know she did...

TATE: I didn't even know she did it.


TATE: I didn't know B.B. King did "Ain't Nobody Home." I didn't know Jimi Hendrix did "Stop" because I just walked away from it, and I didn't listen to the radio. I didn't want to hear anything about it, and I just isolated myself from it completely.

BIANCULLI: Howard Tate and Jerry Ragovoy, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. Tate died earlier this week at age 72. Before we hear more of Terry's interview, let's listen to Howard Tate's 1966 version of the Jerry Ragovoy song "Get It While You Can," which Tate recorded Janis Joplin got to it.


TATE: (Singing) When you love somebody, you're taking a chance on sorrow. But who knows, baby, we may not be here tomorrow. So if someone comes your way with love and protection, get it while you can. Get it while you can. Get it while you can. Don't turn your back on love.

(Singing) I wanna tell you a little bit about myself. Once I had a good woman, but I didn't count my blessings. Oh, I wish she could hear me. I've learned a bitter lesson. So if someone brings you love, don't throw it away like I did. Get it while you can. Better go on and get it while you can. Get it while you can, baby, don't turn your back on love. Get it while you can...

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with soul singer Howard Tate, who died earlier this week at age 72.

GROSS: You had talked a little bit about your period of being homeless and being addicted. And then I know there was some kind of spiritual awakening or being born again. What exactly happened? What exactly was the religious side of this transformation?

TATE: Well, Terry, the truth is I never thought I would escape the subculture of drug. That is a prison that any hard drug such as cocaine, heroin, anything like that, once you get hooked on that, you believe the only way out is death. I seriously thought I would end up dead.

And I just called on the name of the lord one day, and I just said Lord, help me. And when I said that, I was being attacked. I wanted it. The urge was hitting me. And I couldn't get away from it. But when I said that, it left me.

Only when I would say that, Lord help me, would that urge leave me. I would come under attack. I would really be under attack. I would want that drug so bad that - I mean, you know, I would walk 30 miles to get $20. I would be 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.

Only when I called on the name of the lord did that urge leave me, and I started realizing something's happening in here, and if I want to ever escape this, I'd better seriously call on the lord and ask him to completely set me free. And that's what happened. He set me free.

GROSS: Howard Tate, this meant changing your life a lot. Now, we neglected to mention that after this period of homelessness and drug addiction you had a spiritual experience and lived in a shelter for a while, joined a church, started your own ministry, became Reverend Howard Tate.

So starting music again meant giving up some of that new life that you'd created, right?

TATE: Yes, it meant giving up some. It didn't have to mean giving up some of it. But we had a split in the church, you know...

GROSS: About whether this was a good thing or not?

TATE: Whether it was a good thing, yes.

GROSS: Well, that must have been odd having other people kind of voting on what your future should be.


TATE: Right.

GROSS: So what was the pro and the con side about?

TATE: Well, the pro side was that, you know, this could be a good thing because I could go all over the world and reach so many people with the life I live and have so many people, you know, that I can see and talk to and reach. And the con side was, well, you can't have it both ways. You know, either you're going to do the work of the lord, or either you're going to serve the devil. And that was the con part of it.

I'm one to believe - and I prayed a lot about this - that you can't put God in a bottle or a box, you know, and the lord answered me and said that I gave you that voice, you know, and when I set you free from being a junkie all those years and brought you back and kept you alive, you know, when you were drugging out there. You could have got your throat slit. You could have got a couple of bullets in the back of your head walking the streets all night, as you did. I took care of you.

So if I choose for you to use that voice, (unintelligible), you know, and spiritual because you can certainly sing some spiritual records, too, you know, who's to question me?

GROSS: Now, you said that the church basically voted on whether you should be singing secular music or not. So who won the vote?

TATE: Well, they gave me an ultimatum that either I would not come back and record and sing secular music again, or I would be cut off from my salary, and they cut me off from my salary, and I had to move out of the home, the rectory that they had provided.

And so I had to do that, and I gave - so I wanted to build a rehab center and buy houses to house the homeless in the state of New Jersey, and I knew I'd need a lot of money to do this. And I said to them: Well, you're not able to give me the kind of money I'm looking for. I think the lord is leading me with all that happened - they re-released the "Get It While You Can" album in Europe, and it took off and sold all over the place, and that's how I was rediscovered.

And so if God is opening up this avenue for me to get the money to help others to escape the prison I was in, the drugs and the homelessness, then I'm going to take that route. And so I gave up the pastorship and became pastor of Gift of the Cross Outreach Ministry, I'm the pastor there, and I decided to record the CD.

GROSS: Okay. I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

TATE: Thank you, Terry.

RAGOVOY: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to Howard Tate and Jerry Ragovoy in 2003. Howard Tate died last week at age 72. His comeback CD, "Rediscovered," was produced by Jerry Ragovoy, who died earlier this year. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.