Finding Howard Tate by Stan Slap
Update: Howard passed away 2 weeks after this blog was posted. It was an honor for us to remember him while he was on this earth with us.
Written October 9th, 2002
The legends of soul: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown, Howard Tate. Tate’s 1967 album, Get It While You Can, is regarded as one of the finest examples of rhythm and blues ever recorded. Otis himself called it “the Bible of Soul,” and artists like B.B., Janis and Jimi recorded their own versions of its songs. Produced and mostly written by the legendary Jerry Ragovoy, it has a power and mystique that few albums of any genre can claim. Shortly after recording it Howard simply disappeared and no one—labels, lawyers, producers, fans—was ever able to find him again.
Get It While You Can eventually went out of print, with rare copies going for over $1,000 at record swap meets. The search for Howard became an international obsession by music fans over the ensuing decades, to no avail. When it was finally released on CD in 1995, everybody figured he’d been found. Instead, the liner notes asked anyone who might know where he was to contact the label so they could forward his royalties. I had been hunting for him myself, like any good soul music lover; Diane had asked me what I wanted for Christmas just the year before and I had said, “Find me Howard Tate” to the poor woman.
Thirty-five years after the album’s initial release I was flipping idly through the Sunday paper when my eye caught an ad for this year’s San Francisco Blues Festival showing headliner Howard Tate. I about fell out of the chair. Howard Tate? Howard Tate! I couldn’t believe it. Got online and bought tickets that instant and hit the Where’s Howard Tate? chat rooms to spread the incredible news.
They were already lit up; turns out that a DJ back East had been playing the CD and lamenting about not knowing Howard’s whereabouts. Somebody heard him and said to his friend Howard, “Hey, they’re looking for a guy that has your same name.” Howard was alive after all—he had gotten disgusted with the payola of the 1960s music business, quit, started on heavy drugs, burned his house down, cleaned up his act and — get ready for it — ended up selling securities for Prudential and preaching at a small local church in complete anonymity. Selling securities for Prudential: My brain is not big enough to make this up.
A couple of weeks ago and the day before the San Francisco Blues Festival, I was headed backstage after an Elvis Costello concert at the Warfield. I guess Howard Tate was occupying an open folder in my mind because I thought I saw an old guy that looked like Jerry Ragovoy a few people ahead of me. “That’s Jerry Ragovoy!” I said, gripping Diane’s arm. “Oh, please,” she said. “At an Elvis Costello concert? You’re like a goofy obsessed tweeny.” Turns out I was right, because standing in a corner of the backstage room and being ignored by everyone was… Howard Tate.
The circumstances that contrived to put Howard Tate and me in the same room were so mind-boggling that I didn’t stop to ponder; if this was a hallucination I wanted to leverage every minute of it. I raced over, lunging for his hand and babbling like a lunatic. “Howard Tate! Howard Tate!” He backed away nervously so I turned to Diane and, as if this would provide consoling proof that I wasn’t some nutcase, demanded, “Tell him what I wanted for Christmas!” Whereupon he shrank back even further, convinced I was either a crazed stalker or an SEC investigator, no doubt confirming to himself why he had quit both the music and securities businesses.
Just then Jerry Ragovoy came by and Howard dragged him out of the room before I could make eye contact again. I drifted over to say hey to Elvis, who had just arrived backstage. “How are you?” he asked. “Howard Tate was just here! He’s playing in town tomorrow!” I shouted, evidently not having completely purged the lunatic from my system. No problem, since Elvis is a keen appreciator of all musical genres and a longtime Tate fanatic himself.
Howard was great to see the next day in his major return to the stage. Elvis ended up staying over in San Francisco and introducing him to the Festival crowd. Howard seemed grateful but bewildered about the tremendous applause that greeted him. He moved like… a Prudential securities salesman. (First rule: Don’t wear a watch on stage. Second rule: If you do, don’t keep looking at it.)
But the voice, the voice. It’s still there, same as it ever was, as if it’s simply been waiting backstage itself, ready to stoke and stroke the world after all these years. The show was a mind-blowing, heart-stopping experience that no one in the audience ever expected to be lucky enough to enjoy.
Get It While You Can is out of print but available on eBay and other sites. Get it yourself no matter what it takes.