“No one ever made the beat sing and the melody swing with any more poetry and power than Grady Tate. Our music never had a better friend, and neither did I.” – Todd Barkan, jazz record producer
The drummer and vocalist Grady Tate, a veteran of hundreds of jazz recording sessions, died on Oct. 8, according to longtime colleague and producer Todd Barkan. He was 85 years old. Tate was a dual threat as a singer and a drummer, performing in the latter role on many seminal LPs with the likes of Jimmy Smith, Oliver Nelson and Wes Montgomery. Most closely associated with the soul-jazz style of the ’60s popularized by Smith, Montgomery, Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine, he also recorded about a dozen albums as a leader, nearly all featuring his sultry baritone voice as well as his stylish drumming.
Like many of his peers on the postbop scene, Tate was born in North Carolina and was a product of the Great Migration. Raised in Durham, he was self-taught on drums and performed at local churches as a singer.
In a bio on the Concord Music Group website, Tate said, “I was a good little singer,” adding, “I wish we’d had technology the way it is today so I could have had some of those recordings.” When Tate entered puberty, he lost the will and even ability to sing. “It was such a devastating experience,” he recalled. “From the time I was 12 until I was 19, I would not open my mouth because I was totally frustrated by that voice change. As a result, I never sang in high school.”
After a stint in the Air Force during the early 1950s, in which he played in bands and did vocal arrangements, he came back to Durham for school but eventually relocated to Washington, D.C., which would be his home off and on for many years. A subsequent move to NYC brought him to the attention of Quincy Jones, Creed Taylor and other producers, and he began a steady and lucrative career as a session player, primarily on drums. Known for his crisp yet sensitive touch on the kit, Tate also did pop and R&B dates, recording with Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Phoebe Snow, the McGarrigles, Paul Simon and Bette Midler.
In an interview with Gregory Thomas in 2008 for All About Jazz, Tate explained that he learned a lot from backing other singers, including Peggy Lee. “Peggy was just sultry, not nasty or rowdy,” he said. “I enjoyed playing with her. I guess I’ve tried to do some of that with my singing. One of the reasons I’ve played with so many singers was to see and learn what they were doing. You have to listen to all of the people who are successful at it. Find those that do it to the most of what you like. Key in on that person, not to sound exactly like them, but to get the essence of their feeling.”
The scope of Tate’s credits reflects his flexible sound and approach. In addition to a seven-year run as the drummer for the Tonight Show band in the 1960s, Tate also did several of the vocals for the wildly successful and influential series Schoolhouse Rock!, singing the lead on “I Got Six,” “Naughty Number Nine” and “Fireworks.”
Tate also recorded and released about a dozen albums as a leader, frequently with his deep and soulful voice at the forefront of the music. In a review of Tate’s 2006 album, From the Heart: Songs Sung Live at the Blue Note (Half Note), Christopher Loudon wrote in JazzTimes: “Tate’s rumbling baritone has often been likened, quite validly, to Johnny Hartman, Arthur Prysock and Lou Rawls. Stylistically, though, he more closely resembles the great (and, like Tate, significantly underappreciated) Bill Henderson.”
In an email to JazzTimes, Michael Cuscuna, noted producer for Mosaic Records and Blue Note Records, reflected on Tate’s versatile career and distinctive persona. “I knew three Grady Tates, each was kind and brilliant and somewhat at odds with each other,” said Cuscuna. “The consummate, hard-swinging tasteful drummer who turned the heads of the musical giants of the ‘60s was eclipsed by the skillful, spot-on studio drummer who gave every session its glue, its groove and its soul. By the end of the ‘60s, a tempered, controlled vocalist with emotional depth and perfect delivery began to fight for Grady’s time. So three exceptional talents shared the same body and mind. Those of us who were lucky enough to work with one or more of them will forever miss his exceptional brilliance and the gracious decency that defined his persona.”
Later in his career, Tate added yet another dimension to his multi-faceted career when he became a full-fledged educator, working as a professor in Howard University’s jazz and music program beginning around 1989.
According to jazz professor emeritus Arthur Dawkins, Tate’s initial appointment at Howard University was made possible by now retired faculty member Reppard Stone, who was the music director of the Howard University Jazz Repertory Orchestra. Tate, along with Ron Carter and John Malachi, made up the rhythm section for a big band playing the music of Billy Eckstine, Thelonious Monk and Oliver Nelson over a five-year period. “Grady’s impact on the students was immediate and powerful,” wrote Dawkins in an email to JazzTimes. “While continuing his unbelievable schedule with Jimmy Smith, CBS Sunday Morning, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and Quincy Jones, he evolved as a master teacher at Howard, sharing his wide experiences as a recording and [performing] artist.” In addition, as a vocal jazz coach Grady was a major contributor to the foundation of a thriving vocal jazz program at Howard that’s now run by Connaitre Miller.
In his conversation with Thomas, Tate explained what he taught to drummers: “I tell them to bring a stack of recordings by singers. And you pick out the things that are most important: the introduction, the first chorus and how to go from the first to the second. And for drummers playing with singers, you follow the singer; you don’t overplay, playing a damn solo while they’re singing. You go just beneath where the singers go.”
In that same conversation he offered this advice to singers: “Think very closely about what you want, and go get it. It’s out here, so go get it. But always remember that you can find people—musicians, arrangers—who are with you. They have to play according to what you want, especially as regards dynamics, how soft and how loud. And look like you’re having fun. If a musician wants to pretend that ‘this ain’t nothin’,’ he can either get with it or he’s immediately released. Just go with me, and everything will be cool. I want everybody to be comfortable and to have a good time.”
Jeff Levenson, former jazz journalist and current record producer, saw the man and his music as inseparable. “Grady’s music was alot like his personality—refined, classy, exhibiting impeccable taste and constraint,” wrote Levenson in an email to JazzTimes. “He took pride in the architectural aspects of his drumming, no frills, nothing unnecessary. His singing was like that, too – relaxed, no nonsense. He aimed, simply, to tell the story.”
Tate is survived by his widow Vivian and son Grady, Jr.