Howard Tate - Get It While You Can
Epic Hair for an Epic Tune
To say that the 1960’s was a golden age for music (especially soul music) isn’t exactly breaking new ground. The 60’s were a turbulent time...blah, blah, blahhhhh.... That said, there was so much great soul music being made back then, that much of it has been forgotten (if it was ever noticed in the first place). It certainly doesn’t help that the heart of this “golden age” was almost 40 years ago, meaning that most of the people that experienced it first hand have forgotten, moved on, or sadly REALLY moved on (i.e. expired...). Sure, there are lots of folks like me (and my ilk...) who jump up and down, waving our hands like a bunch of kooks trying to get people to remember, but aside from the curious few (which is - don’t get me wrong - far better than the curious “none”), spontaneous stampedes created by a newfound upswell in soul music fandom are few and far between (if not completely non-existent...). I am also reminded – frequently – that as obscure as my tastes are (and they are obscure with a certain populist seasoning added), the world of record collector-dom is filled with people who’s focus is much more laser-like than mine, drilling ever deeper into the dark labyrinth of forgotten/neglected vinyl. As long as their purpose is to eventually share the information and music they excavate, more power to them. These kinds of things work like ripples on a pond. Even if the first impact/discovery is visible to an isolated group of collectors/specialists, the ripples spread, and with enough momentum, and enough popular appeal built in (on account of some things are obscure and forgotten for a good reason...) the obscurities will reach a much larger audience. It would be unfair to list Howard Tate among those “lost” artists. Though it seems likely that were you to stop 100 people on the sidewalk, 99 (or more) of them wouldn’t know Howard Tate from Larry Tate, he actually had a long career making quality records for a relatively major label, some of which hit the charts, and as a result shouldn’t be counted with the Chicken Shack Johnson’s of the world. Howard Tate, a singer of undeniable talent had the extremely good fortune to catch the ear of songwriter/producer Jerry Ragavoy. With songs and guidance from Ragavoy, and the backing of the Verve label (albeit not the best label for a soul singer), Tate laid down a string of powerful – and ultimately influential – singles and an LP for Verve between 1964 and 1968. The combination of Tate’s adaptable voice, and Ragavoy’s pop savvy (and fantastic songs) made for musical dynamite. As I just mentioned Tate’s recordings were influential, and it’s entirely likely that you’ve heard today’s selection before (if not his version). ‘Get It While You Can’ became (along with other Ragavoy gems like ‘Cry Baby’, a hit for Garnett Mimms with whom Tate sang in the Gainors) a signature number for Janis Joplin. Now, I’ve gone on record in the past as saying some rather uncharitable things about Janis, especially when it comes to her renderings of songs that I (and a lot of other folks) consider to be soul/R&B classics. While my estimation of Ms. Joplin’s talents may have been harsh, I think that if you line her covers up against the originals by Garnett Mimms, Etta James and Howard Tate (among others), the end result would not be favorable for her. While there’s certainly something to be said for an artist like Joplin’s value as a “popularizer” of lesser-known material, I’d be willing to bet that the number of people that went out and dug up Howard Tate records because they heard Janis sing ‘Get It While You Can’, is actually quite small (as they often are in these situations). To take it to an even more basic level, I’d posit that Tate’s version is so good as to be definitive, and as a result any attempt to recreate that magic is wasted. I’m willing to admit that that statement is kind of unfair, but that’s my gut feeling every time I hear someone making hay off of a substandard reworking of a brilliant original (which seems to be the modus opperandi for the majority of the “product” generated by the entertainment industry, especially Hollywood these days). There are certainly exceptions to the rule even where the songs of Howard Tate are concerned, specifically the covers of ‘Stop’ by L’il Bob & The Lollipops and...get ready....here it comes....the epic reworking by the James Gang (you weren’t expecting that, right??? No one expects the James Gang!!!). So, despite the fact that Howard Tate managed to graze the Top 50 a few times, his impact on the world of music was largely an artistic triumph and a commercial failure. ‘Get It While You Can’ is one of the great, shoulda/coulda/woulda stories of it’s day. When you add up all the talent involved, and the incredible performance (I’d rate it alongside great soul ballad tours de force like Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ and James Carr’s ‘Dark End of the Street’), the end result should have been a huge hit, well remembered by one and all and dragged out perennially as an example of all that was great about 60’s soul. Unfortunately, the calculus of popularity being what it is, ‘Get It While You Can’ is a favorite of soul fans and record collectors and not too many others. The arrangement by Ragavoy is a testament to the value of understatement. Opening with quiet piano triplets, Tate comes in with a deep, gospel-inflected vocal, which builds into the anthemic (albeit brief) chorus. With the successive verses, the horns and guitar come aboard and the “build” becomes more powerful each time. Tate’s vocal soars like a beam of light from the Amen Corner, with the line ‘Don’t turn your back on love’ standing as a shining example of how amazing the fusion of gospel and rhythm & blues could be in the right hands. A lot of this has to do with the lyric by Mort Shuman, which is a simple, yet eloquent classic. Whether or not Shuman was tapping into the zeitgeist when he wrote -
"In this world, where people are fighting with each other. Nobody to care on, not even your own brother."
– or was simply laying down a soulful tale of woe (with a word to the wise in the chorus), his words, as delivered by the mighty Tate hit home. Following his tenure with Verve, Howard Tate recorded 45s for Lloyd Price’s Turntable label, Epic, and an LP for Atlantic (also done in tandem with Ragovoy). After 1974 Tate didn’t record for more than 25 years. He was reunited with Jerry Ragavoy in 2001 for the critically well received LP ‘Comeback’ and is touring and recording today. His Verve and Atlantic sides are available as reissues.
NOTE: I originally had an Amazon link here for the Howard Tate CD, and I completely zoned on the fact that it was listed for $59...I got the following message from a reader, which will direct you to a MUCH cheaper version of the Verve sessions on Hip-O Select: