Friday, May 19, 2006

Howard Tate, The James Gang, and Other Things...

Howard Tate and the Superconk!
Hello. It’s Friday morning and my brain is as frayed and scuffed (but not quite as green) as an old tennis ball, so you will forgive me if the prose accompanying today’s selection isn’t up to my usual “high” standards. Fortunately, the song I’m posting today is energetic enough to propel me right out of my hole and inspire me (to what I’m still not sure). The story starts some years ago, before I had any idea who Howard Tate was. Though I’ve rolled the idea around in my head repeatedly, I’m still not 100% sure that I shouldn’t have been ashamed of myself for that particular lapse. I have a tendency to immerse myself deeply (like Journey to the Center of the Earth deeply) in the music I listen to, and at the time (say 10 or so years ago) it’s possible (nay probable) that Howard Tate was only unknown to me because I was chasing something more obscure down a figurative rabbit hole, again missing the forest for the trees. The scene was a barbecue/beer blast type gathering of many of my old Mod-scene cohorts, gathered congenially, some more persistently Mod than others (many having shed their paisley camouflage, others reluctant to do so). That last fact is relevant only in that “scenes” like the one I was part of relish authenticity and faithfulness to a certain musical path, and I was on the verge of revealing a deviation from said path. It helps to know that I was generally four or five years older than many of my friends from that scene, and as a result came into the 60’s mod/soul/garage/psyche thing with a fair amount of hard musical road already traveled. Whereas many of these folks came of age musically during the 80’s – many influenced by the UK mod revival – I had already undergone that process in the mid-to-late 70’s. Where they may have dipped their ears in the Jam, TwoTone bands and the like, I had been baptized in a pool full of Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath etc. As a result, the rock upon which my musical church was built was considerably “harder” than most, and acknowledgement of that fact was – shall we say – unfashionable. So, the party was well underway, much tasty English beer had been consumed (along with hamburgers, hot dogs, and chips, potato and otherwise), and the host had popped on a mix tape. Because he was himself a heavyweight collector-type, the tunes on the tape were all high-quality, many of them hopelessly obscure. As I sat there with my beer in hand, I heard a tune that seemed familiar, but in far off, can’t quite grasp it way. Though it was immediately obvious to me that I had heard the song somewhere before, it was also obvious that I had no idea where. It was one of those things where you know the answer is in your brain somewhere, yet it’s apparently taped up in a dusty box, under a pile of boxes, in an unlit corner of your mental attic. So I asked my host who the artist was, and he hepped me to the fact that I was listening to ‘Stop’ by one Howard Tate. As I said before, this meant almost nothing to me at the time. I told him that I knew the song from somewhere else, but couldn’t remember where. He couldn’t recall ever having heard another version of the tune, nor could anyone else sitting at the picnic table. Naturally, I proceeded to ruin my good time by obsessing (internally of course) over where I had heard this song before. I have a tendency – especially as I get older and I shed brain cells with increasing frequency – to get into dilemmas like this and not let go until I come upon the answer, or just get too tired and/or frustrated to give a shit (though the unanswered question has a sneaky habit of popping back up days later). So, as I rummaged through my cerebral rubbish-heap, tossing obscure and disconnected factoids here and there in my search for a relevant link – with music and conversation running in the background, repeatedly derailing my train of thought – until I realized that I could either drive myself nuts, or stop and have a good time. The beer in me decided on the latter. For a few minutes anyway. Then something – I’m not sure what – dislodged the piece of information I’d been looking for, and there, right in front of everyone, I blurted out two strange words. “James Gang!” To those that were listening, this produced only wrinkled brows and rolled eyes. “The James Gang! That’s who did that Howard Tate song. The James Gang.” Then I had to explain who the James Gang was, in terms that sadly cast my revelation in an unfortunate light. I had to draw a line connecting Joe Walsh – well known and universally reviled by my friends as the weirdo from the dreaded Eagles – to his early days in the James Gang. That the James Gang hailed from the 60’s mattered not a whit, because they were not from the Beatle-boot, pageboy haircut 60’s, but rather from the buckskin jacketed, ‘Goin’ Up The Country’, FAAARRR OUUTTT end of the decade aka The Land of the ‘Dirty Hippies’. Having been immersed for most of my high school years in music of a similar vintage, I held no such distaste for that time. In fact, I kind of liked that era, long hair, Woodstock mud and all of its ‘Come on people now, smile on your brother-isms. My enthusiasm was not shared. Despite the momentary discomfort, this did not rise to the level of a serious faux pas, though I’m positive that at that moment I had spent some hard-earned credibility. Today, many years removed, I realize that any “cred” lost that day was well spent, because I now realize that pigeon-holing oneself musically is neither wise not productive, and that posturing on such an ill-founded basis as that is - to be charitable - foolish. I have always existed in a universe that fits both the Howard Tate-esque and the James Gangs of the world comfortably (in fact the music I listen to on a daily basis is much further apart stylistically than the comparably miniscule gap between Tate and Joe Walsh), but here in my early 40’s I feel much more comfortable admitting that fact. One of the cool things to come out of my introduction to Howard Tate that day (aside from all his great music) is that it made me dig the James Gang version a little bit more. It was only in the last few years, when I replaced my long lost (and liner-note free) ‘James Gang Greatest Hits’ CD with a current reissue of their debut LP ‘Yer Album’, that I discovered that the Gang’s recording of ‘Stop’ included the tune’s composer (and producer of Howard Tate’s version) Jerry Ragavoy, on piano. To some that fact may be neither here nor there, but for me it’s just one more interconnecting fiber in the grand musical web holding my brain together. Ragavoy (along with lyricist Mort Shuman) wrote many of Howard Tate’s finest Verve sides, including the monumental ‘Get It While You Can’ (covered by yet another hippy-era icon, Janis Joplin). It was the pop edge that Ragavoy brought to his work with Tate, combined with Tate’s deep soulfulness that made their collaborations so good. ‘Stop’, which was a Top20 R&B hit in early 1968, starts out as a mid-tempo shuffle, and builds gradually – by virtue of Tate’s increasing fervor – into a vocal tour de force. It’s hard for me to listen to a record like this and realize that Tate languished in obscurity for decades prior to his recent “rediscovery”. He was a dynamic soul singer, who had the advantage of some amazing material, yet still didn’t make much of a connection with the listening public. While his story isn’t unique, in his case it is especially galling. Fortunately, much of his best work, for the Verve and Turntable labels is available in reissue, as are his two recent LPs, ‘Rediscovered’ and ‘Live’.


Blogger Jason X said...

Ha Ha Ha I love this post. I mean the music is cool (as expected) but the story of you and your mod friends just reminds me of my MOD days as well. There was definately the line between the "authentic" and the "Mod/Skin/Air Cadet" type up here as well. Sadly I was a paisly/page boy (see sad pictures on my blog) at the time but always seemed to make those same connections between artists regardless of genre. I always felt it was unforunate that the stereotypes had to stereotype their musical tastes as well....oh well...keep up the good work AND I love the mixes. I've been doing those for friends but hadn't thought about posting'em on the blog. Awesome idea!


5/19/2006 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Miss F said...

what an amazing song... can listen to it again and again.... esp. when he siNgs "everything is so hazY, one m0re kiss and you'll DRIIIIVE me craZy"

y0ur essays are always so enj0yabLe. thanks for all the musiC and w0rds...


5/24/2006 10:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What a fantastic version of the song. And I didn't know that the James Gang had recorded it either - I only know the (very different but equally brilliant) version by Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield from Supersession
Thanks for all the music and posts


5/26/2006 07:24:00 PM  
Blogger Al Dente said...

So Incredible song... But it's always the same thing with you... Such great tunes! Thanks for my heart which stop each time!

5/30/2006 07:04:00 PM  
Anonymous LadiOrange said...

The same thing happened to me the other day after weeks of listening to both Howard Tate and James Gang versions. But for me it was the other way round. I was listening to the James Gang version and realized I heard it before.

Anyways, i love you post!

8/15/2006 11:36:00 AM  

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