Farewell to Two Blues Greats

It was sometime in 1975, and my friend Richard and I were leaving our job which happened to be in a record store when Richard said, “Let’s go see Howlin’ Wolf.”  I was somewhat reluctant at first because various people had told me Wolf’s show was a comedy act with him sweeping the stage with a broom.  Richard said, “Are you crazy?  It’s Howlin’ Wolf.”  It turned out to be a good thing I listened to Richard because it turned out to me one of the most memorable musical nights of my life, one that’s still embedded in my mind.

Howlin’ Wolf rarely played Philly, and by the time he did, he wasn’t that old especially by today’s terms, but he was quite obviously very sick.  It didn’t make a damn bit of difference.  He was Howlin’ Wolf.  His band, Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang, preceded him onstage.  Finally he emerged, wearing a baby blue windbreaker, with some kind of medical something on his arm that looked it hooked up to an I.V.  He sat down, started playing his harmonica and the natural force that was Wolf took over the proceedings.

Wolf’s blues came from deep down beyond mystical Mississippi place that only he knew about it.  And even though his falsetto howl by his own admission came from the yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, he took it to some other place entirely.  All of Wolf’s songs whether he wrote them or not seemed to come from someplace where it was eternally three o’clock in the morning.  All the riffs and licks in his songs were immediate call and response and it seemed at times as if every instrument in the band was answering at once with the one constant being the bass.  Eddie Shaw’s sax and Detroit Junior’s piano would kind of dance in around everything while riding on top were three things, Wolf’s voice, his harmonica and guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

Hubert Sumlin was a totally singular guitar player and he and Howlin’ Wolf were one of the great musical pairings not only of the blues, but of American roots based music.  There is no doubt that they inspired each other and brought each other to greater heights.  You can pick just about any Howlin’ Wolf track that Sumlin was on (which is close to most of them) and Sumlin is playing something not only amazing, but unexpected.  Other guitarists can take those licks and duplicate them and they can try to get the sound he got and come close, but they can’t do what he did, because what he did was in his fingers.  It was that thing that has no name.

Hubert Sumlin died last weekend, 35 years after Howlin’ Wolf.  During that time he continuously played, recorded, even did instructional videos and more important, got the recognition he deserved though probably never close to the money he should have made.  While I saw Hubert Sumlin play solo a couple of times, I will always be eternally grateful I saw him when I did, because a few months after that Howlin’ Wolf was gone.

On Easter Sunday 2001, I was eating breakfast and reading the Sunday paper when my eyes must have popped out of my head because on the first page of the second section was an article saying that R&B singer Howard Tate had been rediscovered and was now a minister in South Jersey.

Tate who was born in Georgia but spent most of his life in Philadelphia made one of the greatest soul albums of all time Get It While You Can.  The title track, written by another Philadelphian Jerry Ragovoy, who was also Tate’s producer later became a hit for Janis Joplin, and several other songs on the album were popular covers by various other artists, but none of them touched Howard Tate.  Tate was up there with the greatest soul singers.  All you need for prove is to listen to that song, and what he does with the word love at the end of every chorus.

Tate recorded two more albums, though hardly anyone knew about the second one Reaction which was released on Lloyd Price’s Turntable records and really was just Tate singing over already recorded reggae tracks.  His third album was again produced by Ragovoy and featured a cover of The Band’s “Jemima Surrender,” and a beautiful cover of Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.”  That album released on Atlantic in 1972 pretty much went nowhere and Howard Tate vanished sometime after that for close to 30 years.  Early in 2001, another singer Ron Kennedy spotted Tate in a supermarket in South Jersey.  Tate was soon reunited with his original producer Jerry Ragovoy and they were recording an album.

When Tate made his New York debut at the Village Underground that July, I made sure to be there.  Tate was backed by a large band comprised of some of the top players in New York City, including the Uptown Horns.  All of Tate’s vocal powers including his trademark falsetto appeared to be intact.

A friend’s wife returning from a smoke before the show told me Tate’s manager was in the lobby.  I went out there and it turned out to be Ron Kennedy.  I told him I was from Philly and wanted to interview Tate.  A few weeks later I found myself in Tate’s barely furnished living room.  I couldn’t believe I was there.  The interview was published in Gadfly online.

I wanted to do more for Tate, I felt he should play Philly.  I called a friend who was the press and PR guy for Electric Factory Concerts, Jim Sutcliffe.  He’d never heard of Tate, so I told him the whole story.  He said it sounds perfect for the B.B. King Blues Festival which was supposed to take place at what was then called the Tweeter Center (and was something else before and now is something else) across the river in Camden, New Jersey.  Also on the bill were Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, John Hiatt, and maybe another act.  I called both Tate and Ragovoy, “How’d you like to be on a bill with B.B. King and Buddy Guy?”  A few days later, the deal was sealed.  For the next few weeks I was in constant contact with Tate and Ragovoy.  Ron Kennedy called and asked if I could get Tate a tape of his third albumI told him, I could do better and put it on a CD.  It felt both strange and good getting an artist a copy of his own album.  Not long after it was re-issued.  The excitement was building for the show.  There were times I had to step in between the somewhat cantankerous Ragovoy and Electric Factory Concerts.  Four days before the show was September 11, 2001.  The show never happened.

Tate was recording and playing festivals and clubs around the country and also in Europe.  I then had the idea that all this should be filmed and approached a filmmaker who did music documentaries.  I started looking into grants, but first I wanted to see if it would be possible to film a recording session.  Ragovoy exploded.  “You gonna pay for the session?”  That idea went out the window.  Finally the album was finished.  I was invited to the release show/party again at the Village Underground.  The show was virtually identical to the one almost a year before.  The party part was nonexistent.

The album Rediscovered which featured a song contributed by Elvis Costello turned out to be just okay.  It was obvious that Ragovoy simply tried to hard to recreate what he and Tate had done in the ’60s and ’70s.  Instead of being alive with the power Tate was clearly still capable of, it was little more than a replica.

I didn’t see Tate for a long time after that, though he’d call now and then, and for a few years would send Christmas cards.  Ragovoy kept in touch by email, often sending anti George Bush rants.

One time Tate offered me a job as his road manager presumably for a tour of Europe.  This little drama went on for a couple of months, but nothing happened.  It was probably somewhere around that time that one day out of the blue Ron Kennedy called up asking if I’d heard from Tate.  There was obviously a falling out and he ended the call saying he ain’t no minister either.

In 2006 Howard Tate finally played Philadelphia at the Tin Angel, an acoustic “listening room,” a club where I’d seen many acts and had also played several times myself.  I went backstage to say hello.  He was backed just by a piano player, his producer at the time and even played a couple of songs on the electric guitar.  He had recently recorded Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” following Hurricane Katrina, and some other Newman tunes.  I’d brought some friends to see him, but it wasn’t the show I’d wanted them to see.  Tate made one more album after that released on a Philadelphia based jazz label.  I never saw or spoke to him again after the Tin Angel show, and last weekend I’d found out he died.  Right now the whole experience seems like a dream and the thing is if I’m going to put a Howard Tate album it will still be the two I’ve been listening to for close to 40 years.

December for whatever reason is a cruel month for taking musicians.  Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Roy Orbison, Rick Danko, Bobby Darin, many, many others.  Hubert Sumlin and Howard Tate weren’t big stars.  If you paid attention to a certain kind of music then you knew about them.  In the end they both spread a particular kind of joy that was totally unique to them, and they were both lucky to find they were appreciated late in their lives.  Hopefully, that was enough for them.

PETER STONE BROWN is a musician, songwriter, and writer. He can be reached at: psb51@verizon.net       


Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter.