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TOMMY TATE – AN UNSUNG SOUL MUSIC HERO

Tommy Tate Tribute

Also available on Soul Express Online:

Tommy Tate Discography

  Tommy Tate passed away on January 20.  Tommy never got his rightful dues.  He was a prolific songwriter and he released dozens of impressive and soulful records, but only three of them enjoyed a moderate chart run.  In this case true talent didn’t correlate with commercial success.  There were numerous reasons for that - such as wrong business choices, coincidences and bad luck, even naiveness, industry exploitation and setbacks in personal life – and they all must have caused that melancholic undercurrent, which so much characterizes his music.  As a human being he left you with an impression of a kind, gentle and humble person.

  Tommy Lee Tate was born on September the 29th in 1945 in Homestead, Florida, and he moved to his permanent place of residence in Jackson, Mississippi, six years later, after recovering from polio.  Singing first in a church choir, his first professional secular gig took place in Canton, Mississippi, at the age of fourteen.  In the mid-60s he was about to be hired as a drummer for B.J. Thomas, but then he met the production and writing team of Bob McRee, Cliff and Ed Thomas and - supported by Tim Whitsett and his Imperial Show Band - they released Tommy’s first single on ABC, What’s the Matter b/w Ordinarily in early 1965.  More singles – and some outstanding ones like Big Blue Diamonds and Stand by Me - followed on Okeh, Big Ten, (Temporaire), Swing, Verve, Atco and Musicor.  Tim Whitsett was involved in almost all of them, and in the latter half of the 60s Tommy was his band’s leading vocalist on tours.  They also cut a lot of demos for Ilene Berns’ Bang Records in ’68 and ’69, but so far they all remain shelved.  Most of them were written by Tommy - “I must have been seventeen years old, when I first attempted writing.”

  Tommy’s first single in the 70s was a powerful message song called Let Us Be Heard (A Prayer for Peace) on the Jackson Sound label, but soon after that Tim signed him as a writer for Stax Records.  Tommy: “At that time Ollie (Hoskins) decided to go solo and leave the Nightingales.  They needed a fill-in, so here was an opportunity to learn things at Stax.”  Two fine gospel-infused singles followed, but they failed to make waves at that time.  At Stax and East Memphis Music Tommy concentrated on writing, and throughout the years numerous artists have recorded his songs, not only at Stax and later on Malaco but also many other southern soul and even Philly artists.

  Tommy: “I met Johnny Baylor.  He talked me into going to New York.  Naturally that was exciting for me, because New York was everything in the entertainment world.”   With a contract ready to be signed, however, instead of Stax, Tommy went with the infamous Johnny and his KoKo label, not only as an artist but also as a writer for Johnny’s Klondike Music.  Tommy: “Johnny was very regimented and he always acted like a staff sergeant.  He was military-minded.”  Tim Whitsett: “In the end Tommy Tate was scared to death out of him and called the FBI to protect him.”   Tommy: “Johnny was one tough cookie, who always seemed to get what he wanted in this business.  With Johnny you just did it, or else...!”

  Between 1971 and ’77 KoKo released six impressive singles on Tommy.  Tim: “He recorded an album for KoKo, but then Johnny Baylor got mad at him and never released it.”  The shelved material was later put out in Japan on P-Vine in 1996.  School of Life became the biggest hit in Tommy’s career peaking at # 22-soul in the summer of 1972.  Tommy: “I wrote the School of Life from an experience I had with my babies’ mother.  I later married Evelyn, but then divorced.  She’s the mother of my three boys – Tommy Jr., Kevin and Padre Tate.  I still love her to this date.”  While at KoKo, Johnny also wrote for Luther Ingram and worked with him, and during KoKo’s dormant period between 1973 and ’76 Tommy performed in the Jackson, Mississippi area with his band, Southern Passion. 

Tommy Tate

  Tommy: “In 1978 I ended up collaborating with Joe Shamwell and Don Davis and his Groovesville company, but soon after that I also started writing independently and worked and performed around Jackson.”  That year Tommy, however, was still under the contract with Johnny Baylor, so he was very careful with Groovesville.  Tommy: “I was kind of ghost-writer.  For instance, for Johnnie Taylor I wrote Keep on Dancing.  On the disc the song is credited to Joe Shamwell and Charles McCollough.  Don Davis: “Tommy Tate was great to work with, and he was a very soulful singer.”

  In the late 70s Tommy hooked up with Malaco for the second time.  For the first time he had worked with the company ten years earlier.  Wolf Stephenson: “Tommy helped us with doing demo vocals on a lot of songs that we sent to our artists, and he wrote some of those songs as well.”  Tommy: “On most of those songs – as I remember – I played bass, guitar, piano and did the backup vocals.  I did the whole thing.”  Some of those tracks were released in 1979 on a Vivid Sound/Malaco album in Japan, which upset Tommy, because he found out about it only twenty years later. 

  Sam Kazery had formed his Sundance label in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1979.  Sam: “Sundance was originally designed for Tommy.  He was our lead artist.”  Sam says that his Chantey Music Publishing has a collection of over three hundred original Tommy Tate written and co-written songs.  Altogether they released four singles on Sundance - one in 1979 and the rest in the mid-80s – and among them you can find such gems as the truly soulful and infectious dancer called What Gives You the Right and a touching soul ballad named Linger a Little Longer

  In the meantime Tommy got together with Frederick Knight for Tommy’s first-ever album on Juana in 1981.  Frederick: “I had my own label at that time, and I always thought Tommy was a fantastic singer, so we just hooked up and did an album together.”  Seven of the eight songs on this eponymous album were recorded also by the Controllers, and they mostly used the same tracks.  The highlight is a deep ballad titled We Don’t.

  In the mid-80s Bobby Blue Bland and Malaco Records again turned to Tommy for help.  Wolf: “Tommy did quite a lot of Malaco test vocals on the songs that were sent to Bobby Bland...  On quite a number of those songs Bobby would sing the song just like Tommy did...  We often talked to Tommy about becoming an artist, but he was involved with somebody contractually.  I always wanted to record Tommy.  I thought he was a wonderful singer, but he was always tied up with someone else.”

  In 1990 Tommy got back together with Tim Whitsett again and in cooperation with Johnny Vincent they released an album titled Love Me Now on Tim’s Urgent label in 1990, and two years later another mediocre album called All or Nothing, which saw a Japan-only release.  Even Tim isn’t satisfied with the outcome, but these albums were cut under the circumstances partially out of Tim’s control.  Luckily we still have first-class Kent and Soulscape compilations to enjoy (http://www.soulexpress.net/tommytate_discography.htm).

  Tommy suffered his second heart attack in late 2001, which this time tied him to a wheelchair.  In 2006 he was honoured at the Jackson Music Awards, and these last years he has spent in a nursing center and carehome in Jackson, Mississippi.  Tommy: “The Lord has been great to me.  I have been through a lot of changes... After some things I have undergone through life, I could possibly have become crazy, but I’m not.  I have done everything imaginable in the blues and rhythm & blues world.” 

R.I.P. Tommy Lee.

© Heikki Suosalo (Text & Photos)

Photos taken in Jackson, Mississippi, November 30, 2000


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