Grady Tate has one of the richest, smoothest baritone voices in jazz, reminiscent of forebears like Johnny Hartman, Arthur Prysock and Billy Eckstine. Nonetheless, most jazz lovers have never heard him sing. Mention his name and they’ll start ticking off a lengthy list of albums in their collections on which he is the drummer.
The 73-year old Tate, who launches Jazz on Granby’s fifth season this Friday night at the Roper Performing Arts Center, was the house drummer for everybody in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His session discography stretches for page after page. In 1966 alone, the All Music Guide lists him as the drummer on 22 albums, including recordings by giants of the genre like Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, Chick Corea and Ella Fitzgerald.
And it wasn’t just jazz artists calling him in to anchor their records’ rhythm sections. He also lent his tasteful accompaniment to classic albums by Paul Simon, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Little River Band and the little-remembered Pearls Before Swine.
I asked him recently why he thought he had been so in-demand.
“It’s probably because I was a ‘house’ kind of person,” he answered modestly. “I wasn’t concerned about me---I was concerned about them and their music. I never really practiced that much; as a result I’ve never had chops that so many young drummers have. I never studied with anybody, I just did what I thought was right.”
He credits his family upbringing in Durham, North Carolina, for helping him develop that ability to follow his own instincts.
“My first big break was growing up in the family that I grew up in,” he said. “When I told my dad I wanted a set of drums, there were no shops in Durham that had what he wanted for me. So he sent to New York and, bang, I had this beautiful set of Pearl drums. My mother would be cooking or cleaning the house and all I ever heard from her was… [he began humming a melody]. My practicing never bothered her. It was like being in heaven. I know I am very fortunate.
“There weren’t too many musicians in my hometown that I was aware of. I was too young to be out in the joints where they were working, so I got all mine by the Victrola.”
After high school, Tate spent four years playing drums in an Air Force band, then returned home in 1955 to North Carolina College (now called North Carolina Central University) where he studied psychology, theater arts and English literature. But music remained his first love.
“I moved to Washington, DC, after I was in the service and finished the university in North Carolina,” he remembered. “My wife had a real good government job. I worked in the post office for a while and at one point, I just became totally full of it. I took a handful of letters and stuck it in a box, walked out and never came back.
“I had met some musicians in Washington. One was Herschel McGinnis, a good saxophone player. He called me one night and said, ‘I’m going to catch Wild Bill Davis. You want to go, man?’ So I went with him. It was such a happy sound, that organ thing. I had three or four ‘lemonades,’ if you will, and they ripened me, got me ready. At one point I asked, ‘Mr. Davis, may I play a tune?’ He said, ‘Sure, come on, sit down.’
“I hadn’t played drums in so long, I just exploded. When we finished, it was like the cleansing of my life, everything was out. The next day, the phone rang at my home. My wife said, ‘It’s Wild Bill Davis!’ He said, ‘I was just wondering, would you like to work with my band? We’re opening in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. Are you in?’
“I said, ‘Yes sir!’ I didn’t ask about money, I didn’t have drums. I went to a pawn shop and bought some drums and from another pawn shop I got some cymbals. I wrapped those drums in blankets---I didn’t have any covers or cases---and we put them on top of the car, drove to Pittsburgh, and that was my first gig.”
After “three or four years” with Davis, Tate put his drums aside and moved to New York to pursue one of his other passions:
“I came to New York to study drama. I went through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts here in New York. I loved the craft; I just didn’t like the people. They seemed to always be on stage, always in an acting mode. I didn’t feel the sincerity in anybody. The instructors were onstage and they were posing…it made me sick. I did that for about two years.
“[Saxophonist] Jerome Richardson was playing with Quincy Jones. I saw Jerome and he said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Are you playing?” When I said no, he said, ‘I got a great idea! Quincy’s going out on tour and he just lost his drummer. Would you come and play with the band for a little while ‘cause I want Quincy to hear you.’
“And I went to the band rehearsal, walked in and sat down, and he just seemed to call the tunes that I knew.”
That gig with Quincy Jones opened the doors to recording sessions and a six-year stint with the Tonight Show band, and began Grady Tate’s lengthy sojourn as the drummer of choice in the studios of New York and New Jersey.
“What I didn’t know,” he said of Q’s early ‘60s big band, “was that it was a band filled with contractors, and it began there. If we were in New York or wherever we were, and there was a recording thing, they’d say, ‘’Grady come on.’
“I just recorded and it was so natural because I could read my ass off. And I had a good feel; that was what it was about. It was about them and not me. I never thought of myself as a good drummer; I thought of myself as a person who could keep time and play a little. All I could do was swing. I’d just set a pocket and that was all I needed.”
In recent years, he has devoted more time to his singing, receiving his second Grammy nomination in 1986 for his vocal turn on “She’s Out of My Life,” from the Jimmy Smith CD, Go For What You Know. Friday night, he’ll show the crowd at the Roper what a superb song stylist he is. It’s a role he’s happy to be playing, stepping out front after all those years “keeping time” in the background.
“I was so busy that I hardly had time for anything else. I had never thought of singing as a career, which is what it is for me now. I don’t really play drums that much any more. I don’t know how it happened; I just go with the flow. And I find that to be totally acceptable.”
copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.