Bob Porter Remembers Grady Tate, Soulful Singer and Master Drummer

Oct 12, 2017

I first met Grady Tate in the fall of 1968 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

I was recording Willis “Gatortail” Jackson and Grady had come by to see Ben Tucker, who was playing bass on the date. Tucker and Tate were two thirds of “T and T and T” — the Billy Taylor Trio. We didn’t have much chance to talk because Grady had to get to a gig. In those days, he was one of the busiest drummers in town.

Tate, who died this week at 85, got his start with organist Wild Bill Davis, recording his first albums with Davis for Everest. Early albums with other artists included sides by Johnny Hodges, Dakota Staton and Cy Coleman. Within a short period of time, he was the favorite drummer of arrangers like Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin and Quincy Jones — and a first-call player for producers like Esmond Edwards, Bob Thiele and, especially, Creed Taylor.

Over time, he recorded with a remarkably diverse series of leaders: Urbie Green, Lou Donaldson, Cal Tjader and Lena Horne; stars from an earlier era such as Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Duke Ellington; and more modern players like Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Miles Davis. Most importantly, he was a part of all the big records in the mid-‘60s by Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and Kai Winding.

He was an impeccable timekeeper. The great bassist Ray Brown had a well-known tendency to rush the tempo, and that could have been an issue on a performance like Quincy Jones’ “Killer Joe.” But Grady keeps him perfectly locked in, and the result is a truly memorable performance.

Like all drummers with a long track record in the studio, the microphone loved his sound. From 1965 to 1967, he recorded more than 100 jazz LPs. There was probably an equal number of commercial recordings.

His singing career got a major boost from Peggy Lee. Tate would play for her when she appeared in New York, and after hearing him sing, she gave him a spot in her show. He lent his voice to the Schoolhouse Rock series, and recorded nine albums of his own on vocals. I got a chance to work with him when I produced a pair of his albums for the Milestone label.

The first of these was TNT: Grady Tate Sings, recorded in 1991 with Ron Carter on bass, Mike Renzi on keyboards, Bill Easley on saxophones and flute, and Dennis Mackrel on drums. Body and Soul, recorded in 1992, featured Renzi and saxophonist Hank Crawford, among others, with liner notes by WBGO’s Michael Bourne.

Tate’s reputation as a drummer is secure, but he is still underrated as a singer. For me, he deserves a spot next to two other singers I have worked with, Arthur Prysock and Etta Jones.

Bob Porter’s book Soul Jazz was published earlier this year by Xlibris.