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Grady Tate: The Art of the Singing Drummer

Greg Thomas By

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Beginnings and endings will wipe you out or make you a star. The stuff in the middle is for you as a singer and instrumentalist, but the beginnings and endings are for the listener.
Grady Tate, 76, is best known as one of the most beloved, consistently dependable session drummers since the 1960s. He's the steady pulse on the famous version of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe," from Quincy Jones' Walking in Space (Verve, 1969), where his hi-hat groove and snare drum rim shots on the four, in tandem with bassist Ray Brown's big-toned walking, formed the backdrop for the head and solos by Hubert Laws and Freddie Hubbard.

He was the house drummer for many of Creed Taylor's CTI Records, and for six years drove the rhythm section of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show Band. He performed with the orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and was the drummer with the Billy Taylor Trio for several years. A complete percussionist comfortable in any style of jazz, Tate's mastery of brushes can be heard on "My Shining Hour" on Sensitive to the Touch: The Music of Harold Arlen (Groove Jams, 1999), with Jay Leonhart, Ken Peplowski and Ted Rosenthal.

Although the trap drums were his claim to fame and the basis for a highly successful career as a sideman accompanist to a plethora of the best vocalists and instrumentalists in jazz lore, voice was his first instrument, and his first love, singing. He began singing at the age of four, a year before he began playing drums. He grew up in Durham, North Carolina, very near North Carolina Central University, where, at a RC Cola-sponsored talent show, the budding prodigy—just five years old—bounded to the stage as the emcee began to say good night.

The emcee asked, "What do you want little boy?" "I wanna sing, that's what I want to do," he answered. To the musicians onstage, the emcee said, "Well, wait fellas, don't break down yet. What do you wanna sing?"

"I wanna sing a song called 'One Rose,'" said the boy. Pianist Lanky Cole knew the song and found a key for little Tate, who sang: "You're as sweet as a red rose in June, dear/I love you, I adore you, I do/Each night through love land, we'll wander, sweetheart/telling love stories anew/Out of the dark—out of the blue clouds, a dark sky came rolling/breaking my heart in two/but don't leave me alone, 'cause I love only you."

This first public vocal performance was a potent portent to the subject matter of the songs he adores. He has been nominated for a Grammy Award several times, once for his work on the famed Multiplication Rock series that aired on broadcast television from 1973-1986 on ABC. Tate sang "I Got Six" and "Naughty Number Nine," tunes by Bob Dorough. In 1986 he was nominated as Best Male Jazz Vocalist for "She's Out of My Life," a ballad popularized by Michael Jackson's rendition from Off the Wall (Epic, 1979).

Others have recognized Tate's vocal prowess. Renaissance man Gordon Parks composed "Don't Misunderstand" with Tate in mind. (He performed Parks' "The Learning Tree" movingly at the memorial service for Parks at the Riverside Church in New York City on March 14, 2006.) Grover Washington, Jr. chose Tate to sing "Be Mine Tonight" on Come Morning (Elektra, 1981). Those who listen closely to Al Jarreau's scat style will recognize Tate's influence. And with respect to his overall vocal talent, jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote in The Village Voice that Grady Tate is "the best singer to emerge from the ranks of instrumentalists since Nat Cole."

Tate showcased his velvet baritone on October 4, 2008, with a quartet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In December, Tate and virtuoso pianist Kenny Barron will headline a small ensemble at the Birdland jazz club in midtown Manhattan.

Grady Tate is a genial and generous man, with an impish sense of humor. He's also got much to share with aspiring singers and drummers.

All About Jazz: Do you miss playing the drums?

Grady Tate: Yes, I miss playing the drums. I don't miss the traveling with them. They were really very difficult to handle. You want them in tip-top shape. All of us drummers, we took care of our instruments. I just wanted to try something else that I happen to have been doing all of my life, to see if I could get to the same level of singing as the drums I was playing. I find it difficult to sing about anything other than love.

AAJ: Yes, your recording titles show that: All Love (411, 2003), From the Heart (HalfNote, 2006)...

GT: I love to talk about love. Not about the devil and the deep blue sea. I don't like that. It's me, God and you. There's nothing in life to me more important than having a person you're in love with, and a person that loves you. And, if possible, to have some children that you love.

AAJ: Your first recording session as a vocalist was Windmills of My Mind (Skye, 1968), forty years ago. How did that come about?

GT: Gary McFarland was a part of it. He did most of my arrangements. I recorded three albums as a vocalist on his Skye Records.

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