That Grady Tate is one of the world’s most versatile, frequently recorded, and often imitated drummers is a given. For the past three decades, his crisp, riveting percussion patterns have graced literally hundreds of records, from instrumental jazz dates by the likes of Quincy Jones, Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, and Bill Easley to jazz and pop sessions with countless vocalists. Charles Aznavour, Pearl Bailey, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Lena Home, Peggy Lee, Della Reese, Carol Sloane, and Sarah Vaughan comprise but a partial list of singers who’ve been treated to the distinctive Tate touch.
Yet while drumming is his primary vocation, singing has been Tate’s lifelong passion. Through vocal albums on the Skye, Buddah, Janus, Impulse, and several Japanese labels, the world-class drummer has built an international reputation as a singer of the first rank.
TNT, Tate’s debut as a Milestone recording artist, is his first vocal album for a U.S. company in nearly a decade. Produced by Bob Porter, it finds Tate surrounded by two long-time associates, keyboardist-arranger Mike Renzi and bassist Ron Carter, and two more recent acquaintances, saxophonist-flutist Bill Easley and drummer Dennis Mackrel, in a set of tunes to which he applies his sumptuously resonant baritone with deep feeling, frequent humor, respect for lyric content, and a musician’s ear for melodic contour.
The majority of the album’s selections are standards, most associated with other male vocalists, on which Tate places his warm, personal stamp. “Guess Who I Saw Today?,” a Nancy Wilson favorite, finds him cleverly reworking the story line to fit a masculine perspective. “Loose Change (The Beggar’s Opera)” was previously recorded as an instrumental by its composer, Ron Carter; with lyrics by Mort Goode, it makes its debut on TNT as a vocal piece. And with the title track, an uncommon blues, Tate adds the title of songwriter to his already impressive list of credits and gets an opportunity to showcase his considerable scatting abilities.
Born in Durham, North Carolina on January 14, 1932, Grady Tate began singing at age 4. A boy soprano, he thrilled audiences at church and social functions with his angelic renditions of such light classics as “Ave Maria” and “The Lord’s Prayer."
“I was a good little singer,” he boasts. “I wish we’d had technology the way it is today so I could have had some of those recordings.”
Then puberty hit, causing his voice to drop. “It was such a devastating experience,” be recalls. “From the time I was 12 until I was 19, I would not open my mouth because I was totally frustrated by that voice change. As a result, I never sang in high school.”
A four-year Air Force stint changed things. “I was thrown into this 21-piece show unit, and we needed everything we could get,” he explains. “I began to hum to myself, and I asked one of the guys to write me a vocal chart.” The arranger, trumpeter Bill Berry, started turning out two or three new charts per week. Tate, a self-taught drummer since age 5, suddenly discovered a new instrument—a rich, throaty baritone voice.
It would be some years after the service before he would be able to again show off his singing talents, however. Three were spent teaching high school in Washington, DC before, at age 27, he moved to New York, not to become a professional singer or drummer but to be an actor.
Tate’s studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts were interrupted by a call from organist Wild Bill Davis. Overnight, Tate found himself a full-time drummer. Saxophonist-flutist Jerome Richardson sometimes played with the Davis group, and through Richardson, Tate was asked to join Quincy Jones’s all-star big band.
The musicians in the Jones orchestra soon began calling Tate for their own record dates. “That really launched my career,” Tate states. “Jerome was constantly looking out for me and recommended me for everything. I’m still working off that alliance."
By the mid-Sixties, Tate was one of the busiest studio drummers in New York City, working sessions from 10 to 1, 2 to 5, and 7 to 10, and after a long day’s work, often gigging with the Billy Taylor trio in clubs from 10:30 to 2. And, from 1968 to 1974, he was the drummer with Doc Severinsen’s orchestra on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.
For a period, Tate put his singing side on hold. “I got stuck in that drum thing and couldn’t get out of it,” he explains. “I arrived at the station of where I was making so much money that I couldn’t afford to do singing gigs.
“Ninety percent of the people who know me as a drummer have never seen me as a drummer,” he adds. “They’ve just heard me on recordings, because that’s what I did for 20-some years—just played drums in the studios. People would use me as their drummer, no matter whether it was a vocal group or a vocal solo or an instrumental group or a big band. They’d call me because I had that studio experience of being able to anticipate whatever was going to happen and knowing the studio recording technology. They just hired me because it took less time and it was also good for them because I’d been a top drummer for a great while.”
Arranger Gary McFarland was the first to have the foresight to showcase the singing Tate, in 1968, on an album titled Windmills of My Mind. Others followed, and Peggy Lee began highlighting his vocals as part of her show.
While he remains active in the studios, Tate continues to sing whenever he has a chance. Often, after engagements with other vocalists, he and Mike Renzi get together. “If we can find a piano someplace, we go and play and sing together,” Tate says. “That’s been one of the real thrills of my life over the past 10 years—sitting down with him. He’s one of the reasons that I’ve been doing so much singing.”
Now, with the release of Tate’s first vocal album of the Nineties, some of those intimate musical moments between Tate and Renzi are captured for all to hear. Grady Tate, the boy soprano, may well have been a good little singer. But as TNT so wonderfully demonstrates, Tate, the mature baritone, is a great one.