If this story were set to music, even Howard Tate might go back and tone it down a notch. Maybe he'd swap out a few details, make it feel less melodramatic, shore it up with a little hope.
But the R&B singer, who vanished from the music scene for nearly 30 years after the quick flush of success, knows he can't go back and tweak the more painful memories of his own journey. He certainly wonders how he survived it: Punishing work schedules. Bad or nonexistent contracts. Tossing away his career. The loss of a child. The dissolution of a marriage. Homelessness, alcohol, drugs.
"I thought, well, that was the end of that," says Tate now.
Consequently, this turn of events -- a contemporary blues album Grammy nomination last month for "Rediscovered," his first release since 1974 -- has Tate, now a full-time preacher as well as part-time soul singer, feeling nothing less than thankful and amazed.
One of the brightest lights to emerge from the R&B scene during its late '60s to mid-'70s heyday, Tate bridged a stylistic gap in soul music. He is the "missing link," Elvis Costello, has suggested, between Jackie Wilson and Al Green. His name was on bills with Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett, even Marvin Gaye. And his soaring falsetto shot through a string of Top 40 R&B hits, including "Look at Granny Run Run," "Stop" and "Ain't Nobody Home," all plucked from "Get It While You Can," his 1967 debut album. It was produced by songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, who has penned songs that found spiritual homes with artists as disparate as Janis Joplin, Dionne Warwick and the Rolling Stones.
Tate followed it up with two more albums. But in 1974, after the single "Ain't Nobody to Give It To," he vanished from the scene.
What followed, says Tate, 63, was a series of events that he only survived "by the grace of God."
Like many artists of the era, he fell prey to unscrupulous promoters, dubious recording deals and punishing tour schedules. "They kept me on the chitlin circuit," Tate recalls in a telephone interview from his Southampton, N.J., home. "I was doing 105 one-nighters. But [the promoters] would get all the money. I was exhausted. I didn't have anything. And I walked away from it."
For the first few years, Tate returned to his home in Philadelphia and held it together selling insurance to support his wife and six children. But the death of his 13-year-old daughter in a house fire in 1976 unraveled everything. "Every time I would think back on all of it, it would depress me so bad, I just turned to drugs."
His marriage collapsed and he wandered away from his old life in Philadelphia, ending up on the streets in Camden, N.J., homeless and on drugs -- "It became everything for me." There he stayed on the streets for 10 years. "I didn't want any home, to be truthful," he says. "I just fell down so far that I wanted to stay there."
But one day, something shifted. "I don't know what made me do it, but I called on the Lord. Something happened. I heard a voice. And the attack, the urge to do the drugs, would go away," he says.
It took years and some backsliding, Tate is quick to underscore, to get off the streets, to wean himself off the drugs. And more time still to begin to rebuild a life. From taking odd jobs doing yardwork and cleaning gutters to working in a homeless shelter to managing it, he was able, with his spiritual guidance, to ultimately build his own fellowship, the Gift of the Cross Church.
Outside of his flock, most everyone thought Tate was dead. And in certain respects, the old Howard Tate was. He was a minister with a congregation and a new set of responsibilities. And although a reissue of some of his songs was released overseas, the liner notes supposed him dead as well
But rumors started to swirl. And in early 2001, Tate ran into an old friend at the supermarket. It was Ron Kennedy, a singer turned minister himself, formerly of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
"He told me, 'Man, they're looking for you!' " They exchanged information and shortly thereafter Tate got a call from a Philadelphia disc jockey, Phil Casden, who found his way to Tate. Casden recorded the event with a few digital shots, which he promptly posted on the Web. They created a flurry of activity -- including a call from Ragovoy.
For Tate, singing wasn't merely a distant memory, it was a chapter that no longer felt like part of his own life. "I was afraid. I hadn't opened my mouth to sing for 30 years," he recalls. Nevertheless, he hopped on a plane to Atlanta to meet up with Ragovoy. "I prayed, 'Lord, if you could free me from being a junkie, can you take me through this?' I got there, I opened my mouth. And it was all there. Even the falsetto."