On the morning two years ago when my father died, the music I immediately turned to was that of Sam Cooke. To me, that hypnotic voice and those tranquil ballads always seemed to come from a deeper well than most pop music. In its own way, Cooke's music has, for me, always been like going to church.
Now one of the men responsible for those ethereal sounds is himself dying. Bob Tate Jr. is not a household name. Even here in the Valley, where he was born and raised, only a select group realizes the depth of his musical gifts and the influence he and his saxophone have had on jazz and blues.
A little name-dropping will give you an idea of the kind of heavyweight cat Tate truly is. Since the mid-Fifties, Tate has written for, arranged for and played with T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Bobby Day, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Lou Rawls, Big Jay McNeely and Cooke, among others. Musically, Tate will be remembered for two things: an aggressive arranging style and the sweet, smooth tones he could coax out of his tenor sax. To his friends, he was, by turns, a loyal pal, a musician's musician and an irrepressible comedian.
"Bob has been cheated out of a lot of things. He's had a lot of bad breaks. But he always kept going," says his sister, Doris Tate, who's temporarily moved to the Valley from Oklahoma to be with Bob and their 83-year-old mother. "But Bob has never lost his faith or his sense of humor. He's been a friend and mentor to many. I think he's much more respected and influential than he knows."
A lifelong diabetic, Tate's health took a turn for the worse this spring. In the past few months, he has had to begin regular kidney dialysis treatments. Two weeks ago, he was admitted to the county hospital for what many of his friends and family think may be the last time. He has slipped into renal failure. He is 80 percent blind. Last week, Tate had a heart attack. It's clear that the musician is very near death.
To offset the mounting medical bills--like a frightening number of musicians, Tate has no health insurance or nest egg--Tate's friends have organized a benefit on his behalf. Scheduled for Tuesday at the Rhythm Room, the Bob Tate tribute and benefit has snowballed beyond all expectations. Nearly every blues and jazz musician in the Valley is on the bill. At press time, more than 50 musicians were slated to appear. Tate's sister, Doris, will serve as emcee. Tate himself was scheduled to attend the show, but that now seems out of the question.
Tate was born in Oklahoma in 1932, but moved to Phoenix with his family two years later. His father, Bob Tate Sr., owned a combination soul-food restaurant and club called the Rose Room on Watkins Street in South Phoenix. The club reopened for a time in the mid-Eighties as a musicians' hangout and after-hours spot called the Inwood. Bob Tate Jr. led the Inwood's house band, which included Dave Cook and Gaynel Hodge.
Bob was graduated from Phoenix's then-segregated Carver High School in 1950. Dr. H.F. Edwards, his music teacher at Carver, gave Bob his first lessons in arranging. "I am very proud to have had the chance to have worked with Bob," says Edwards, who still teaches part-time for Maricopa Community Colleges district. "He started on clarinet and later was given the opportunity to play sax. He developed into a first-class musician who could hold his own with the best."
After high school, Bob studied music at Phoenix College before joining the Navy in 1951. There, he honed his arranging skills by working on music for military bands and jazz combos alike. Edwards remembers how proud Bob was of one particular concert his military band gave for then Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie was so impressed by the band's arrangements that he asked to meet the man responsible. Bob treasured a photograph taken of himself with Selassie on that occasion, until he lost it in a fire at his house four years ago. Not long after his discharge, Bob moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with fellow tenor player Emerson "Sleepy" Carrethers and David Kearny, better known as Guitar Shorty. At that time, Bob began to wear a rack of different hats: songwriter, master arranger (perhaps his finest skill) and multi-instrumentalist. He played baritone, alto and tenor saxophones, as well as clarinet, flute and bass guitar. He also became a husband and a father.
In 1958, Bob was hired as musical director for Sam Cooke's touring band, a post he held until Cooke was shot to death in 1964. Bob claims to be one of the few people to actually know the true story behind Cooke's tragic end. According to Bob, the commonly accepted version that Cooke was killed by a woman the singer supposedly attacked is wrong. He says the woman stole Cooke's wallet and that when Cooke went to report the theft, the vocalist was shot by a jittery motel clerk who thought Cooke was a burglar.
Bob was one of the architects of Cooke's suave, soul sound. Bob always claimed that Cooke wrote the song "Laughin' and Clownin'" about him. As a player, Bob was most proud of his sax fills on Cooke's "Bring It on Home." The back-up singer for that recording was Lou Rawls.
"Bob was there when we got in the wreck," Rawls said last week, before a show at Symphony Hall. "It was 1958, in Arkansas. Sam had a brand-new Cadillac convertible. I was asleep when it happened, so I don't really know how it went down. I do know that they pronounced me dead at the scene. I was in a coma for five days at the veterans' hospital in Memphis. When they let me out and I went back on the road, Bob was the one appointed to take care of me. He did a great job.
"Bob Tate is a good musician and a good person." Eleven years ago, Bob returned to Phoenix to be with his mother. He played with Big Pete Pearson's Detroit Blues Band, and the Blues Connection. Most recently, he's played with Chico Chism's Chicago Blues Band.
Unfortunately, Bob's recorded legacy is thin. Along with the Sam Cooke albums, Bob's horn and/or arrangements can be heard on recordings by Guitar Shorty, Floyd Dixon, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Little Johnny Taylor. Equally unfortunate is that all these albums are either out of print or available only as imports. Bob's arrangements can be heard on a new Fantasy Records compilation of material by guitarist Saunders King titled All Night Long They Play the Blues. But recordings will never capture more than a hint of Bob's talent for those who've seen him in action.
"Bob Tate is the best saxophone player I've ever known," says Bob Corritore, booking agent for the Rhythm Room and the person most responsible for organizing this benefit. Corritore has also spent time on the bandstand with Tate. "He knew how to get soul out of every note he played. Just listening to him play was a music lesson.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.