Grady Tate, Jazz Drummer Turned Vocalist, Dies at 85
By RICHARD SANDOMIROCT. 12, 2017
Grady Tate performing at Merkin Hall in New York in 1997. Alan Nahigian
Grady Tate, a jazz drummer who was known for his work with Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald and many others and whose warm baritone led to a second career as a singer, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.
His wife, Vivian, confirmed the death and said he had had dementia.
Mr. Tate started drumming professionally in the late 1950s and eventually became one of the busiest sidemen in jazz, recording with stars like Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Clark Terry and Billy Taylor.
“Listen to Quincy Jones’s famous recording of ‘Killer Joe,’ ” Loren Schoenberg, a saxophonist and founding director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said in a telephone interview. “Listen to Grady’s drums. It’s just phenomenal timing and rhythm that’s almost transparent. He was there to serve the music without the imposition of a defined personality or style.”
The bassist Christian McBride recalled the first time he saw Mr. Tate perform, at the Manhattan nightclub Indigo Blues with the pianist Sir Roland Hanna. “Mr. Tate is one of those rare, unsung heroes of the drums who you rarely kept your eye on when he played because you were busy dancing, moving and grooving,” Mr. McBride said in an email. “Like a truly great rhythm section player, you noticed his absence more than his presence.”
On records, Mr. Tate accompanied a wide range of singers, from Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin to Bette Midler and Paul Simon. He was also heard on the soundtrack to the original “Twin Peaks” series. The All Music website lists more than a thousand recording credits for him.
Peggy Lee, whom he accompanied on tour and on recordings, was a favorite of his. Mr. Tate told one of her biographers, Peter Richmond, that the real shows began after their nightclub gigs had ended, when the band jammed with her in her hotel suite.
“There were some performances you wouldn’t believe,” he was quoted as saying in “Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee” (2006). One night, he recalled, “I heard this voice, and the song that she was singing, whatever it was, she sounded more like Billie Holiday than Billie ever sounded.”
Miss Lee encouraged Mr. Tate’s desire to sing publicly. She had him sing “The Windmills of Your Mind” in 1968 as part of her set at the Copacabana in Manhattan.
“You know, that was not only a great thing Peggy did for me, it was also unprecedented,” Mr. Tate told Downbeat magazine in 1971. “Singers are a funny lot. The stage is all theirs and as a result, quite often they don’t want anything that has the remotest chance of upstaging them. That’s why the music is geared just so, the lights just so. But Peggy is a beautiful lady.”
He released several albums as a vocalist, starting in 1968 with “Windmills of My Mind.” He also sang “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine” on “Schoolhouse Rock,” ABC’s long-running series of short educational cartoons.
“When you’re playing as a drummer, everybody’s playing and nobody cares a thing about you,” he told the pianist Marian McPartland on her NPR show “Piano Jazz” in 2009. “Everybody’s out front and the drummer’s in the back and you don’t get the play you should get.”
Grady Tate as a singer in an undated photograph. Alan Nahigian
In contrast, he said, singing “is something that gets directly to the person.”
Grady Bernard Tate was born on Jan. 14, 1932, in Durham, N.C. His father, also named Grady, was a stonemason. His mother, Elizabeth, was the dean of women at a local business school. He played drums and sang, but when his voice changed he stopped singing.
At 13, he had an odd if inspiring experience watching the jazz drummer Jo Jones perform at the Durham Armory, he told the website All About Jazz in 2008.
He recalled being mesmerized as Mr. Jones, “the craziest man I’ve ever seen in my life,” played with unalloyed joy. Afterward, Mr. Jones invited him onto the stage and asked if he had brought his drumsticks with him.
“No, sir,” Mr. Tate said, and Mr. Jones offered his own pair but whacked one of his hands with them. “That’s just a tiny bit of the pain that you’re going to get,” Mr. Jones said, “if you’re gonna pick these damn things up and use ’em.”
In the Air Force, Mr. Tate played in a 21-piece stateside band, where he worked with the trumpeter and arranger Bill Berry. After his discharge, he graduated from North Carolina Central University with a bachelor’s degree in English and drama and then moved to Washington, where he briefly taught at a high school and worked in the post office.
One musician he knew in Washington, the saxophonist Herschel McGinnis, took him to see the organist Wild Bill Davis play. Emboldened, Mr. Tate asked Mr. Davis if he could sit in for one number. It proved to be an epiphany.
“I hadn’t played drums in so long,” Mr. Tate said in a 2005 interview with the newspaper Port Folio Weekly. “I just exploded. When we finished, it was like the cleansing of my life, everything was out.
“The next day the phone rang. My wife said, ‘It’s Wild Bill Davis!’ He said: ‘I was wondering. Would you like to work with my band? We’re opening in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. Are you in?’ ”
He stayed with Mr. Davis for a few years and then took a detour, moving to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Ultimately, he said, although he loved acting, he did not pursue it because he felt that the instructors and other actors were insincere.
In 1962 another saxophonist, Jerome Richardson, intervened to bring Mr. Tate back to music; he was with Quincy Jones’s big band, which had lost its drummer as it prepared to go on tour. Would Mr. Tate play with the band for a while? He went to a rehearsal, where Mr. Jones “seemed to call all the tunes that I knew,” he recalled.
Working with Mr. Jones led Mr. Tate to decades of studio work. He was also a member of the “Tonight Show” band for several years before the show moved from New York to California in 1972.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Grady Jr.
In his later years, Mr. Tate sang more and played the drums less.
“I had never thought of singing as a career, which it is for me now,” he said in 2005. “I don’t know how it happened; I just go with the flow. And I find that to be totally acceptable.”