Drummer-singer worked with jazz legends
Grady Tate, a jazz drummer 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 Sunday at his home in New York. He was 85.
His wife, Vivian, confirmed the death and said he’d had dementia.
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’ 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.” Bassist Christian McBride recalled the first time he saw Tate perform, at the Manhattan nightclub Indigo Blues with 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,” McBride said in an email. “Like a truly great rhythm section player, you noticed his absence more than his presence.” On records, 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 of the original “Twin Peaks” series. The All Music website lists more than 1,000 recording credits for him.
ONE OF TATE’S favorite performers was Lee, whom he accompanied on tour and on recordings. Tate told one of Lee’s 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 “Feve r: 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.”
Lee encouraged 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,” 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.
GRADY BERNARD Tate was born on Jan. 14, 1932, in Durham, N.C. Growing up he played drums and sang, but when his voice changed he stopped singing.
In the Air Force, Tate played in a 21-piece stateside band. 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.
After an impromptu set with organist Wild Bill Davis at a Washington club, Tate was asked to tour with the band. He stayed with Davis for a few years and then moved New York City to study acting. But he soon gravitated back to music. In 1962 Tate joined Quincy Jones’s big band, which had lost its drummer as it prepared to go on tour. Working with Jones led 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.