Listen now on:
You’ve probably heard Janis Joplin’s version of “Get It While You Can.” That eruptive, blues-steeped number was one of three songs co-authored by Philadelphia writer-producer Jerry Ragovoy that were included on Joplin’s 1971 album, Pearl. (A cover of another Ragovoy composition, “Piece of My Heart,” had put Joplin’s band Big Brother and the Holding Company on the map in 1967.) It became the posthumous signature of the hard-belting vocalist, who had lived by its lyrics.
But you may not know that “Get It While You Can” was also a keystone in the career of a brilliant, obscure singer whose life became one of the Greatest Soul Music Stories Ever Told.
The song was the title track on the 1967 Verve Records debut album by singer Howard Tate. The Georgia-born, Philly-bred musician sported an elastic tenor that could suddenly swoop into a quivering trademark falsetto. He caught the attention of Garnet Mimms, whose hit “Cry Baby” was co-written and produced by Ragovoy.
Taking Mimms’ advice, Ragovoy began working with Tate, and crafted a sublime bow for his new charge. The singer was equally at home with straight blues like “How Blue Can You Get” and “Everyday I Have the Blues” (both staples of B.B. King’s repertoire); the stinging, hurt-filled deep soul of “Ain’t Nobody Home” and “I Learned It All the Hard Way”; and lubricious, drolly observed slices of down-home comedy like “Look at Granny Run Run” and “How Come My Bulldog Don’t Bark.”
But it was “Get It While You Can”—an intense, testifying exhortation to seize love when it comes, for it may not come again—that proved to be the highlight of its namesake set of ten power-packed, economical R&B numbers. However, impassioned though it was, the LP failed to catch fire commercially; Verve desperately reissued it with two additional tracks (one of the them the exclamatory single “Stop”) in a bizarre psychedelic cover.
The ploy did no good, and the record died. Within months of reading a rave review in Rolling Stone, I found a copy of the original album at a Woolworth’s in Madison, Wisconsin, for 69 cents. Like many another who discovered the greatness of Get It While You Can in a dimestore cut-out bin, I became a charter member of the Howard Tate cult. Despite the failure of his debut, Tate kept at the game, recording an album for singer Lloyd Price’s Turntable label, another LP with Ragovoy for Atlantic, and a heartbreaking single for Epic.
And then, without so much as a puff of smoke, Howard Tate vanished in 1972.
His fate was the subject of speculation for years; most fans believed he had died in obscurity. The truth only emerged nearly 30 years later. After Tate abandoned music and moved into the securities business, his daughter was killed in a house fire, sending him into a tailspin of alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness. Born-again Christianity proved to be his salvation, and he was singing in his own church when a member of Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes ran into him in a New Jersey supermarket in 2001.
That chance encounter touched off a series of events that led to the rebirth of Howard Tate’s musical career. He took to the stage again with his vocal chops undiminished, and thrilled soul aficionados at performances at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Long Beach Blues Festival, and on the stages of Europe.
Tate also got the chance to record again, and he released three new studio albums and a live set before his death from leukemia in 2011. The best of these latter-day records was undoubtedly the first of them, 2003’s Rediscovered, which reunited the singer and the writer-producer who launched his career. The emotional highlight of the collection was its final track, on which Tate performed solo, backed only by Ragovoy’s piano, on a remake of —what else?—“Get It While You Can,” forever timeless.