The 98th birthday of anyone, or indeed anything, is worthy of celebration & remembrance & today, December the 5th 2021, that milestone is reached by the arranger/conductor/producer Johnny Pate. Johnny was a key member of a talented group that came together in Chicago in the 1960s & whose work ensured that the Windy City made a significant contribution to the blend of Rock & Roll, Gospel & Rhythm & Blues that became known as Soul music. He was a man who stayed busy, his name can be found on the labels of many records, here are just some of them.
Johnny Pate was a Jazz man, a bass player who had recorded with big bands & his own trio, piano, bass, drums & straight from the fridge daddio. In 1962 Carl Davis who had produced “Duke of Earl”, a major hit for Gene Chandler, was appointed Artists & Repertoire director, responsible for the recruitment of talent to revive the Okeh label. Davis invited Pate to join him as an arranger & one of his first assignments, “The Monkey Time” for Major Lance, was a US Top 10 hit. This was followed by three more national hits for Major, all with a Latin shuffle beat, zingy brass & ear-catching, floor-filling tunes, all produced by Davis, arranged by Pate & written by Curtis Mayfield, a young man with ambitions for his own group. “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” did make the lower reaches of the UK chart at a time when my interest didn’t extend below the current Top 10.
One of the tricks used by British Beat was to cover current US R&B hits & “Um x 6” was a UK Top 5 hit for Manchester’s Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders. Cilla Black found a #1 hit with Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” while Manfred Mann were toppermost of the poppermost on both sides of the Atlantic with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”. A curious boy with an inquisitive mind (that would be me) was soon able to discover that I preferred those original records by Major Lance, Dionne & the Exciters respectively, that there were other songs from the Okeh label, from Burt Bacharach & Bert Berns worthy of consideration. I always loved “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, even more so because it was a gateway to a fulfilling lifetime of looking a little further than the chart listings for my musical entertainment.
Johnny Pate, who had served his time during World War 2 with the 218th AGF Army Band, will admit that he initially felt these new R&B circles were not as musically challenging as the Cool Jazz to which he was accustomed. It was the talent & potential of Curtis Mayfield, 20 years his junior & self-taught, along with their commercial success, that spurred Pate to heights of creativity. Curtis’ early work with his group the Impressions, “It’s Alright”, “People Get Ready & others had a Gospel purity with immaculate harmonies which Pate augmented with sweetness & danceability that never overshadowed this authenticity. One of the most popular vocal groups in the US developed a greater social awareness & sophistication with hits like “Keep On Pushing” &, from the album “The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story” (1969), “Choice of Colors”. As Curtis’ mentor Johnny Pate, while also developing the arranging talent of Donnie Hathaway, deftly framed these significant songs with the substance they merited.
By the end of a momentous decade people were moving on to move on up. Carl Davis had begun his own Dakar label, Curtis left the Impressions, releasing his solo work on his own Curtom imprint. Johnny Pate signed a contract with MGM-Verve which enabled him to make his own record. “Outrageous” (1970) has his name on the cover, is conducted, arranged & written by him. The funky title track displays the talents of the all-star 13 piece big band Johnny assembled for the sessions, King Curtis’s band, the Kingpins, legends all, are joined by the fuzz guitar of Joe Beck, Jerome Richardson’s flute & a five man brass section. The whole of the orchestral suite is not as uptempo as this track but it grooves, is very accomplished & sometimes surprises. “Outrageous” is a very cool record.
Now freelance, Johnny’s brand of Soul Jazz was in demand for the soundtracks of the Blaxploitation films that were a big thing in the early 1970s. He worked on “Shaft In Africa” (with this great wah-wah laden theme tune), Brother on the Run”, “Bucktown”, “Bustin’ Loose” & others, sometimes the music was better than the movies. Pate worked as a producer for vocalists Peabo Bryson & Natalie Cole & as an orchestral arranger on “Life in a Tin Can” (1973) a pre-Saturday Night Live album by the Bee Gees. My final selection is on from my own collection. In 1980 Johnny co-produced “Life Lives Forever”, a posthumous record by the peerless Chicago singer Minnie Riperton who had succumbed to cancer in the previous year aged just 31. In what must have been a bittersweet process Pate & Minnie’s husband, Richard Rudolph enhanced vocals she had recorded with contributions from musicians who respected & loved her. “Give Me Time” features the unmistakeable harmonica of Stevie Wonder. It is not the best of Minnie’s six solo albums but it is a last chance to hear a beautiful singer with a unique range & that’s enough.
In 1983 Johnny settled his family in Las Vegas & entered a semi-retirement. In later media appearances he seems a quiet, well-spoken, dignified man. He spent most of his career in the background, creating music for others to perform, making a great & memorable contribution to the development of Chicago Soul. Let’s hope that I can feature more of that music in a couple of years when Johnny Pate reaches his centenary.