Grady Tate, a jazz musician who was nominated for Grammy Awards as a singer but was best known as a versatile drummer who helped propel the “soul-jazz” style of the 1960s and who appeared on hundreds of albums, died Oct. 8 at his home in New York. He was 85.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his son, Grady Tate Jr., said in a social media posting.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Mr. Tate was one of the most sought-after drummers in music, performing in big bands led by Quincy Jones and with singers as varied as Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne and Bette Midler. He played delicately enough to work in a trio led by pianist Billy Taylor, yet also had enough energy to anchor the “Tonight Show” band with Doc Severinsen for six years in the 1960s and 1970s. He performed with Simon and Garfunkel at the duo’s celebrated 1981 reunion concert at New York’s Central Park.
As the drummer on several recording dates by jazz organist Jimmy Smith throughout the 1960s, including “Organ Grinder Swing” and “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Mr. Tate provided the rhythmic pulse that made the bluesy soul jazz a popular style of the time. He recorded with guitarists Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Oliver Nelson, and provided the strolling drum introduction to Jones’s seminal 1969 recording of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.”
“I’ve done so many dates,” Mr. Tate told Modern Drumming magazine in 2001. “I’d leave one session and immediately go to another, and I’d have to empty my head in between so I could start fresh on the next project.”
A self-taught drummer, Mr. Tate was known for a crisp, controlled style that was both precise and relaxed. He seldom launched into loud, showy drum solos.
“I hate solos,” he told Modern Drumming. “I can’t play one to save my life. I think of myself as someone who can keep time.”
Although drumming was his bread-and-butter as a musician, Mr. Tate was also a singer with a rich, burnished baritone well suited for ballads. He released his first vocal album, “Windmills of My Mind,” in 1968. His contributions to the animated “Schoolhouse Rock” short films of the 1970s, “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine,” received Grammy nominations. In 1987, he received another Grammy nomination for best male jazz vocal for “She’s Out of My Life,” from Smith’s album “Go for Whatcha Know.”
Mr. Tate developed his vocal style in part by working as a drummer behind so many other singers, including Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.
“Peggy was just sultry, not nasty or rowdy,” he told the All About Jazz website in 2008. “I enjoyed playing with her. I guess I’ve tried to do some of that with my singing.”
Grady Bernard Tate was born Jan. 14, 1932, in Durham, N.C. His family encouraged his early musical interest, and he was playing drums and singing in public at age 5.
“When I was like 9 or 10,” he told All About Jazz, “I was the choice drummer in Durham . . . Some of the older cats would look askance, but I could play. And I could sing.”
After his voice changed in his early teens, he refused to sing for several years and concentrated instead on drumming, inspired by an early meeting with Jo Jones, the longtime drummer with Count Basie.
Mr. Tate spent four years in the Air Force, mostly performing in military bands, then studied English and drama at what is now North Carolina Central University before graduating in 1959.
He then moved to Washington and taught in the public schools while working as a drummer in jazz clubs. In the early 1960s, he settled in New York, where he briefly studied acting before the well-connected Jones hired him for his band.
Mr. Tate became a mainstay in recording studios and, with bassist Ron Carter, was practically the house rhythm section for Creed Taylor’s CTI record label in the 1960s and 1970s.
There was practically no style of music he couldn’t play. Besides working with virtually every famous jazz musician, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, he recorded with classical violinist Itzhak Perlman, Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin and pop stars Midler, Phoebe Snow and Paul Simon.
Beginning in the 1990s, Mr. Tate began to focus primarily on singing and appeared in clubs and concert halls around the world. His final album, “From the Heart,” recorded live at New York’s Blue Note jazz club, was released in 2012.
“As much as I love Grady’s drumming, it is his voice that truly moves me,” jazz singer Nnenna Freelon told the Independent Weekly of Durham in 2003. “Few singers, male or female, can touch Grady for his sensitive phrasing and emotion.”
He taught jazz singing and drumming at Howard University from 1989 to 2009.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife, the former Virginia Tapp of New York. Mr. Tate was known for his dapper appearance and for always showing up on time, no matter what kind of gig he had.
“You can’t have an attitude,” he told Modern Drumming. “Likability is the thing. If people like you, you’re going to get more work. If you’re a nasty human being, it takes too much time and energy to work with you.”