From Night Sites & Sounds February 1995

James Earl Tate: "The Richest Man in Town"
By Laura Johnston

"Hell... I'm having more fun up here tonight than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!" A peal of laughter spurts from the crowd of friends and fellow musi­cians that come to O'Cayz every Tuesday to hear the words of James Earl Tate.
His voice slowly crescendos into sweet, plaintive songs of acquaintanc-the kind you obtain when you've lived through the best and the worst of the blues. He smiles a sly smile, "Love is better when you steal it!" Everybody who listens to Tate knows he is singing about the prickly little backdrops in life that add the colors of hard luck, heartache, and sadness to the big blue pic­ture. Tate likes to joke about being blue, "We'll have you so sad we'll have you cry­ing out of one eye!" He adds with a smooth chuckle. But feeling the blues isn't always so rough-grained and gritty, according to the prophet of blues lines, "It's about feeling kindness toward each other and giving out kindness. It's about being happy too." And
having lived out the best parts of the blues all his life, Tate is a very happy man.
Born on a farm in Cliftonville, MS, Tate gleaned more insight of the blues from the country than most people. The youngest of nine children, he learned early in life that richness is augmented by hard work and respect for one another. He felt "the good kind of blues" you get from having empty pockets, yet having a large family around to nourish you with kindness. Times were tough and we barely got by. Loving and sharing were the most important values our mother taught us. She was an outra­geous woman, outrageous in the sense of being strong. She kept everyone together through hard times."
The values his mother taught him never escaped Tate, even after he left home for much bigger places. He worked his way up to Madison in 1968 and found a place to live above the Nitty Gritty-which was then a major venue for the blues, sharing a room with Richard Drake ("Fat Richard"), the sax player for internationally-acclaimed blues musician Luther Allison. Tate worked as 'a doorman for the Nitty Gritty and occasionally jumped in to help set up and run sound for the bands. The help he gave Luther Allison when he came to town was rewarded ten-fold when he was asked to work as their regular sound man. From that juncture, the small-town kid from Mississippi traveled internation­ally with Luther and the band for nearly 12 years.
Being a traveling sound man with "lov­ing-and-sharing values," Tate gained the experience he needed to organize his own band. In 1984 he gave Madison "pound for pound the best sound in town" when he formed the legendary "Million Dollar Blues Band," with himself on vocals. Tate's origi­nal band had quite the coterie of talented musicians over the years, many of whom still drop in to O'Cayz for the blues jam he has hosted for nearly a decade., You will be sure to find bass player Ronny G., (anoth­er long-time buddy of Tate's since the Nitty Gritty days) playing in the band, as well as guitarist T.J. Weger and drummer Joey B. Banks. Tate and the Million Dollar Blues Band recently welcomed sax player Dean Barker and keyboardist John T. Finucan, who intertwine their own blues touch while preserving the band's "million-dol­lar" sound.
Tate has become a teacher of the blues for many musicians breaking into the Madison scene. "The Tuesday night jam is about peo­ple trying to help other people," remarked Tate.. "It's like a school of blues where they are always graduating from this experience and moving on to other bands. It's about caring for one another." Guitarist Don Rembert, who formerly played with Tate and the Million Dollar Blues Band, agrees that the Tuesday night jam is about learn­ing and pushing one's musical capacity to new levels, stating, "It's about learning and sharing each other's musical experiences. The jam puts you in a position to challenge your own abilities because playing with a new group becomes a different challenge for anyone. When you get up to play you need to recognize you are a member of a team instead of an individual."
If you ask Tate what singing the blues is all about, he will tell you- "The blues is about a little kid who can't get his milk bot­tle; it's about missing the plane, or a little dog who just needs to be let outside. Everyone gets the blues. It ain't just a black man in dark glasses and a walking cane... just talk to Willie Nelson about that!" So what does Tate think about his rise to suc­cess in the community? 'Success? Why... I am success. I am rich with it! I have friends all over who will give me money when I'm low, a meal when I'm hungry or a place to crash for the night when I need to. I am really lucky. No one is richer than me. I'm the richest guy in town with my friends! That's my success!"
Tate and the Million Dollar Blues Band would like to get out a CD by the fall of '95. Be sure to see them when they play at the Harmony Bar on Feb. 4. Also remember you can see them any Tuesday night at O'Cayz if you want to hear "pound for pound the best sound in town!"