Blues and fishing are the essence of life for the laid back James Tate
By Natasha Kassulke Wisconsin State Journal - Sunday, August 8th 1999

We had a deal.
I'd buy the coffee if James Tate would supply the night crawlers.
After catching four blue­gill with him, I think I got a great deal.
Tate, after all, is a local blues legend.
He's not only hosted Tate's Tuesday Night Blues Jam at O'Cayz Corral for the past 13 years, he is vice pres­ident of the Madison Blues Society.
And he was one of blues guitarist Luther Alli­son's closest friends.
But those credentials don't tell you what motivates Tate.
If you want to really get to know the man behind the straw hat and wide smile, you've not only got to watch him perform,
You've got to go fishing. You've got to sit next to Tate on the shore of Lake Monona overlooking the spot where Otis Redding's plane crashed.
You've got to appreciate his advice about fishing hot spots.
You've got to feel his excitement when his pail is almost full of fresh fish, and it's lunchtime.
Only after you've spent a couple hours picking the weeds off your line, baiting your hook and listening to Tate's one-armed fisherman jokes
will you really know what motivates him.
Driving Tate is an inner peace' that comes from doing something like fishing, which gives him time to say thanks and to consciously love life.
Tate fishes almost daily.
He begins most mornings at Bev's Restaurant on Winnebago Street where, before 9 a.m., he's swapping fishing tips at the counter.
His breakfast consists of toast with peanut butter and jelly, a bowl of corn flakes, and coffee.
He wears a straw hat, gray shirt, casual tan pants, gold chain necklace and pink bracelet that his niece gave him.
His fingernails and toenails are painted with glittery green polish. He paints his nails just to surprise people, he says.
After breakfast Tate drives to Law Park to scout out fishing spots in a 1979 maroon Buick Limited with "Reckless" stickers in the back win­dows.
The car was left to him by Luther Allison after the musician died of cancer in 1997. "Reckless" was Alli­son's last album.
Once Tate settles on a fishing spot, he unloads two fishing poles, a dozen night crawlers and a beat-up 20-year-old tackle box filled with bobbers,
mosquito repellent, hooks and matches.
Sometimes he smokes a cigarette.
More often, though, he chews on a toothpick and drinks water from plastic milk jugs he's packed.
Between casts he tells fishing jokes and offers words of wisdom about friendship, respect for your elders, the blues and bluegill.
This time of year Tate targets fish that have made their beds between the Monona Terrace Convention Cen­ter and Williamson Bicycle Works.
He used to fish here with Allison, he remembers.
Tate recalls that it was his fa­ther with whom he fished first.
"My dad taught me how to fish as a kid, and he had rules," Tate recalls. "The first one was to be quiet and never whine or moan."
Tate was born in Columbus, Miss., in 1948 (he never gives out his age, just the year of his birth). 
He was the youngest of nine chil­dren six boys and three girls.
His parents grew cotton and corn but also encouraged their children to learn about music in church and from the radio.
"Everybody sang in the church -even the ones who couldn't sing," Tate says. "And I loved the radio."
When he was 13, Tate said he developed a wanderlust and moved to Alabama to live with an uncle.
"I wanted to see other things, to travel and to learn about the world," Tate says.
When he was old enough to be on his own, he moved around. He finally settled in Madison in 1967.
"I came here looking for a bet­ter place to live," he recalls. He worked odd jobs including a stint at Oscar Mayer Foods Corp.
before he met Allison, a man who not only shared Tate's love for the blues but also for fishing.
"What do I miss most about fishing with Luther?" Tate pon­ders. "The eating part, I think. Lu­ther liked to slow-cook his fish."
Today, a picture hangs in the kitchen of the home Tate shares with two roommates near the Bar­rymore Theatre. It's a photo of Al­lison cooking fish.
"We fished all over the world," Tate says. "We became fishing buddies."
But they also became ambassa­dors for the blues.
Tate and Allison met at the Nitty Gritty in the 1960s when the Gritty was considered a prime blues magnet in the Midwest.
Tate was living above the bar when he met Allison, who had stopped in to perform.
As the men's friendship bIos­somed, Tate's living arrangements changed. Allison asked Tate to tour with him, and, before Tate knew it, 
he was traveling the world. For 15 years he worked as a sound man and road manager for Allison.
"A lot of people say that my life is kinda complicated," Tate says. 'But I say it's real simple. I meet people and go with the flow."
Tate says that because of his travels, and the fact that he doesn't give his heart away easily, he's never married.
He credits his traveling with nurturing another love - cooking.
"I learned a lot of recipes in my travels," Tate says. "I'm not afraid to try some spice."
His favorite foods include sweet potatoes, hush puppies and his recipe for smoked catfish.
Tate works at the Ivy Inn bar and restaurant. Some Fridays he even plays blues in the lounge.
Since Allison died, Tate also has traveled to support Allison's son, Bernard, who is a musician.
When he is in town, though, Tate jams.
Watching him now, it's hard to believe that he used to be a shy man who stuttered. Tate credits Allison with giving him the confi­dence to get on stage.
"I thought that if Luther could do it, I could," Tate says. "But after a few shows I got cocky and Luther knew he had trouble."
Tate has opened for the likes of Koko Taylor and Clarence "Gate-mouth" Brown.
Although he's never recorded an album. Tate has produced a few demos and has miles of tape from recordings he's done during the O'Cayz jams.
Someday he'd like to release a CD.
"It's taking so long because I want my first CD to be one of mostly originals." he says. "Every day I try to put down a lyric or a chord."
And every Tuesday he celebrates the blues with a jam. A re­cent night drew the likes of local drummers Joey Banks and Clyde Stubblefield.
"It's a great way for younger musicians to practice and get to learn from the more experienced musicians." Banks says. "And Tate is a good teacher."
Stubblefield. well known as a former "funky" drummer for James Brown, started the jam about 16 years ago and then turned it over to Tate
but still makes guest appearances. "Tate's doing a good job with the jam now." Stubblefield says. "He's a great artist."
And you never know who else will show; Allison used to stop by the jams. After he died. Tate eulo­gized the musician during a jam.
"Singing the blues is a healing thing." Tate says.
The crowd at O'Cayz on a typical Tuesday night is mix of old and young people. They come to hear the old school blues -Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf'.
Between songs Tate teaches re­spect for elders.
"We hope you enjoy the blues." Tate tells about 50 people in the audience. "because that's all we do."
Tate's house band. The Million Dollar Blues Band. begins the set.
"If you don't like the blues. vou must have a hole in your soul." Tate says over their smooth and mellow sounds.
Guest musicians will step in and out throughout the night. People share their equipment.
"I've fired people for not let­ting others use their instruments," Tate says. "Luther taught me the importance of sharing.
He used to take his guitar off and let others play."
Tate is positive. He enjoys life a lot.
"My lucky charm is a prayer in the morning," Tate says. "I'm al­ways praying for things to be bet­ter for all of us. Prayers are made up a lot like songs."
Just like when he is fishing, Tate is all smiles when perform­mg. He makes a peace sign with his fingers and flashes them at people he knows.
"We don't take no requests,"
Tate tells some newcomers. "Wedon't do no Sonny and Cher, no M.C. Hammer, and No Snoop Doggy Dogg."
Tate says the blues are a lot like life. They are supposed to be fun.
"And the amount of spring in my step on Tuesday nights," Tate explains, "is directly determined by how well my fishing went Tues­day morning."