August 5, 2005
The Guy Behind the Guy Behind Superfly
Whether you know it or not, you've heard the work of Chicago soul architect Johnny Pate.
In 1963 Johnny Pate and Curtis Mayfield were flying from Chicago to New York for a recording session. Pate had already arranged a few tunes for Mayfield's group the Impressions, beginning a collaboration that would eventually produce some of the greatest soul and R & B ever recorded, but he had doubts about his future in music.
"At that point I was still very skeptical about the business," Pate says. "I wasn't sure where the next gig was going to come from. I didn't know if the telephone was gonna ring again. And Curtis predicted it, he said, 'Hey man, don't worry. You're gonna be making money a long time.'"
More than 40 years later, Pate -- now 81 and semiretired in Las Vegas -- is still supporting himself with royalties from the enormous catalog of recordings he had a hand in as an arranger, composer, producer, or session bassist. He produced B.B. King and Jimmy Smith, played with Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers, and of course arranged for Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Wes Montgomery, and others too numerous to count. He was one of the chief architects of Chicago soul, and his imaginative horn and orchestral arrangements influenced the sound at Stax, Motown, and Philadelphia International, among other labels. But Pate has stayed out of the spotlight, never angling for acclaim, and as a result he's been all but forgotten since he left the music business in 1983.
Hip-hop, rap, and acid-jazz artists have been carrying a torch for Pate for years, though -- he's been sampled or name-checked by everyone from DJ Premier to DJ Shadow -- and lately he's been getting some overdue recognition from music historians and record labels too. This winter Rhino released Mayfield: Remixed, where Pate's arrangements get the dance-floor treatment from the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Mix Master Mike, and Louie Vega. This spring the Hip-O Select reissue label released Pate's soul-funk sound track to the 1973 film Shaft in Africa, considered by many to be as good or better than Isaac Hayes's music for the original, and Pate's theme song for the movie appeared on the companion CD to Jeff Chang's recent hip-hop history, Can't Stop Won't Stop.
Born and raised in Chicago Heights, Pate took up his first instrument -- the tuba -- in sixth grade. "I was such a scrawny little kid, my mom had to carry the tuba for me," he says, laughing. In 1942 he was drafted into the army, where his musical training immediately paid off. "The band at the infantry training center where I was stationed needed a tuba player. When I found that out, I thought, 'Hell, this looks better than toting a rifle around,'" he says. "So I honed up on it real quick."
Pate also picked up the bass in the army band, and after his discharge in 1946 he briefly kicked around in a few Atlantic City jazz combos, then returned to Chicago to study at the now defunct Midwestern Conservatory of Music. "But I never finished school, because every time I would get a call to go play out on the road I'd leave," he says. Fortunately he didn't need much formal education to master his trade. "Anything that I hear I can write down," he says. "I suppose I was born with that."
By the late 50s Pate was gigging and recording with his own jazz trio. In 1958 the group had a top-20 R & B hit with a version of Moe Koffman's "Swinging Shepherd Blues," which helped Pate get work as a session bassist. His first job as an arranger was an especially auspicious collaboration: "The Monkey Time," a 1963 hit for Major Lance, was written by a young Curtis Mayfield and produced by future Chicago soul kingpin Carl Davis, who'd go on to run the Brunswick and Dakar labels.
Pate would have his longest and most significant working relationship with Mayfield. Their first hit together was the Impressions' 1963 single "It's All Right," and for the next nine years Pate would be Mayfield's regular arranger. Their last collaboration was the smash sound track to the 1972 movie Superfly, for which Pate also wrote two instrumental cuts.
In 1964 he was hired as in-house producer at the new Chicago offices of ABC-Paramount, the label handling the Impressions, and his first assignment was to come up with a project for B.B. King. "He'd never done a live record and I just thought that would be an ideal setting for him," says Pate. The resulting LP, Live at the Regal -- the first of a series of hits King and Pate would have together in the 60s -- is now recognized as one of the greatest live blues albums ever.
In the late 60s, after more than 40 years in Chicago, Pate moved to New York and returned to his roots in jazz, working for MGM/Verve with artists like Stan Getz, Jimmy Smith, and Phil Woods. MGM's film studio was producing the "Shaft" series, and the company approached him to do the sound track not just for Shaft in Africa but for a short-lived TV series spun off from the movies. Pate also composed music for several lower-profile blaxploitation films in the 70s, and two of the sound tracks -- to Brother on the Run and Bucktown -- have been reissued in the past four years.
In the mid-70s, attracted by the prospect of more sound-track work, he moved to Los Angeles. By the end of the decade his client list included the Bee Gees, Muddy Waters, Peabo Bryson, and Gil Scott-Heron -- but Pate decided to slow down. Though his three children from his first marriage were grown, he had a young son with his second wife, and the couple didn't want to raise him in LA. Pate was also wary of the changes overtaking the music business. "Things were getting electronic," he says. "I've always been very loyal to musicians, and I like to do things acoustically. So when they began putting guys out of work with synthesizers I decided it was time to get away."
Pate moved to Las Vegas in 1983 and took up the quiet life of a retiree, only occasionally picking up an odd job with an old friend like Jimmy Smith or Joe Williams. In 1996 the manager of NPR outlet KUNV, Don Fuller, coaxed him into hosting a weekly radio show called The Mellow Moods of Jazz, but Pate doesn't even identify himself by name on the air -- the station bills him as "the Maestro." In 2000 the jazz ensemble at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas approached Pate about recording a CD of his work, and the project ballooned into a live concert and recording session in March 2003, which doubled as an 80th birthday party for Pate. An all-star cast of friends and collaborators, including jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell and singer Shirley Horn, performed at the gala, and the recording was released on the TNC label last year.
Currently Pate's teaching a course on film scoring at UNLV, but after his long and fruitful life in music he doesn't need to work to get by. "Someone once paid me a hell of a compliment. They said they couldn't believe that I'd put four kids through college being a musician," he says. "But I've been very fortunate in the business, I really have."