Piedmont Blues is not as dark and brooding as its Delta cousin, often featuring delightful ragtime melodies and delicate fingerpicking and tricksy embelishments. There was an upsurge in interest in this style during the Folk/Blues revival of the 60s, with players like Rev. Gary Davis and Josh White filling clubs in New York, but back in the Carolinas, there were other original Bluesmen whose work was coming to light. Buddy Moss had been spoken of as a worthy successor to Blind Blake, and another spectacular guitarist to be discovered there in the early 60s was Baby Tate.
Charles Henry Tate was born in Elberton GA in 1916, but brought up in Greenville SC. When Blind Blake passed through there, Charles saw him perform, and when he got a guitar himself he turned out to be a pretty handy player. By the time he was 10, he was hanging out with Fulton Allen’s sister, and he and the future Blind Boy Fuller
practised together, swopping A and D tunings. In 1929, he began playing with another 13-year-old, McKinley Ellis on ‘second’ guitar and ukelele, and when Greenville got its own radio station in 1932, the pair formed a house-band The Carolina Blackbirds, along with Washboard Willie Young. They had a regular Friday night spot, and their flashy country instrumentals were popular with white audiences in the southern Appalachians as well as round their home town. Working as a bricklayer, which he did on and off his entire life, during the 30s Charles began performing with another guitarist, Baby Brooks as the Two Babies, and acquired a lasting Blues-name. Often playing with another brilliant local guitarist, Willie Walker
, Baby’s skilled fingerpicking was beginning to attract attention. He shared a lot of repertoire with his friend Fuller, and also another local man, Blind Gary Davis
, and when Fuller died in 1941, his manager JB Long
offered Baby his recording contract, but Baby had already enlisted in the Army, so the rôle of Blind Boy Fuller II was taken by Brownie McGhee
Baby’s fine ‘Dupree Blues’
Baby had an ‘interesting’ War. During training at Fort Hood in Texas, he played with Lightnin’ Hopkins
before being shipped off to see action in North Africa and the invasion of Italy. He was seen playing in pubs along the English south coast as his unit prepared for D-Day, where he was wounded in Normandy. He recovered back at Fort McKay near Boston, just in time to ship out for the Battle of the Bulge, the Nazis vicious ‘last stand’ fight in the Ardenne Forest, where Baby got shot again. He must have been glad to get back to Greenville to play the Blues and build some walls! He took his guitar on the road too, as he made some recordings for Dave Kapp in Atlanta in the early 50s. In 1954 he relocated to Spartanburg SC where he made the acquaintance of Pink Anderson
, who was making a living following Dr. Kerr’s Medicine Show along with Peg Leg Sam
. Pink and Baby got on very well, often playing together and sharing material, until Pink suffered a stroke in the late 60s. Baby’s recording career got started in 1962, when Sam Charters
came to town intending to record Pink, but discovered another big talent there too. ‘See What You Done Done’ was Baby’s only major release, but he also featured in Sam’s documentary film ‘The Blues’ the following year.
Baby Tate Discography
This hidden gem has a dozen tracks of the finest Piedmont fingerpicking, with complex ragtime polyrhythms, and Baby’s superb downhome vocals and songwriting too.
SEE WHAT YOU DONE DONE
The rest of the decade saw Baby and Pink enjoying some of the fruits of the Folk/Blues revival, but neither was a big recording star, so money was still scarce. In 1970 Baby recorded dozens of tracks in Spartanburg for Pete Lowry featuring his old friends Peg Leg Sam and McKinley Ellis, but only a couple of singles were ever released. During the same sessions, Baby played on Peg Leg’s ‘Medicine Show Man’ album that was released on the Trix label. Shortly after a concert at the University of New York in 1972, Baby passed away suddenly.