Every death marks the end of an era, but the era that ended in 2011 with the deaths of Jerry Leiber (in August, age 78), Jerry Ragovoy (July, 80), and Howard Tate (December, 72) was more special than most.
What Leiber started in the 1950s with his partner Mike Stoller and what Jerry Ragovoy continued in the 1960s was the early rock 'n' roll tradition of white, Jewish composers' writing, and sometimes producing, songs for black vocal groups and singers. Whether that seemingly unlikely cross-cultural pollination helped pave the way for the civil rights movement or proved that the movement was already taking place is impossible to say.
In retrospect, though, one thing it's easy to say is that the relationship was commercially beneficial for all concerned. Thanks to Leiber and Stoller, Wilbert Harrison was able to top the charts with "Kansas City," the Drifters with "On Broadway," Ben E. King with "Stand by Me" and "Spanish Harlem," and the Coasters with "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," and "Young Blood"-all during the years before Berry Gordy and Motown Records developed a formula by which black artists singing songs written by black songwriters and produced by black producers could cross over to the mostly white mainstream.
Like Leiber, Ragovoy (who wrote his best-known song, "Time Is on My Side," under the pseudonym Norman Meade) was not above collaborating. And he did with Bert Russell "Cry Baby" (a 1963 hit for Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters later recorded by Janis Joplin), with Bert Berns "Piece of My Heart" (a 1967 hit for Aretha Franklin's sister Erma also later recorded by Joplin), and with George David Weiss "Stay with Me" (a 1966 hit for Lorraine Ellison later recorded by Bette Midler and Natalie Cole).
Unlike Leiber, the witty and dramatic nature of whose songs made them especially well suited to their eventual transformation into the 1995 Broadway musical Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, Ragovoy specialized in slow-to-mid-tempo ballads that required their performers to draw on the more anguished depths of what was by then at least a decade's worth of soul-gospel fermentation.
By the 1970s, Ragovoy had become best known for his work with the soul singer Howard Tate, a Baptist-church-bred shouter capable of shifting nuances in mid-timbre. Tate and Ragovoy had initially teamed up in 1966 for the Verve Records album Get It While You Can and several non-album singles that dented the R&B top 20 but that failed to go pop ("Ain't Nobody Home," "Look at Granny Run," "Stop").
If that failure was hard to understand at the time, it's even harder to understand now. Collected by Mercury Records on the album Get It While You Can: The Legendary Sessions in 1995, approximately two decades after Tate had vanished into obscurity, they sounded like the alternative-universe jukebox of every '60s-soul-lover's dreams. In 2001, when Koch Records reissued the excellent, Ragovoy-produced 1972 album Howard Tate, a new generation of Tate aficionados was forming and demanding to know what had become of him.
Two years later, they had their answer. Promoting Rediscovered (Private Music), his well-received Ragovoy-helmed comeback, Tate revealed the sad details of his lost decades: financial hardship, divorce, the death of his teenage daughter, drug addiction. Not until 1994 would he re-embrace Christianity, start a church in Philadelphia, and find meaning in making up for lost time.
The revival of his singing career was probably more than he ever anticipated. But even without it he'd have gone out on a high note.