Happy 100th Birthday Johnny Pate
Mark Ruffin celebrates the lives of his two nonagenarian friends Johnny Pate and George Freeman and gives his own thoughts and meditations on aging with good health.
by Mark Ruffin
The big question of folks of my generation is do you want to enter that age feebly or with the strength and resilience to enjoy that time of life. I can’t remember the comedian or raconteur who said it but many people who live long resemble this axiom; “If I had known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”
I have never been part of that stereotype that says Black men don’t go to doctors. Unfortunately, in my lifetime I’ve seen that there’s some validity to that notion as I have lost many friends who could’ve lived longer had they just had their colon checked. Or they could be more mobile had they had that hip or knee worked on years before they ended up crippled in their early 60’s or dead because they couldn’t control their appetite for bad food.
It’s true that genetics can determine how long you live no matter how badly you buck the odds, self-destruct and still live a long life. And if you do things right with the right genes a healthy triple-digit birthday is very feasible nowadays.
On December 5th super arranger/producer Johnny Pate turned 100 years old. I could take a couple of pages to lay out all of his incredible accomplishments in his lifetime but here are a just a few:
He was Curtis Mayfield’s personal arranger from the very first Impressions record on ABC-Paramount through the “Superfly” soundtrack
He was Isaac Hayes’ shadow arranger on the “Shaft” and principal composer/arranger for every subsequent “Shaft” sequel and the television series which means when Jay-Z sampled “Shaft In Africa” a few years ago Johnny got a really big check.
He was one of the first Black record executives at a major record label following Quincy Jones at Mercury and Carl Davis at Columbia/Okeh. Working for ABC Paramount, Verve and MGM, Johnny gave Monty Alexander, Shirley Horn, Phil Woods and others their very first recording contracts.
I could go on but all I need you dear reader to know about his current state comes from about a year ago when I was trying to get a podcast produced titled “Johnny Pate’s 100th Birthday Party.” I brought his name up to a Sirius XM executive named Lou Simon who exclaimed “Not the same Johnny Pate whose 1949 single on King I just brought?”
To impress him on Johnny’s clarity and to satisfy my own curiosity I picked up the phone and called him. After explaining the situation and that I didn’t know of his solo work on King Records Johnny replied with a question I’ve gotten a lot from him through the years.
“Mark, I never told you about that?” he said. “Actually it wasn’t on King Records but their subsidiary Federal.”
His recall is still quite amazing which goes along with his fantastic mobility.
This year at 96, another friend of mine, guitarist George Freeman released “The Good Life.” It turned into the biggest record of his career which started in Chicago in the mid 1940’s. He was Charlie Parker’s Midwest guitarist, which is documented on the album “One Night In Chicago”.
With “The Good Life,” Freeman had national stories in print magazines and made two appearances on NBC-TV including a piece on “The Today Show”. The irony of life with the recording was that it was made in 2022 with the great organist Joey DeFrancesco who shared George’s birthday of April 10th. By the following spring Joey was dead and George was planning his record release party in his hometown of Chicago. He was 51, almost half George’s age.
These two friends of mine offer proof that nonagenarians, people in their 90’s, are the fastest growing segment of the American population. With the fast paced medical and nutritional advancements, even with the usual news that Black men have shorter lifespans than other races and gender, more men of color will be making it at least into our late 80’s.
George Freeman may be 97 in April, but he still has almost six years before he can say he outlived his mother. His brother, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master saxophonist Von died at in 2012 two months shy of his 89th birthday. So, if I was Chico Freeman, the 74-year-old sax playing son of Von, and knew that my grandmother lived well past the century mark, I’d still have a 30-year plan on the books.
It’s also just the luck of the draw to go with your genetics and life circumstances, which may or may not explain why Sly Stone, George Clinton and Keith Richards are still walking the planet. Nowadays Keith, with unlimited resources seems to have wised up and is now actually looking healthy. Speaking of the Stones; explain Mick Jagger. He and Mitch McConnell are the same age 80. One is Jumping Jack Flash and the other can’t see the bright lights in front of him. I could easily see Mick breaking a hundred. Mitch is already catatonic.
You don’t have to start young to get better at life. Richard Pryor once said “There’s a lot of smart dead young mother fuckers.”
It’s never too late to get smart about striving to live longer. On the other hand you can remain as decadent as possible, live a long life and look at restraining from vices as Redd Foxx did. Paraphrasing, the great comedian, he said: “All them folks who quit drinking, quit smoking and quit eating fried food are gonna feel funny dying from nothing”.
For me I started thinking about my mortality about 15 years ago when I felt my memory slipping and came across a book by neurologist David Perlmutter called “The Better Brain Book: The Best Tools for Improving Memory and Sharpness and Preventing Aging of the Brain”. Among the things I learned is that you can improve your memory and maybe stave off Parkinson’s and/or Alzheimer naturally. Part of the process includes trying either to learn a language, playing complicated word games and puzzles or taking up an instrument, which really is learning a language. Ever notice how long many drummers live? They do aerobics every day.
I first started with word games but for the last seven or eight years I’ve been learning Portuguese on Duolingo and even took a class which can explain rules that the app doesn’t cover. After all this time I just really formed my first independent sentence a few weeks ago. However, I’m really strong with vocabulary and lately when I’m just going about my day, I’ve been surprised that I can come up with the right Portuguese word for an object or situation I’m in. That is, as I recall in Dr. Perlmutter’s book, building new synapses which is what you need to do to keep your brain waves healthy.
A meniscus tear about ten years ago made me pay more attention to my crumbling anatomical infrastructure. I was getting to as close to 100% as I was going to get when I started developing arthritis in my right hip. It got so bad that my brain had to ask my leg for permission to lift it. Sometimes the leg said no and I had to use my hands to lift my leg.
Then I met a guy who has to be one of the best physical therapists in the world. This guy helped me build stretching and strength routines that I honestly feel kept me from becoming a cripple. He told me a long time ago that this was for the rest of my life because the older you get the quicker your body regresses. I believe him so I have what is now a habit of a routine that again I believe has helped to keep me upright. The exercises also give me the willpower to fight all the new aches and pains that show up daily.
If you live in New York, his name is Steve Caronia and his office is on 48th & 5th. Bonus if you’re a sport, music or general NYC nerd because he can keep you entertained with his vast but not necessarily expert knowledge on each subject. His grandfather was the general manager for Angel-EMI Records back in the day, so he gets that pretty impressive music nerdiness by osmosis. What really makes him good is he’s also a PT nerd who remembers every patient and who says he can’t help but diagnose everybody he sees on the street not walking correctly.
I have several limping co-workers with bad knees or hips that I’ve told about Steve. Two of these Black men, the last time I saw them were still limping. The other one died. Me, I wanna live and walk.
About five years ago I was told I was approaching pre-Diabetes numbers. Pardon my ignorance but that is when I found out that the kind of Diabetes that many Black men are diagnosed with was preventable. I was astounded. My doctor was surprised I didn’t know that. I upped my exercise regimen, which really isn’t much. I also began to only eat badly only on the weekends. Five years on and I’ve never had that problem again.
However, just a few weeks ago I was told my cholesterol numbers are starting to creep up. In fact, the doctor told me that if a cardiologist saw my numbers they would probably start me on some kind of medication. Other than supplements and Flomax, I don’t want to start any drug regimen. Instead, I am going to a dietician and so much for eating what I want on weekends.
Before I started though I went to New York to have the best French toast breakfast at the Union Square Café, lunch at my favorite Chicago beef sandwich place outside Chicago at Emmet’s on MacDougal Street in the Village, and dinner at Pomodoro’s on the Upper West Side, one of the best Italian restaurants in the city.
Just my luck, while in New York I slept on a horrible mattress. The resultant back and hip pain made me feel like years of stretching and feeling better had regressed terribly in one weekend. To live longer is going to take more willpower and more tolerance for those nagging aches and pains that seem to show up more and more on parts of my body that I’d never noticed before.
Of course, I could take all the precautions in the world and have a heart attack or become a gun violence victim tomorrow. How long you live isn’t all about luck or the environment you’ve live in. It’s about the odds and chances you take. The stress, physical and psychological harm I’ve done to my body could also take me out early. It’s not all about luck or the environment you’ve live in but the bets and odds you make and take with your life.
While never a heavy smoker I smoked cigarettes well into my 50’s. Conversely, I quit drinking on my 19th birthday. Does that even my odds? I don’t know. I do know unless you’re the self-destructive type and you’re close to the age when I quit nicotine, if you’re not thinking about how you’re living and going to live in the future than you may not really be living right, right now.
I open up my life as fodder, inspiration, warning and maybe useful advice.
All of my life I’ve used lyrics as guideposts to how to survive. That’s one of the reasons Smokey Robinson and Gil Scott-Heron are the first two people I thank in my book “Bebop Fairy Tales: An Historical Fiction Trilogy on Jazz, Intolerance and Baseball”. I mention that now because Gil has a great line about advice from his song “Under The Hammer.”
“Good advice is sure enough hard to come by. Bad advice surrounds you constantly. Good advice you just can’t put no price on. Bad advice is easy cause it’s free.”
I urge not just Black men but anyone reading this to heed some of this advice and think of how you want the quality of your life when you’re 99.
Another great songwriting philosopher, Van McCoy wrote this line in “To Each His Own” for the group Faith, Hope & Charity. “To each his own, that’s my philosophy. I don’t know what’s right for you and you don’t know what’s right for me.” I suggest you find what’s right for you because you could live to 105.
Some of the best advice on aging I’ve heard comes from a great movie on getting old titled “If You’re Not In The Obit, Eat Breakfast”. The 2017 HBO documentary follows legendary humorist Carl Reiner as he asks other nonagenarians the secret of making it into your tenth decade. Many of the people he asks are still with us including Mel Brooks, Norman Lear and Dick Van Dyke. Others in the very funny movie include the recently departed Betty, White, Kirk Douglas and Tony Bennett.
Essentially, they boil down a longer life to three things; two of which can be very hard to obtain. But the third one could be the most vital and is the easiest to accomplish.
Number one is to have or at least have had the absolute love of your life. That’s really hard. Although I now have that, it was late in life and may have given me the strength to quit smoking. That proof, at least in this instance, that love has scientifically increased the years I have to live.
The second thing is to wake up every day and do whatever the fuck you want to do. While that is also a hard goal to obtain for the majority of people, loving and being passionate about what living you do for a living does count.
The third thing is something simple that we can all do; stretching. Everyone after the age of 50 should develop a gym workout or at the very least a stretching routine that can easily be done at home. While those other two notions listed in the movie cannot scientifically be absolutely proven. It is a stone-cold fact that a body in motion tends to stay that way and staves off all kinds of aches, pains and maladies.
Funny, I’ve known both Johnny Pate and George Freeman for roughly half my life but only about a third of theirs. I submit this document as a celebration of two incredible, inspiring Black elders who know a lot about living life even if they can’t exactly detail how they’ve done it.
Optimism and having a healthy sense of humor has also been linked to better aging. George has both in abundance. I’ve seen it up close.
I’ve known George since the early 80’s. I produced two of his albums “At Long Last George,” and “90 Going On Amazing,” and wrote the liner notes for another, “George Burns.” Believe me it was a laugh a minute with him in completing our tasks.
George eschews genetics when asked about his longevity. Instead, he invokes spirituality as the main factor to living long.
“All I ever wanted to be was thankful that I’m here,” he said “I pray a lot. Aging really got to do with God. Jazz is nothing but love.” jazz is supporting each other. If you can put the ego down, jazz is nothing but love.”
If we refer back to Mr. Reiner’s film, that’s two of the notions right there. George has always gotten up every day to do what he wants and that is to cuddle, crave and care for the love of his life; the bright red guitar he plays.
Other than having a relationship with his brother Von and his nephews Chico and Mark Freeman, I purposely know little of George’s personal life. I don’t know if he’s had true love with a human. However, I’ve known Carolyn Pate almost as long as I’ve had a personal relationship with Johnny.
I’ve known who Johnny was since I was a wee tyke reading record labels in my parents record store. He was named as arranger was on the label of all the Impressions sides, and when I got a bit older on the 45’s by another all-time favorite from the 60’s, the Five Stairsteps. I followed his musical exploits as a record executive, arranger and producer from then on including in the 70’s working on the monumental debut album from Peobo Bryson “Reaching For The Sky,” and working on the tapes that produced duets on the famed posthumous Minnie Riperton album “Love Lives Forever”
I first met Johnny in the early 90’s when he was for kicks broadcasting jazz under a pseudonym on KUNV/Las Vegas. Then through our very close mutual friend, Ramsey Lewis, I was provided with one of the true highlights of my career in that I got to tell Nancy Wilson what to sing. Johnny and I were thrown together to work A&R and provide a list of songs for the album “Meant To Be,” by Nancy and Ramsey. That was really the start of our friendship.
Using the three-pronged scale from the Carl Reiner movie, Johnny is the perfect example. As far as waking up every day and doing what he wants; astonishingly he retired nearly half a century ago. And there’s no question Carolyn is Johnny’s soulmate.
One amazing way he is keeping his mind sharp is he has written at last count over 150 variations on a musical love theme about Carolyn titled “How Did I Get So Lucky”. I’ve heard a lot of them and in them you can hear that his creativity is still very sharp. Plus, his acumen for complicated jigsaw puzzles is simply astounding. Both are notions that are endorsed in Dr. Perlmutter’s book on aging.
Early in this century, by coincidence Johnny and Carolyn moved to Dallas around the same time that my mother did. The reverse migration continued as two sisters and a brother did the same. Another coincidence is that he was born exactly ten years and a day before my mom. So for many years during the holiday season, I would see them both even bringing her to the Pate’s residence a couple of times. Every year he would relay the message “tell her if she keeps going, one day she’ll catch up.” I don’t think any of us thought more than 15 years later the tradition would continue.
As it turns out it’s my mom who is having the big party. She alone planned her 90th birthday party with over a hundred family members coming to Texas from all over the country. Did you know you can hire Uber for unlimited rides to a fixed destination? It’s been amazing watching her do it from afar. The big event is on for the 10th a few days after their birthdays.
My mom reaching 90 is encouraging. On the other hand, my dad died at 44. Aging is so much more than the genetic and environmental roll of the dice. Most importantly I’ve come to realize that after a certain age, it’s mostly about being proactive with your health.
If I could help one person with these words, I am happy for my effort. But really I wrote this for a chance to publicly wish a Happy 100th birthday to Johnny Pate.