Ray Tate, musician who ran Old Town School of Folk Music and taught John Prine guitar, dies at 86

By Chicago 7 Min Read

Ray Tate wasn’t much for executive perks — when he ran the Old Town School of Folk Music in the 1960s and 1970s, his office was a table in the lobby and meetings were regularly punctuated with the picking of a tune or two on guitar.

Before he took the reins, Mr. Tate taught guitar lessons at the fabled nonprofit North Side music institution.

“The spirit of the Old Town School was bringing music to people who had never played before, and Ray was at the center of that,” said Michael Miles, a teacher at the school.

“The Old Town School is much bigger now, the bathrooms are cleaner and there’s corporate sponsorship, but the main thing that’s never changed is you could have a cabdriver sitting next to a brain surgeon trying to figure out how to play ‘Kumbaya’ and they become friends, and Ray’s personality was a key part of that. He was a very warm, friendly guy,” said Ed Holstein, another teacher at the school.

Mr. Tate died Oct. 8 from natural causes. He was 86.

Mr. Tate did not just teach and run the school; he was also a prolific musician.

He accompanied other musicians on stage, performed as a studio musician, created jingles for radio and television ads and established Project Upbeat, a program for city kids at the Old Town School that garnered a letter of support from then President Richard Nixon. He also composed, arranged and produced more than 25 film scores and television themes. 


Ray Tate


Mr. Tate was born Jan. 8, 1937, to Vivian Beebe Tate and Raymond S. Tate Sr. His father worked for a meatpacking company and his mother was a hospital clerk.

He grew up near 89th Street and Stony Island Avenue and received his first guitar for Christmas at age 10. He took a few lessons and spent countless hours playing along with records.

He began teaching at Old Town School shortly after it opened in 1957, when it was located on North Avenue in Old Town. He became head of faculty in 1965 and served as executive director from 1971 to 1982. The school moved to Armitage Avenue in 1968 and later opened a location on Lincoln Avenue.

One of his students was a young suburban mailman named John Prine, who learned finger picking from Mr. Tate.

Mr. Tate co-owned the Fifth Peg, a bar and music venue across the street from the Old Town School’s Armitage Avenue location. Students took advantage of its open mic night, and on one such occasion in 1969, Mr. Tate was in the room when Prine, then 24, decided to take the stage and play a few songs he’d written.

“He sang ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Paradise’ and ‘Hello In There’ and all the jaws in the room dropped to the floor, including Ray’s,” said Chris Farrell, a musician, former Old Town School teacher, and pal who heard Mr. Tate recall the tale.

Prine, whose musical career took off after that, may have been the best example, but Mr. Tate helped thousands of students reach their goals — whether it was becoming a professional, making music on the living room couch with friends, or playing alone after a day of work.

“It was a special time back then. There was a folk scene in Chicago, and there were no iPhones, nothing to do except go out and find a place you can feel comfortable in and have a few beers,” Holstein said.

Prine and fellow musicians Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc, all of whom studied at the Old Town School, were at the center of the scene — and everyone was friends with Mr. Tate.

In 1975 Mr. Tate cooked a Virginia ham before performing at Somebody Else’s Troubles in Lincoln Park for “Cook and Sing Night,” in which the featured artist cooked dinner for everyone, recalled Holstein. Prine played, too, that year, but wasn’t much of a cook, so 500 White Castle hamburgers were ordered.

Mr. Tate hired Chicago bluesman Billy Branch as a harmonica instructor in the late ’70s and included Branch in a performance he organized for cable television that also included powerhouse musicians Paul Butterfield, Willie Dixon and Roger McGuinn.

Other musicians he played with were Doc Watson, the Clancy Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, Chet Atkins, Pete Seeger, Jim Post and Ella Jenkins. 

Mr. Tate also composed and arranged “When First Unto This Country” — performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and various artists at Orchestra Hall in 1981.

“He was a musician to his heart, very affable guy, but no-nonsense when it came to music,” said Branch, a longtime friend.

In 1982 Mr. Tate left the Old Town School and he later moved to Texas, where he lived on a ranch, established an arts program for gifted students at a local high school, trained horses and formed a band called the Spirit of Texas that was named the official cowboy music band of Texas by the state legislature, his daughter Gretchen said.

He retired to Virginia in 2011 and joined with local musicians in a band called Swing Project.

Before his death, Mr. Tate, a graduate of Northern Illinois University, was rehearsing to play a concert of music composed by poet Shel Silverstein. Mr. Tate and the late Silverstein were friends and musical collaborators.

Mr. Tate’s first musical love was bluegrass, followed by classical, country, western, jazz, gypsy jazz, blues and folk.

Mr. Tate, who was married four times, is survived by his daughters Gretchen Tate, Angela Jones, Cassandra Worrick, Martha Tate and several grandchildren.

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