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A late music producer’s grandsons found a ‘treasure’ of lost songs in his D.C. basement

The song ‘Joy,’ which they released in time for Christmas, was recorded nearly 50 years ago and had never been heard publicly

The grandsons of late music producer Joe Tate were cleaning out his D.C. basement when they found reels containing decades-old recordings. (The Vault)
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Ron Bankett never expected to hear the song again.

In the early 1970s, he and four other members of the Blendells gathered in a D.C.-area studio and recorded a song called “Joy.”

Bankett was the lead singer, and as he tells it, the man who wrote the song was in love when the lyrics came to him. Bankett laughs when he thinks about how he tried to get more details out of him, even though he didn’t need them for his performance. Knowing it was a love song was enough for him to wrap the words in the right emotions as he sang:

Joy is so hard to find

In a world of this kind

And love is so rare

That sometimes you fear you will lose your mind.

At the time, the Blendells were known in the D.C. music scene. They regularly played gigs throughout the area and released, under the direction of music producer Joe Tate, several hits. While Tate worked with the Blendells, he was also producing music for other artists, including the Soul Searchers when Chuck Brown (the godfather of go-go) was part of the group. Tate produced their second album, “Salt of the Earth.”

“Joe did so much for so many people,” Bankett recalls when we talk on a recent afternoon. “He just believed in us, and he was so creative and so talented. We just had a ball. Not that we made a dime. But we were young and dumb and didn’t care. We were singing, and we were wearing the clothes. We looked like stars, and sometimes we even felt like it.”

Before the band went onstage, they pumped one another up by saying, “Give them Vegas, baby!”

And after shows, when they walked outside, they sometimes found people waiting for their autographs.

For “Joy,” the group and Tate planned to add in some instrumentals before releasing the song to the public. But the industry wasn’t filled with independent labels in the way it is now. It was territorial, and at times dangerous, and Tate had to navigate it carefully. One year of waiting turned into five, and five turned into nearly 50. And at some point during those years, even as he continued to perform solo at places that included Blues Alley, Bankett gave up hope that he’d hear that recording again.

“I just thought it was gone forever,” he says.

Then last year, he got a call from Tate’s son, Hakim Tate. The recording, Tate told him, had been found in his late father’s basement along with other music the public had never heard.

On Tuesday, nearly five decades after it was recorded, “Joy” was finally released. (Here’s where it can be found: How it went from lost to shared in time for Christmas is a story about music, history and family. It’s about a disappearing generation and a new one finishing what was started.

It’s about a really cool find.

Three of Joe Tate’s grandsons, Anzion Tate, Aqeel Tate and Darren Simmons, were helping clean out their late grandfather’s basement in Northeast Washington when they discovered a box of reels.

“What’s this?” Anzion, 30, recalls his 15-year-old cousin Aqeel asking.

Both are in the music industry. Anzion is a member of the go-go band N2L and Aqeel has produced music used by some big name artists. But neither had seen a reel before, so they called their 39-year-old uncle, Hakim. He knew immediately what they found and what it might hold — songs by talented artists that had been recorded decades earlier and never released.

The song “Joy” was recorded nearly 50 years ago and left in a Washington, D.C., basement until three cousins found it. (Video: The Vault)

The family took the reels to Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, one of the only places in the D.C. region with the technology needed to hear what was on them. Once the family heard the recordings, they went in search of answers — about the music and about their family.

Anzion describes the work as a “treasure hunt” that took them back in time and deeper into the life of his grandfather who passed away in 2010. Growing up, his family was filled with people who could sing, dance and perform, he says, and he didn’t grasp the uniqueness of that concentration of talent.

“It’s like if it’s always sunny, if it’s always California,” he says. “Because there was always music around, I couldn’t appreciate what was going on in my house. I couldn’t appreciate I’m living with a musical legend.”

Hakim, who recorded music as a teenager and now works as a D.C. police officer, says his nephews “sparked the fire” to learn more about the family’s history, and he dove into the investigative work. He interviewed relatives and tracked down people connected to the recordings, including Bankett and Matthew Allen, who wrote “Joy.”

From what he learned, he believes his father got pushed out of the music industry by a major record label that ordered DJs not to play his music. Growing up, he never saw his dad working with bands or living off any profits he made from launching artists. “I have no inheritance,” he jokes. The man he saw spent his days playing the saxophone solo.

“He was a heartbroken man, but he still continued to play his songs because that’s was he loved to do,” he says.

To finish Joe Tate’s work, Hakim and his nephews created a family record label called “the Vault.” Through it, they plan to release the recordings they found. “Joy” is just the first.

“Now, it’s not just us keeping the treasure for ourselves,” Anzion says. “It’s sharing it with everybody.”

For “Joy,” they finally added in those instrumentals. They found a violinist, cellist and two horn players and brought them together in a studio to play sheet music Allen had kept all these years. In that studio that day, the past and present collided.

Bankett says he doesn’t understand how the family made the song available for anyone at any time to download.

“When we had a record, we could hold it in our hand,” he says. “He said he’s ‘going to stream it.’ What the heck is that?”

Bankett was in his 20s and living in a house with the Blendells on Capitol Hill when he first sang “Joy.” Now, he is 77 and living in Frederick, Md., with his longtime partner.

He recalls the day he first heard the song again. Hakim visited him and brought the recording.

“I cried the day he came to my house,” he says. “I had not heard this music in all these years. And there were the guys in the background. It was wonderful.”

When he learned that the family planned to release the song, he told them to hurry because he didn’t know how much longer he had to live. He was joking, he says. But he’s also lost enough people that he recognizes the fleetingness of life. Of the original Blendells, Bankett and David Cavanaugh are the only known surviving members. Gone are Raymond Spears, Anthony Mack and Chapman Jones.

When I ask Bankett what he hopes people who hear “Joy” take away from the song, he doesn’t mention the lyrics. His thoughts go to the group’s members.

“That there were five guys that met a man named Joe Tate and that he gave us a taste of what we hoped could have been,” he says. “At least, somebody will know we were here. We were here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that Ron Bankett is the only surviving member of the Blendells. After publication, it was learned that David Cavanaugh also is alive. The column has been corrected.

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