Elder brother of Tavares group remembered
Ralph Tavares, of the famed singing group Tavares, was quite content avoiding center stage, preferring his more natural fit in the middle of the quintet’s tight and polished vocal harmonies.
“He didn’t have as many leads, but when he did have them, you always knew it was Ralph,’’ younger brother Perry Lee “Tiny” Tavares said of the group’s eldest member.
“What was uppermost important to all of us was his strength in maintaining background harmony and in making sure that everyone else maintained background harmony,’’ Tiny Tavares added. “He was a leader in that respect, because he focused on making sure that the part that he was strong at he brought to the table all the time.’’
That elder voice, a mature mixture of familial tenderness fused with a logistical leadership that was irreplaceable in the band’s early years, took its last breath this past Dec. 8, ending a prolific life of entertaining fans across the globe, intersecting with a 30-year career in local public service as a court officer in New Bedford and Fall River.
Ralph Vierra Tavares died of natural causes two days shy of his 80th birthday. He left a wife, Karen, their two children, son Ralph Jr. and daughter Amber and two other children, Michael and Dionne Pinto of Las Vegas.
The career change from performer to court officer enabled him to be close to his two youngest children, while his charismatic brothers — Pooch, Chubby, Butch and Tiny — kept the music of the historical band alive. A sixth brother, Victor, who sang the band’s first national hit, “Check it Out,” left the group as it was about to launch it impressive run through the soul, rhythm & blues and disco eras.
Ralph Tavares, who returned to performing in recent years following his retirement from public duty, was the first of Tavares brothers to pass away. There was also one other brother and three sisters to complete the family.
“Well, it hasn’t been easy. He was the quintessential big brother, always checking on everybody and making sure everything was all right,’’ said Tiny. “So it makes it hard to even talk about him. It’s been a very difficult blow. We spent a lot of time together these last few years when he came back to the group. On the road we ate together, watched TV together and golfed together. There were always dinners. He worked in the court system and all the judges would always invite Ralph and they’d say, ‘Hey, bring your brother Tiny.’‘’
The Tavares brothers began as a regional phenomenon in the 1960s, then began an ascent to international stardom a decade later, their onstage performance punctuated by an energetic and precise choreography emblematic of the era.
Born into a Cape Verdean family in Providence and eventually settling in New Bedford, the group gained international fame with several No. 1 and numerous Top 10 and Top 25 hits in the pop and R&B charts.
In the genes
They came by that talent honestly. Their dad, Feliciano “Flash” Tavares played guitar and sang, and sister Vickie Vieira was a talented singer who once performed with Chick Corea. Together they played the New England circuit where the Cape Verdeans lived. Flash Tavares died in 2008 while the matriarch, their mother Albina, died back in 1981.
Ralph Jr., now 31 and a father of two young children, said the music was handed down to his father and uncles, who went next level with it.
“My grandfather and my aunt Vickie performed as part of the Creole Sextet and played very traditional music, and it originated in the Fox Point area of Providence,’’ said Ralph Jr. “So the music was always a part of who they were, and my dad and his brothers were always performing from the earliest of ages.’’
Ralph Jr. admitted that he was fortunate in many ways that his father, who had served in the army two decades earlier in Kentucky, made a life-altering decision to leave the band in the early 1980s, because then he could enjoy having a full-time dad.
But he also had only the slightest notion of what his father had already achieved. To Ralph Jr. and Amber, Dad was Dad.
“When I was very little was right when he was coming out of the group,’’ he said. “We grew up in this house and there were gold records on the wall, platinum records, and there was a Grammy award. We grew up with the images and the pictures on the wall of him hanging out with the different musical groups and the managers. Then it was like, ‘Oh, they were a big deal.’ We realized the stories we had are not like every family has.’’
When his dad was in the service at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and gauging local and regional working bands on the precipice of getting recording contracts, he said he knew then Tavares had a real chance to succeed. With the Vietnam War looming, Ralph Sr. was quietly advised not to re-enlist. He instead came back home, rejoined the group and provided that extra bit of business acumen.
Ralph Sr. also left a mark in his third major career move, following the military and entertainment, when he became a court officer in Superior Court in New Bedford in the early 1980s. He retired as deputy chief in the Fall River Justice Center.
“The last case he did was the Aaron Hernandez trial,’’ Ralph Jr. said, referring to the former New England Patriots’ tight end, who was convicted of murder. “I think he was thinking of retiring before that, but Judge Susan Garsh, who was presiding over that one, told my dad, ‘Please, please, stay for this last one,’ and convinced him to stay.’’
Ralph Sr.’s fatherly nature also served others whom he noticed needed an encouraging voice.
“He was the same person in the courts,” said his son. “I remember there were lawyers that were coming up to me at his funeral service and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember being a first-time lawyer and I was nervous and your dad would come in and pull me aside and say, ‘You got this. Don’t be so nervous. You’ll be fine.’ He was always that person lifting people up and pushing them to the forefront.’’
Tiny Tavares said his brother’s solid musical contribution never went unnoticed.
“Harmonically, if you listen to any of our recordings from day one to the current, Ralph’s voice was always very easy to pick out,’’ he said. “Not that he was louder than anyone else. But it was just a very distinguishable sound. When he wasn’t there, he was missed in the mix of harmonics because he was planted in the middle of our harmonies. So if you take that and pull it away you are left with a gap.’’
That gap now has become permanent, leaving everyone affiliated with a void that only time can heal.
“Awful. There’s no other way to say it. We are grieving,’’ said Ralph Jr. “We’re still grieving. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse that everybody knew my dad, but we are constantly getting stories and messages online. It’s a reminder every single day, and especially during the holidays that passed when my dad would love to be here. He’s an ancestor now looking down. We’re still very much going through it.’’