Tavares has always held a deservedly special place in New Bedford’s heart, and the unexpected passing of Ralph Tavares this week reminds us of just how special they were.
Not just because the brothers were immensely talented singers who made it to the very top of the pop music world, but more because of the kind of people Ralph, Chubby, Tiny, Pooch and Butch Tavares were — hometown guys who never seemed to forget their roots, even after they made it big.
The New Bedford and Providence Cape Verdean-American communities from which the group emerged loved the area’s own fab five dearly, and that love was returned by them. At the height of their fame, the nationally known R&B, funk and soul artists took time to play an outdoor concert at Buttonwood Park. This was during an era when they were touring with everyone from the Jackson Five to the Bee Gees to Marvin Gaye.
“It was me and my friends who were their groupies,” remembered local activist Jeanne Costa. During the early days of their careers, pals from New Bedford would follow them around New England to see their appearances.
Tavares also performed free of charge at a testimonial tribute to the life of Costa’s father, Cape Verdean-American activist, writer and educator Manuel Costa. It was also at the height of their careers. It was just the way they were.
Costa said she had just seen Ralph at a wedding about a month ago and she is in shock at his passing — just days before his 80th birthday on Dec. 10. He had performed with the group as recently as November.
To know just what a charming and humble guy Ralph Tavares was, watch a hometown interview he did on Paul Santos’ New Bedford cable-access TV show in 2018.
“I’ve just got to say we were gifted,” Ralph told Santos. “God was watching over us, over me especially, during that era.”
Among the memorabilia Ralph brought with him for that appearance was the Grammy that the group won for “More than a Woman.” Many don’t know this, but it was Tavares’ rendition of the classic song that was used in the movie, Saturday Night Fever. The soundtrack won Album of the Year.
Show business, however, is not an easy career, and Ralph’s values shone through at a certain point. The oldest of the five brothers who sang with the act at the height of their fame, he wasn’t afraid to walk away from it all when family responsibilities called.
In the early 1980s, he left the group in order to take care of his daughter and son back home. “You know you’re only as big as your last hit record,” he explained during the Santos interview. “And during the lulls, you know the bills have to be paid, things have to be made, children have to be raised.”
Ralph Tavares had a second successful career as a court officer in the New Bedford District Court for 30 years. And then when he retired, he rejoined the group again after brother Butch suffered a massive stroke. It was a time when Tavares, like many of the 1960s and ’70s groups, hit the road on the oldies tours. But it was a second career then, and the group could name their own times and gigs and not have to be chasing from town to town with the pressure of the early days.
Carleen Cordwell, a close friend of Tiny Tavares, remembered the big family that the brothers came from. Their father, Feliciano “Flash” Tavares, a Cape Verdean immigrant, was seen as the guiding light of the Cape Vedean-American music scene in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. A vocalist and self-taught guitarist, Flash is credited with Americanizing Cape Verdean music and guiding his sons’ early careers.
“They came from a very talented family,” Cordwell said. “We were so proud of them.” To think they had grown up and they became so successful they were surrounded by the likes of The Supremes and the Four Tops, thrilled people in New Bedford, she said.
Ralph Tavares was also a generous and encouraging mentor to a younger generation of local musicians.
Local singer Chops Turner said that Ralph was instrumental in encouraging him to bring his career to the next level. He dedicated a song to him Wednesday night at the New Bedford High School Class of 1965 Reunion, he said.
“The reason I’m singing today is I used to watch Tavares when I was young,” he said. “They inspired me to be the singer I am today.”
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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