Band Of Brothers: Earl and Ernie Cate celebrate 50 years at Little Rock theater

Band Of Brothers: Earl and Ernie Cate celebrate 50 years at Little Rock theater

Sean Clancy

An Arkansas rock ’n’ roll institution returns to Little Rock for a special concert April 30.

The Cate Brothers Band, featuring twin brothers Ernie on keyboards and lead vocals and Earl on guitar, will perform a career-spanning set Saturday during the latest edition of the Central Arkansas Library System’s Arkansas Sounds series at Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.

Alongside the brothers will be longtime bandmates Terry Cagle (drums), John Davies (bass) and Dave Renko (saxophone).

“You can’t really talk about Arkansas music without talking about the Cate Brothers,” says John Miller, CALS entertainment coordinator. “The stuff they have put out is legendary and vital and important. It just flows through them.”

A 50th anniversary show was delayed because of the pandemic, so the Saturday show is a sort of belated celebration of the Cate Brothers’ five decades as a band.

The Cates actually tried to retire around 2006, but instead of hanging up their instruments entirely, they cut back on touring and settled into a more relaxed pace of performances.

“It’s not like we’re playing every week, though here in the spring we have several shows lined up in a row,” says Earl, who was getting ready for a Fort Smith show later that evening with his other band, Earl and Them.

Earl and Ernie were born Dec. 26, 1942, in Fayetteville and grew up in Springdale. (Earl is eight minutes older.) They became immersed in the fertile music scene of Northwest Arkansas, and their first band was called the Del-Reys, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. They did covers of R&B tunes and were influenced by rockabilly wild man Ronnie Hawkins, the Huntsville native whose backing band, The Hawks, featured Phillips County native Levon Helm on drums.

While The Hawks were recruited by Bob Dylan to be his band after he went electric in 1965, Helm returned to Arkansas and began playing with Earl and Ernie. When The Hawks, who later became The Band, got signed to a record deal, the drummer and vocalist rejoined them in Woodstock, N.Y., but not before recommending his teenage nephew, Cagle, to take his spot behind the kit with the Cates.

The brothers developed a sweet hybrid of rock, country, R&B and blues, highlighted by Ernie’s soulful vocals and Earl’s guitar.

“They have their own thing,” Miller says. “There are so many facets to the Cate Brothers, and then there is the weight of their catalog and the nuances that come from playing together for more than 50 years.”

They signed with Asylum Records and released their self-titled debut that year. Produced by guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs, the album contained the track “Union Man,” which spent 20 weeks on the Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 24.

They hit the road to support the record, and even spent a while opening for Queen.

“We were on the same record label, and they were getting ready to release ‘Night at the Opera,’ and our record had just come out,” Cate says. “At first it was kind of shaky, but later on it went well and it helped our record. It put us in the Top 40.”

Over the years they’ve done shows with Fleetwood Mac, the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, Jason Isbell and others. They were also part of the Absolutely Unofficial Blue Jeans Bash at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration along with Dylan, The Band, Stephen Stills, Hawkins and others.

Two more albums followed on Asylum, and they also recorded one for Atlantic. In the ’80s, they played with Helm during his solo career and later joined Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel in a revival of The Band without Robbie Robertson.

The Cate Brothers Band began recording more in the ’90s, releasing several albums on independent labels over the years. In 2020, the brothers were the subject of “Arkansas Rock and Soul Royalty,” a documentary by director Benjamin Meade.

“We didn’t really know anything about what was going to be in it,” Cate says. “He recorded us in Kansas City and in a few other spots and did interviews with people, but we didn’t know what it was until we saw it. It’s pretty cool.”

Copies of the documentary will be on sale at the show, Miller says.

After all this time, performing still brings a joy and rush, Cate says.

“Even though we’ve had the same band members for a long time, the music has evolved in some way into even more of its own thing than it was in the ’70s. The fact that we don’t do it every night makes it fresh for us, and it seems like the songs turn out a little different after all these years.”



Arkansas Sound:

The Cate Brothers Band

WHEN — 8 p.m. April 30

WHERE — Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., Little Rock

COST —$20

INFO — 501-320-5715;

Categories: Cover Story