Masters of Louisiana Music: Johnny Adams

In New Orleans, vocalist Johnny Adams—arguably the city’s most prolific recording artist—was referred to as “The Tan Canary,” “The Songbird of the South” and “The Creole Nightingale.” He was absolutely a singer’s singer.

 

BORN: January 5, 1932. New Orleans, Louisiana.

DIED:September 14, 1998. New Orleans, Louisiana.

 

In New Orleans, vocalist Johnny Adams—arguably the city’s most prolific recording artist—was referred to as “The Tan Canary,” “The Songbird of the South” and “The Creole Nightingale.” In Europe, he was once referred to as “soul music’s finest singer.” No matter what you called Adams, he possessed an incomparable voice, capable of ranging from a guttural low C to a soaring high C—as well as every minor, major or augmented 7th in-between. He was absolutely a singer’s singer.

“Johnny Adams is my all-time favorite vocalist,” recalled engineer Cosimo Matassa in 1983, a man who has seen many come and go from the control booth of his studios. “There are plenty of great singers in New Orleans, but most have to choose songs that fit their voice. But Johnny Adams can sing any song and sound great. I would have to say he is possibly the greatest singer of all time.”

Born Lathan John Adams, January 5, 1932, he was raised in the Hollygrove section of New Orleans. Like most Crescent City youths, Adams absorbed the local music heritage. He attended Dunbar primary school, but never went to high school. Instead, Adams took a job hauling sod out of the Barataria marsh, helping to support his family. Church was important in the Adams household, and on Sundays young Lathan used his voice to serve the Lord at the nearby Baptist church.

Adams joined the Soul Revivers in the early 1950s, a popular gospel quartet that appeared at local churches and on gospel programs at the Two Wing Temple. Adams also sang with several other quartets, and for a short time, joined Bessie Griffin & the Soul Consolators.

“I really enjoyed singing gospel,” confided Adams in 1982. “There was this feeling of inner satisfaction that you don’t get from singing R&B. People that come out to hear gospel come out to hear you sing. People that come out to hear R&B, for the most part, are out to party and have a good time—not necessarily to hear me sing.”

In 1959 Adams was living in a rooming house at 3414 South Robertson, where songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie also resided. One evening, LaBostrie, the composer of “Tutti Frutti,” “Rich Woman” and “You Can Have My Husband” was waiting to use the bathroom while Adams was relaxing in the tub, singing “Precious Lord.”

“When he got out, I asked him if he’d sing rock ‘n’ roll,” said LaBostrie in 1984. “He said he couldn’t, because his friends would get mad at him.”

“I’ve always been the type of guy who, when he does something, he does it all the way,” pointed out Adams. “I wasn’t the type of guy who was going to record a blues song and then go out and sing gospel the rest of the time. I didn’t think that was right.”

Eventually Adams consented to singing a few lines of a song LaBostrie was working on. Initially entitled “Oh Why,” the feisty LaBostrie talked Adams into auditioning the song for Ric Records, an up-and-coming New Orleans label she had connections with. Ric’s owner, Joe Ruffino, also heard the promise in Adams voice. Together, the pair convinced Adams to record the song, retitled “I Won’t Cry” and produced by a 19-year-old Mac Rebennack. The searing blues ballad quickly became a regional best-seller. Even today, it’s still a favorite of many New Orleanians.

“Ruffino wasn’t the type of guy who paid you much more than a few dollars to go in the studio,” stated Adams. “But I started getting a lot of calls for work. I took that as a sign of encouragement.”

“I Won’t Cry” became the template for most of Adams’ Ric follow-ups including “Nowhere To Go,” “Closer To You,” “Teach Me to Forget” and the gospel-based Chris Kenner composition, “Life Is A Struggle.” Adams had a handful of local hits, but it wasn’t until 1962, when he waxed the Mac Rebennack tale of backdoor romance, “Losing Battle,” that he reached national R&B charts, checking in at Number 27.

“I was freelancing back then,” said Adams, referring to his work schedule. “I didn’t have a band, I just sang with whoever the club owner could get. Some nights I sang with some awful bands, but it was the only way I could see to get by. I’d get on the Greyhound and play all of these hole-in-the-wall gigs for next to nothing. But I made enough to get by, and I could always go back to those clubs if I needed work.”

 

MOTOWN BOUND

In the fall of 1962, Adams, Smokey Johnson, Joe Jones, Earl King and Chris Kenner traveled to Detroit, where they auditioned for Berry Gordy at Motown. According to Earl King, Gordy was interested in recording Adams, but he received a telegram from Ruffino threatening legal action if he did so. Gordy dropped Adams like a hot potato. The incident haunted Adams for the rest of his days.

Begrudgingly, Adams continued to record for Ric until Ruffino’s untimely death in 1963. Like all New Orleans R&B artists, Adams career stalled once the Beatles became a household word in America. He persevered, cutting singles at Gone/Mercury, Huey Meaux’s Pacemaker label, and Watch, a local label run by Ruffino’s brother-in-law Joe Assunto, and Henry Hildebrand. Some of Adams’ singles only sold a few hundred copies, but as he explained, “It kept my name out there. As long as I had a record out that got played on the radio once in a while or the jukeboxes, I could work off that. When the records stop coming, so does the work.”

Unexpectedly, Adams caught a break in 1968 when he and Wardell Quezergue teamed up to revive “Release Me”—which had earlier been a hit for Esther Phillips and Engelbert Humperdinck. The Watch single, sold by Adams’ brilliant-yet-spontaneous falsetto outbursts, exploded in New Orleans and attracted several national labels interested in leasing it. Eventually, Shelby Singleton’s Nashville-based SSS label purchased the master, and Adams’ contract. “Release Me” climbed to Number 34 on the pop charts, and his subsequent sessions were assigned to Music City.

Johnny Adams and Nashville were an unlikely combination, but one that flourished, particularly when he was teamed with the transplanted Shreveport songwriting team of Margaret Lewis and Myrna Smith. “Reconsider Me” (Number 28) and “I Can’t Be All Bad” (Number 45)—the veritable blueprints for country soul—followed “Release Me” in the pop charts. SSS piggybacked on the success of his singles with a brilliant album, Heart & Soul, which sported a cover picturing Adams standing frozen on the top of a Tennessee mountain freezing on a day where the temperature never got above 20 degrees!

Despite the success of his SSS records, Adams’ life didn’t change all that much.

“I had a few good paydays, and I bought a new car in 1970, but things weren’t all that different,” claimed Adams. “It got to be a hassle out on the road for so long. You’d work on a promise for three nights and the promoter would disappear with the money. That happened to me in Athens, Georgia and I got stranded. Pretty much I stuck with my old routine.”

Adams had a brief sojourn at Atlantic in 1971, cutting two uninspired singles, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, back at SSS, the country soul kept coming. Brilliant singles like “Something Worth Leaving You For,” “I Want to Walk Through This World with You” and “The Tender Side of Me” followed, as did enjoyable uptempo tunes like “I Don’t Worry Myself” and “South Side of Soul Street.” None charted, but many listeners consider this period the apex of Adams’ career. Unfortunately, Singleton pulled the plug on SSS in 1974, leaving Adams without a label.

Adams waited for an offer from a national label, but none were forthcoming, especially once disco ruled the nation’s airwaves. With the demand for personal appearances steadily declining, Adams connected with Senator Jones, a taciturn New Orleans record man who ran a succession of small local labels. Jones had a deal with Marshall Sehorn where in exchange for licensing rights and a small piece of Adams’ records, he got free studio time when Sea-Saint Studio wasn’t booked. After not showing up for his initial session, Adams finally parked his ’73 Buick Wildcat in January of 1976 in front of the Gentilly studio and walked inside.

Adams’ session was stiff and uninspired, as he ran through a handful of soul standards. Ever the entrepreneur and hustler though, Jones pressed “Stand By Me” and “Baby I Love You” and released it on the J.B.’s label. The single attracted some decent local action, and Sehorn gathered the remaining covers from the session and leased them to the Los Angeles-based Chelsea label. The label went bust soon thereafter and the Stand By Me LP wound up in the cutout bins.

 

GOING COUNTRY

By 1978, Jones had figured out the key to Adams previous success and began feeding him a diet of tried-and-true country tunes. Adams’ treatment of Conway Twitty’s “After All the Good Is Gone” sold 50,000 singles on the Gulf Coast on Jones’ Hep’ Me label. Ariola, a Los Angeles label, took notice and leased the single, as well as funding an entire album. The resulting After All the Good Was Gone LP was spectacular, and yielded another great county/soul single, “Selfish.” Inexplicably, after selling Adams’ great R&B material, Ariola requested that Adams cut disco tracks. “Trash” was how Adams referred to the resulting recordings. Ariola agreed, dropping Adams’ contract. Jones didn’t hesitate releasing what Ariola wasn’t interested in and got lucky. The discofied version of “Spanish Harlem” made a deep impression in New Orleans and became a staple of Adams’ live performances.

In 1980 Adams followed with the telling “Love Me Now,” which was again sold by his amazing falsetto. After being worn out by every black jukebox and AM radio station in New Orleans, it was leased by the short-lived Paid label in Nashville, narrowly missed the national charts despite racking up over 100,000 in sales. “Hell Yes I Cheated,” issued on Hep’ Me, followed, which only underlined Adams’ country/soulfulness and was another huge local hit. Still, Adams’ life didn’t change much. He lived in a cramped two-bedroom Iberville Projects apartment with his mother and continued appearing at local clubs like Prout’s, Dorothy’s Medallion, the Peppermint, Perkins’ Lounge and Club 77. Occasionally, he deviated his routine by traveling to Donaldsonville, McComb or Raceland for weekend booking, but not often.

Once the singles market crashed, Jones pumped out several Johnny Adams LPs including The Many Sides of Johnny Adams and Christmas In New Orleans With Johnny Adams, which were for the most part quite pleasant. Unfortunately, Jones also released The Country Side of Johnny Adams, featuring Adams singing over tracks Fed-Exed from Nashville. Adams followed with the agreeable single, “I Live My Whole Life At Night,” but since New Orleans radio was suddenly dominated by out-of-town owners, airplay wasn’t forthcoming. Jones and Adams tried once more with “The Best of Luck To You,” one side of a single financed by a local jukebox company, issued on Gamma. Again nothing happened and Adams’ recording career was at a dead-end. Upon my recommendation, in 1984, Adams signed up with the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Rounder label.

 

ROUNDER RECORDS

Their subsequent association led to nine meticulous Scott Billington-produced albums, including The Verdict, One Foot In the Blues and From the Heart. The Rounder releases helped transform Adams from a New Orleans neighborhood artist, to one who could procure bookings in Europe, Asia and Canada, as well as remote outposts of the USA. By the early 1990s, Adams had once again remarried and moved to a quiet neighborhood in Baton Rouge.

In 1997, Adams, who didn’t have health insurance, was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. Several benefits were held for him and the disease was temporally held in check. Rounder went to the well once more, recording A Man Of My Word in the spring of 1998. The CD pictured a withered but proud Adams on the cover, sadly fighting another losing battle. Shortly after, the cancer returned like a hurricane. My good friend Johnny Adams fought a noble battle, but on September 14, 1998, the Tan Canary’s voice was silenced forever. He left a wife, Judy, and several children.

 

SELECTED CDs

One Foot In the Blues (Rounder)

From the Heart (Rounder)

I Won’t Cry (Rounder) a reissue of the Ric sessions.

The Best of New Orleans R&B: Volume 1 (Mardi Gras Records) a reissue of several Senator Jones sessions.

SELECTED BOOK

I Hear You Knockin’ by Jeff Hannusch (Swallow Publications)