Born Laten John Adams on January 5, 1932 and raised in the Hollygrove section of uptown New Orleans, Johnny Adams started singing with neighborhood gospel quartets in the late 19405. A neighbor, songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie (“Tutti Frutti,””Rich Woman,” “Don’t Mess With My Man”), heard him singing around the house and convinced him to record one of her secular compositions, “Oh Why,” which was quickly produced by an 18-year-old Mac Rebennack for Ric Records in 1959. Retitled “I Won’t Cry,” Johnny’s first 45 was an immediate local and regional hit and launched a recording and performing career which has kept him working for the past 34 years.
Dubbed “The Tan Canary” by deejay Tex Stevens, Johnny has long been regarded by peers and devotees alike as one of the finest singers the city has ever produced (“I would have to say that Johnny Adams is one of the greatest singers of all time,” Cosimo Matassa has said). His vast personal catalog of recordings released by Ric, Ron, Watch, Pacemaker, Smash, Scram; SSS Internatidnal, Chelsea, Atlantic, JB’s Records, Hep’Me; Ariola, Paid, and-since 1983–Rounder Records reveals his utter mastery of the blues, R&B, gospel, country &: western, pop, soul and jazz idioms.
After many years of performing in tiny neighborhood joints, local nightspots like Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge and Mason’s World, and a succession of small-town clubs on the “Sugarcane Circuit,” Johnny’s association with Rounder Records has led him to featured spots in college bars, nightclubs and festivals throughout America and around the world. New Orleans audiences now consider themselves fortunate to have the opportunity to see and hear the Tan Canary locally between his virtually unending road trips, which are as likely to find him in England, Europe and Japan as in Boston, New York, San Francisco or Detroit.
Since signing with Rounder in 1983 and beginning an extremely fruitful association with producer Scott Billington, Johnny has cut five artistically satisfying but commercially unrewarded sets of soulful rhythm & blues. The first three-From The Heart, After Dark, and Room With a View of the Blues-feature his working band of the early ’80s, a tight, pulsating unit led by guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington and augmented in the studio by extra horns and keyboards. An anthology of his great 1959-63 singles for Ric and Ron titled I Won’t Cry came next, followed by two tasty studio projects devoted to the works of composers Percy Mayfield (Walking on a Tightrope) and Doc Pomus (The Real Me). While these Rounder CDs have netted Johnny a new national and international audience for his performances and recordings, consistent radio airplay has regrettably not been forthcoming-due mainly to the overwhelming lack of contemporary media interest in the roots rhythm &:blues idiom at which Johnny excels. Good Morning Heartache, masterfully arranged, performed and produced-and clearly aimed at jazz radio formats-should make a big difference for the 61-year-old vocalist.
This fine program of jazz standards, including evergreens like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” lesser-covered tunes like “Teach Me Tonight,” “I Just Found Out About Love,” and Bobby Charles’ “The Jealous Kind,” plus a great new Dan Penn composition, “Back To Normal,” is dressed up in an array of splendid Wardell Querzergue arrangements and delivered by an all-star cast of New Orleans jazz players dubbed the Johnny Adams Little Big Band. Four quartet sides-“But Not For Me,” “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You,” the Etta Jones classic “Don’t Go To Strangers,” and the title track-showcase tenorman Ralph Johnson and the stellar Torkanowsky-Singleton-Vidacovich rhythm section.
I met with Johnny Adams “in mid-September at the singer’s home in Baton Rouge, where he had a brief week off between returning from London and flying off to Japan for the Kobe Festival. As I arrived, Johnny was relaxing in the garage studio he uses as his headquarters behind the modest bungalow he shares with his wife Judy and their 15-month-old daughter, Alitalia, named after the Italian airline that flies him overseas.
LPs, tapes and CDs spill over and around an elaborate Japanese boom-box, other play-back equipment, and Johnny’s beloved guitar amplifier, in front of which he will sit for hours and strum along on his guitar to sides by Jack McDuff, Gene Ammons, Houston Person and other soul-jazz greats. Several bags of golf clubs are’ stuffed against the walls, attesting to his other principal avocation, and two recent-vintage Cadillacs sit outside in the driveway.
Alitalia is busy posing, with her daddy and by herself, for OffBeat photographer Jim Fairchild, showing off the winning style which has served her so well in the baby contests she seems to have dominated in her brief lifetime. Inside the house Judy proudly points out her daughter’s several trophies before Johnny and I retire to the garage with our soft drinks and cigarettes to talk about Good Morning Heartache, at once the singer’s first jazz album, and the culmination of his brilliant recording career.
Johnny, I’m going to drag you all the way back 10 the early days of your career. Didn’t you start out singing in gospel groups around New Orleans?
Okay, let’s start at the beginning. 1 began recording in 1959; before that I was doing local quartets and stuff like that–did that for about ten years.
I understand you worked with Bessie Griffin at one point.
Yeah–we had the Consolators at the time she had come in off the road and she decided to stay home for a little while, so we all joined together. She hung out with us and actually made things a little better for us, you know. But before that it was The Spirituals of Kenner, the Spirituals of New Orleans, the Consolators one time and then The Soul Revivers and then the Consolators again and back to The Soul Revivers.
Were you based out of anyone particular church during this time?
Not really, no. I used to be a member of the Goodwill Baptist Church–the Rev. Delores Gaines was the pastor–it was on Clara and Willow. So during this time we started a group called Spirituals of New Orleans, and the last group I was singing with was The Soul Revivers.
During that time I used to live in the same apartment complex with Dorothy LaBostrie, Uptown on South Robertson. She kept asking me about doing a song for her, and so I finally got to the place where I decided to try this out of curiosity. I made up my mind to do it, and after making up my mind we got together with Joe Ruffino and we recorded the next week after she “I Won’t Cry” and “Who You Are” was a good record. We made it a hit in New Orleans, and then gradually it took off in places like Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia. But you know how things were during that time: it was so hard-hard as hell to get something played, you know.
I know Mac Rebennack produced your first records for Ric, and wrote a lot of those tunes as well. How did you enjoy working with Mac back then? He was pretty young at the time, wasn’t he?
Yeah, but even then he had more soul than even now, and he got a whole lot now. He was playing more guitar then than he was piano-and you know he’s playing plenty of guitar now. But sure, I liked it, same then as now. He had some great songs, man. We did a song, “The Promise,” and one song he had called “Operator”–that was great! [Johnny sings:] “Operator, Operator, if you look like you sound / All you got to do is come on down.”
Then we had “Nowhere To Go,” but that wasn’t none of his song. “Life Is Just A Struggle,” that was a great song [written by Chris Kenner]. “Teach Me To Forget,” we had “Tra LaLa”–I think that was Mac’s song. “Show Down,” that was Mac’s song, yeah because that was the one he wanted to sound like “Losing Battle.”
Being from Detroit myself, I’ve always been curious about the trip you made to audition for Motown Records during the Ric period. What was that all about?
During that time we journeyed on up to Detroit to try to get something worked out–it was something like an audition or something that Joe Ruffino had set up with Mickey Stevenson, who was doing all this kind of business at the time for Berry Gordy. It was me, Earl King, and Chris Kenner, Joe Jones, Smokey Johnson, George French–it was all of us at the time on Ric. Quite frankly, I think if I could have gotten my pan together, they probably would have taken everybody else–you know how that goes. But they were definitely interested in signing me to Motown.
As it turned out, we drove up there all the way to Detroit for nothing. We thought something could come of it..but all of a sudden we got to go back to New Orleans. I don’t know what the discrepancy was about, but it had something to do with Joe Ruffino sending Gordy a telegram saying that he had me under contract to Ric. Well, they didn’t want to be bothered with anybody as long as he was in it.
I just know we spent three days up there doing nothing–you know, just hanging around. I’m glad it wasn’t cold. We sat around this little quaint studio they had, you know, and then went over to this large place they used to overdub. I think Chris was doing a couple of gigs around there, and he went over to this hall, wherever it was, to rehearse, and it produced a huge sound–a big old building with a mile-high ceiling. It was real nice.
That must have been the old Graystone Ballroom after Berry bought it for Motown.
Right, the Graystone. So after that I became disinterested–I knew then that was the end of any type of association with any other company where Ric was concerned. Bad news travels faster than good news, you know, and I’m almost sure that other compa-
nies heard about what happened and why. So I never gave another company a second thought.
When was this? Around 1962?
Around the time I think “Losing Battle” was out. Joe Ruffino passed around a year after that, and after his passing we were handed on down to Joe Assunto at The One Stop–he and Henry Hildebrand had the Watch label going on then, with Professor Longhair, Raymond Lewis, me and Earl King, Wardell Querzergue, on the Watch label.
Where would you be working at that time? Who did you have working these gigs with you?
I was doing my little gigs, you know, we was working at Mason’s World over on Claiborne at the time. I was working with Red Tyler, June Gardner and Chuck Badie, [Stackman] Callier sometimes, and maybe Ed Frank. We was on the Strip, man. We had a ball on that strip, but in the meantime I was working at the One Stop record shop. I was doing a few little gigs on the strength of “I Won’t Cry” and “Release Me”-yeah, you know, in the country: Houma and Hammond, little places like that-but I would always get up in the morning and go to the One Stop.
We had a light-weight piano in the back of the store, you know-Fess would go to the back of the store and woodshed with himself, Raymond Lewis would come by once in a while, Earl King and myself. This is where all the fun was. I would tell Mason or June [Gardner] we got a couple of gigs [out of town] and hold my spot-I didn’t want to give that l,lP because that was for whatever I needed money for, you know. I never needed a world of money to get over-I think I had two automobiles that I paid notes on during that time, and my rent and lights and gas money is all I had to deal with. I worked at the One Stop for a long time, about four or five years almost, leading up into 1969.
What kind of gigs would you be working outside of New Orleans and the immediate region when your records would be hitting?
The biggest gig I had on “Reconsider” was Virginia Beach and the surrounding area-Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Jersey. I played the Apollo Theatre in New York City from time to time. One night I went over to Moss Point [New Jersey] and, man, they had a couple of white people there-I could have sworn that was a white man. They stayed through the first show, you know.
But I was doing a lot of work during that time with all of those records. Percy Stovall was doing our bookings, and Percy was the kind of promoter that didn’t believe you had to have a hot record out-he believed in a man’s ability to do a good show. You might draw or you might not, but he didn’t sell it like that. If he had somebody that was hot, then he could make a little money. That’s the kind of man he was–he would always dig in for all the cats: me, Irma [Thomas] and Earl [King], you know, he always just did his job as a promoter, as far as I was concerned. Even during that disco era, man, what I was doing was still going on-Percy was still selling it. He was a good promoter. I used to rely on him a hell of a lot.
Didn’t Eddie Bo produce some of those sides for Ric too?
Eddie did some things with me during that time after a while: Ed did some recording with me, you know, some playing. I think somewhere along in there I did something with Eddie for AI Scramuzza [on Scram Records]. In fact, we went to New York with a Scram record, yeah-“Going To The City,” I think it was-and we tried to lease that to Roulette, but they didn’t grab it, so I don’t know. I even did some songs with Huey Meaux up in Houston-I did “Let Them Talk” and a,bunch of songs he never released. I did six sides with Huey, but he never released the songs–I don’t know why.
During the Watch era we leased out “Release Me” to Shelby Singleton in Nashville [SSS International Records]. And in Nashville, after “Release Me” I did-I don’t know how many songs I did after “Reconsider Me.” We did “Reconsider” in 1969, then we did “I Won’t Cry” over again.
When I was with Shelby [Singleton], they had a nice little distribution going on, but I think I was in New York at the time at the peak of “Reconsider Me,” I think I was down in the Garment District at the time trying to find some clothes, they all looked like, you know-they were not casual clothes, they were too sophisticated for what I wanted. But even when I decided I wanted to get some of those, a lady he had out there taking care of business for him called and said, ‘I got bad news. I don’t know If he declared bankruptcy or whatever, but everything just became defunct. So I went on back to Nashville from New York, and he told me he was going to slow down for a little while to see what’s happening-I don’t know what kind of excuse he gave me. So then I came on back home and went with Eddie Bo and Scramuzzo or whatever during that time.
Didn’t you cut some things for Atlantic somewhere in there?
We did some great songs for Atlantic. I did “You Got A Friend,” and what I heard of that after doing it by myself, after listening to it, It turned out better than the one Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway had. Atlantic put out a couple of singles which sounded pretty good-“I Wish It Would Rain” was one of them. So I said the hell with It, I want to get with somebody who ain’t got no prestige, no nothing, but could get my records out and get them played somewhere, and that’s the way I ended up recording for Senator Jones on JB’s Records and then Hep’Me. I think I started off doing “Stand By Me” and a few other songs. I went on with Senator around 1977, and I was with him for five years. I did so many single records with Senator, and we was putting out albums like every three months or so.
The reason why I went with Senator-see, it wasn’t my intention to stop singing or recording after all this went down in Nashville, and I knew that after we did the records Senator had a way of somehow getting them played where nobody else could. Before you know it, he would get a record on the radio. But Senator and I just had a verbal thing. Marshall [Sehorn] was his backbone, because he would back him up with that studio time [at SeaSalntStudios], and so was the guy who did the pressing-Senator had a good thing going with him to get the records I pressed and released.
I was always sort of amazed how he could do this, you know, keep It going. That’s what made me stay with him as long as I did. At least someone would get the record out and get it played. We got recorded all the time, and it didn’t take no six months to get the record released. Sometimes I would ask him where he was going, and he would say, “I’m going to the radio station.” He would go down there like he was paying a million dollars to have this done-no loud talking, just an understanding that they had based on a long-term thing.
What musicians were you using on the Hep’Me records?
You were liable to get different guys-sometimes we would have Raymond jones, sometimes Sam Henry, then Isaac Bolden sometimes. He would arrange a couple of songs. We had Wilbert Arnold, I think he was Irma Thomas’s drummer at the time-he would play, and then Walter Washington would play with his band sometimes. Sam Henry would play, Raymond jones would play, you know, as far as piano players anyway. Steve Hughes would play regular-he plays with Toussaint sometimes now.
How long have you been knowing Wolfman? He told me you were like his musical father since he was about 16 years old.
I been working with the Wolfman for over 30 years. I kind of started him out with a gig at the Dew Drop Inn way back around 1960. Then Walter was playing With a gospel group out of Chicago called the Windy City Tornadoes, and when he left there he went out with Lee Dorsey. After he came back from Lee Dorsey, we got together and played together on quite a bit of things.
Walter could always play-he would never need a new guitar to be able to do his thing. It was like a man playing golf-some guys could hit with a broom stick. If you took a cardboard and put some strings on it, Walter could play that! Yeah, he’s just always been my favorite guitar player. Walter had a way with me that I could sing the way I wanted to, you know, not the way I had to. Few mistakes were ever made.
Wolfman played with me until he got his band together and started doing things on his own-which was great as far as I was concerned. Because it was hard-sometimes guys would say, “I don’t want johnny, I want Walter” or “I don’t want Walter, I want Johnny.” It didn’t become a problem but it was leading to that, so we just decided to go on our separate ways, and for him I’m glad it worked out.
Musically, let’s see, who else played? David Barrard played bass for me sometimes. Senator would always get a lot of great players on the sessions. I don’t think we ever recorded too many sides without eight or nine pieces. This is the thing I liked too, because we always had our own big band sound.
How did you hook up with Rounder Records?
During the last year of the five years with Senator, Scott [Billington, Rounder Records producer) used to come by once in a while. He’d be here seeking out different artists, and he asked me a couple of times about doing something with Rounder. So finally, things were not going too good with Senator-it wasn’t bad though; actually It wasn’t any worse than it is now-but I just started with Rounder as someone who could help me promote the records a little more thoroughly than we were getting it done. So it was in 1983 that I signed with Rounder, and since ’83 I’ve been doing a whole lot due to the association with Rounder. Plus I like the sound that Rounder produces.
How do you work with Scott Billington? Do you bring in the tunes, or does he pick than out for you to do?
No, he picks them out. He’ll ask me about certain songs, and If I don’t like it I don’t do it. If it’s a song that I’ve heard somewhere and I like it, I’ll go on and try to do it, and If It’s something that I like and he don’t like, I’ll say, “well, that’s it, that ain’t going to work.” I think I compromised on a couple of songs with Scott where I went on and did them even though they wasn’t the kind of thing I liked to do, but I just couldn’t put into them what I felt.
My own favorite out of the Rounder sides is the one you cut using all Percy Mayfield tunes.
Yeah, that was mine too. Walking on a Tightrope, man, that was a great record to do. All the songs were good because they are worldly songs, something he would know about songs, you just sit and look around songs that pertain to the real thing. I think I was singing “My Heart Is Hanging Heavy” at this one gig in London last week, and this guy came up and was telling me something about how he could feel my pain. That’s what he said: “I don’t know if you are suffering or what, but that’s the way you came across.” I had to explain to him that it wasn’t anything physical about me or a malady I had where the song is concerned-it’s just that if you are singing a song that a great songwriter has written, you put your heart into it, and that’s why I recorded it in the first place. But he was just determined to tell me that this is the way I was feeling. I said no, I wasn’t feeling that way, I was just trying to do the songs justice.
Cousin Joe was like that too-he sings those funny songs now and then, but most of his things had to do with what was happening in the world today. I guess the reason why I didn’t do some of Cousin Joe’s songs is that they’re hard to find, but I used to love that man. He would always tell me, “you are the greatest singer since the sewing machine.” That used to kill me. I used to like that chicken song we used to sing, and “I wouldn’t give a blind pig an acorn / I wouldn’t give a crippled crab a crutch.”
With guys like that you couldn’t help but do the artist and the lyrics justice, you know, because that’s the way they were written. The way I record now, I like to come as close as I can to doing a good job with the lyrics. You don’t have to get up there and try to outdo the original singer, because you can’t-you just do it your own way.
You followed up the Percy Mayfield album with a whole album of Doc Pomus songs, The Real Me.
You know, before Doc passed I had made up my mind-instead of doing one or two songs on the album while you’re the artist, why not do a whole album of songs by the same composer? Between Doc and Mac [Rebennack] we had some good songs together-“The Real Me” is a very good song, but my favorite song is “One More Time.” I love, that song. And “A World I Never Made”–oh man, that was a great song.
You know, sometimes, man, you sing either one of those songs and look at the expressions on people’s faces and I guess they try to imagine the man’s supposed to be having the blues to sin a song like that-so soulful, so meaningful and so emotional, like I was doing up there [in London] last week-you stand up there and look at people in the audience and you can hear their cigarette ashes hit the floor. It makes you feel good sometimes, you know?
We played London last Tuesday, a place called the One Hundred Club, and Earl [King] was over there too. I was leaving Friday and he was coming in Saturday morning, so I missed him. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen Earl since we did Tipitina’s three or four months ago. Then I met this guy, Sherman Robinson, from Lafayette-we played on the same gig Thursday night, and that’s the only way I found out that Rockin’ Dopsie had passed. He was a good friend. I still have to caIl his wife and caIl David, his boy, the one that plays the washboard and the drums.
Let’s talk about your new record, Good Morning Heartache, with the “Johnny Adams Little Big Band.”
Yeah, we had all the greats there-we had Clyde Kerr, Jamil Sharif, Kidd jordan, Tony Dagradi-we had all of them that time. Wardell [Querzergue] did a great job on arranging all of the tunes except four, where we had a quartet with Ralph johnson on tenor sax. [Pianist David] Torkanowsky arranged the quartet tunes, and on the rest of them Wardell did the arranging and the horns and some of the rhythm.
There’s quite a bit of fuss being made by the record company about Good Morning Heartache being a jazz album. Does this represent a different approach for you?
WeII, all the albums I’ve recorded with Rounder always get played on the jazz stations, because I usually have one or two pieces on the album which sound like jazz one way or another. But we’ve had in mind to do a fuIl-scale jazz project for a long time, you know. I always thought it might be too late to put out an album of jazz tunes, but it’s some pretty good old standards that Scott came up with, and I love the way they came out.
You do a great version of “I Just Found Out About Love”-is that an old favorite of yours?
I had never heard that song before, but a partner of mine in Denver, James Van Buren, I found out that he sings the song every night. I never heard the song before I got it from Dinah Washington, but I really like the groove. [Singing:] “I just found out about love and I like it, yes I like it.” I always like the way she projects on all of her songs.
Scott Billington points out in the liner notes that you usually cut your vocal tracks along with the band and then go back and overdub them, sometimes several times, until you have several versions of the vocal that are equally acceptable.
I suppose sometimes I could tell the guys what to play, but it’s never until the record is finished that I find something else I want to put in it. What I’m saying is there are some flat notes, some true ones, and sometimes there aren’t as many true ones as there are flat ones, so I got to go over this for my own satisfaction. See, this is what I’m saying: the guys did their part, now I got to do mine, so I don’t want to mess up their thing-that’s what I’m talking about here.
So far we’ve had pretty good luck with everybody being ready at the right time. One thing I always say is, whatever musicians you get, just make sure they’re able to play when you set time to record. If we all have to go through the same changes ten times, let me be the one to have to go over my part-not yours and mine. I insist on that-let me be the only one to have to go over my part, I don’t care how many times, because if you make a mistake I’m going to have to sing around what you are playing. Maybe we can all make mistakes, but they cannot be erased if it’s on your part-if you are making the mistake, you can’t erase that.
The feeling of the whole song only comes out if the instrumental track is right. That’s the only way I can feel the song properly. Whatever man is playing whatever part has to have it right so we can put it all together.
If they got a bad guitar part or a bad horn part that can’t be erased, I find myself singing around whatever they’re playing-I don’t know if I’m trying to cover that up or go between it, you know, it’s hard to do.
I’m always trying to get my own part just right, and I don’t care how many times I have to cut it over, I’ve got to hear it the way I want to hear it. It’s like that song I did with Harry Connick, “Lazy Bones.” Man, we did the song twice with him playing on the organ and me beating on a stool, and I asked Harry four times, “Are you sure you’re satisfied? It’s all right with you?” “Yeah: he would say. “You sure that’s it? You don’t want to do it again?” “No!”Which it did sound good, but I just wanted to know if he was satisfied. I was satisfied-that’s why I kept asking him, because it sounded good to me. For me not to have known a song and to have got over so well with it on two takes–and he took the second one..I thought he was going to play the piano, but he was a good organ player too-yeah, a very good organ player.
James Booker gave him a good education.
Oh yeah, and he really learned. I guess he really appreciates that, too. Anyway, we made that recording in the same place where I did this song called “Chewing The Fat” with Wynton Marsalis, for this movie Tune In Tommorow. I was trying to get that boy over by that record shop in London where I got those tapes to know who I was–I forgot to tell him he could have checked out those records with Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis.
You know, it’s really difficult to have to keep working so hard and traveling all the time. I can see going through with this for another five or six years if I can, but it’s just so much you can do after a certain time.
Sometimes I just want to sit in this garage plucking on this damn guitar or wiping off one of those cars back there or playing golf. I’d like to be able to spend more time with this little girl of mine (his daughter Alitalta, now 15 months old) and play my golf and things.
You play a lot of golf?
Yes, yes. This is what I enjoy, and sometimes when I have to go out around the world to play gigs it’s the same time when all the tournaments are being played, so have to miss the tournaments when I’d rather be playing golf. I hate to miss that tournament, but I got work to do.
Sometimes I get to play some golf where I’m working at, but it’s not always to play because it gets cold-places like London and places like that where it’s cold-every time you get ready to go play, you got to have a jacket or sweater.
So you’re able to work this in with your performing Schedule?
Well, lately, yeah. Sometimes I try to if stipulate a few games if I can. I had the opportunity to play while I was in London the other week, but the thing is using somebody else’s clubs. In this case this guy had some brand new clubs that felt pretty good, but it was raining two days before that and it was raining the day we decided to play.
Mac and I had a little tour going where we went over to Ireland and the disc jockey over there was a great golfer too, you know, and we had set up a game to play at Mount something. But the wind came up and it started raining, it was cold, so that was the only time I got a chance to play in Ireland.
I keep telling myself that when the time comes when I can’t enjoy what I’m doing, I’ll stop. Because I don’t want to be out here, 75 or 80 years old, you know, still trying to get somebody to feel something that you don’t feel anymore. Lots of guys just go until they can’t go anymore, but people remember me from when I sang with a lot of inner soul and feeling and spirit.
I say give me my flowers now, because I don’t want to go on with this after it stops happening for me.