Johnny Adams - Biography

Johnny Adams, known to his fans as the Tan Canary, was a blues and R&B singer from New Orleans who had a touch and go career, only becoming nationally known in his later years. He sang everything — gospel, blues, R&B, pop, soul, country, and standards — and had a multi-octave range that culminated in a chilling and soulful falsetto. He played faux trombone using his chest as a natural resonator and his shows were high-energy affairs, always marked by his searing vocal intensity. Over the years, he influenced several generations of singers from Aaron Neville to rocker Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish.


Adams, the oldest boy in a family of ten, was born in New Orleans in 1932. He dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to sing in a gospel group called the Soul Revivers and also worked with Beside Griffin and her Soul Consolidators. He always sang lead as his voice was so powerful that it dominated any group he was in. His upstairs neighbor, Dorothy Labostrie, heard him singing in the bathtub one morning and pitched him a song she had written, "I Won't Cry.” She’d just had a hit with Little Richard on “Tutti Frutti” and is credited with convincing him to turn to secular music.


"I Won't Cry,” produced by an 18-year-old white piano player named Mac Rebennack (also known as Dr. John), was a local hit and Adams was off and running. The song was cut for Joe Ruffino, head of Ric and Ron Records, but Ruffino held up national distribution of the single and it petered out without getting on the charts. Adams next cut Rebennack’s "A Losing Battle" and it gave him his first national success, hitting the R&B charts in 1962. Motown offered him a deal in 1963, but Ruffino wouldn’t release Adams from his contract. I Won't Cry: From the Vaults Of Ric & Ron Records 1959-1963 (1991 Rounder) collects the sides he waxed for Ruffino’s labels.


Adams was packing local clubs and started to look for another recording deal. In 1968, producer Shelby Singleton left Mercury and started his own label called SSS Records. He signed Adams and "Release Me,” an old Ray Price tune, became Adams’ first national hit. The follow up, "Reconsider Me," was a Top 10 R&B hit, but once again Adams didn’t connect with a national audience. At the end of the ‘60s, he made one fine country soul album for Singleton titled Heart & Soul (1969 SSS), which was later reissued as Reconsider Me (1996 Collectables) with all 18 tracks recorded in Nashville.


Adams continued playing packed houses in New Orleans, but his recording career languished. He made some unreleased sides for Atlantic in the ‘70s, but he wanted to sing everything — blues, R&B, pop, soul, country, and standards — and Atlantic wanted him to stick with soul. In 1978, he made an album for the short-lived Ariola Records America, After All the Good Is Gone (1978 Ariola), then languished until 1984. That was the year Scott Billington of Rounder Records “rediscovered” Adams and signed him, promising him complete control over his music. The records he made for Rounder finally got him into the national spotlight and made him a star.


From the Heart (1984 Rounder), with Walter "Wolfman" Washington on guitar and Red Tyler on sax, features Adams on faux trombone and delivers stunning versions of lesser known rock and R&B tunes by Percy Mayfield, Sam Cooke, and Doc Pomus. After Dark (1985 Rounder), showed off Adams’ range on soul, R&B, and blues material. Room with a View of the Blues (1987 Rounder) was a deep blues album with "Wolfman" Washington, Duke Robillard, and Dr. John supporting Adams’ indigo vocals. Walking on a Tightrope: The Songs of Percy Mayfield (1989 Rounder) is another vocal tour de force with Adams bringing Mayfield’s soulful poetry to vibrant life. On Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me (1991 Rounder), Adams delivered the goods on new tunes Pomus wrote for the singer, giving him an opportunity to express his full emotional range.


The Rounder albums elevated Adams to international stardom and he began touring Europe and America to rave reviews. On Good Morning Heartache (1993 Rounder), Adams applies his pipes to a selection of standards played with classy, uptown arrangements and a jazzy flair. The Verdict (1995 Rounder) is another smoky jazz album, which includes Harry Connick, Jr. tickling the ivories behind Adams. One Foot in the Blues (1996 Rounder) pairs Adams with Lonnie Smith’s mighty Hammond B-3 for a session with a bluesy late night feel, dominated by simmering ballads. Adams was already battling the cancer that took his life when he cut Man of My Word (1998 Rounder), but he still turned in a wrenching performance. The set concludes with an emotional duet with Aaron Neville on “Never Alone.” Adams died shortly after completing the album.


The albums Adams made for Rounder are all classics, but you can get an idea of his range on the collections There Is Always One More Time (2000 Rounder), which includes several unreleased Rounder tracks, The Great Johnny Adams Blues Album (2005  Rounder), and The Great Johnny Adams R&B Album (2006 Rounder).

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