SHE HAS A TRANSLUCENT, flawless complexion, and her facial features are doll-like, suffused with an inner glow. Barely over five-feet tall, she holds herself oddly erect, as if to deny her short stature. And, when she sings, her voice is powerfully and immediately captivating. A major star of rhythm and blues, she came from the church in the early 1950’s and has gone back to stay.
Faye Adams always knew exactly what she wanted to do, and exactly when she wanted to do it. Her move from gospel to R&B was carefully calculated to be a step on the ladder to pop music stardom and, when that dream was not going to come true, she returned to the church. In many ways, she remains one of the last enigmas of the golden age of R&B, a situation due in large part to her refusal to discuss those early years of her career.
Born Fay Tuell in Newark, New Jersey sometime in the mid-1920’s, she is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. David Tuell, gospel singers and important figures in the Church Of God In Christ (COGIC) movement, a powerful and worldwide denomination that more recently has spawned such commercially successful singers as Billy Preston, Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, and the Clark Sisters.
Little “Fannie”, as Fay was called, joined the family trio in the early 1930’s, and broadcast with the Tuell Sisters for many years on Newark radio, sponsored by the Heavenly Rest Cemetery. COGIC singers seem to have a propensity for trying their wings in secular music, and Fay was no exception. In 1942, she married Tommy Scruggs, and he eventually became her manager. They had two sons, Barry in 1944 and Ronnie in 1946.
Her move to R&B began in the early 1950’s, when she began getting singing engagements in night clubs in New York City. At first, things moved much too slowly for the determined gospel veteran.
“For almost a year”, she told a reporter in 1954, “I was in and out of every Broadway agent and record company’s office. I got all sorts of promises, all sorts of encouraging words – but no work, no record releases.” Finally, while appearing in Atlanta, she was “discovered”.
Ruth Brown has claimed the credit for bringing Fay out, and the two superlative singers are still close friends. According to Ruth, she spotted Fay at a club in Atlanta, while Ruth, already an established star, was touring with Billy Eckstine and Count Basie. Ruth suggested that Fay contact Herb Abramson, president of Atlantic Records, when she returned to New York City, and Marshall Royal of Basie’s band, told her to go see vocal coach Phil Moore.
Moore, a musical prodigy on piano and writer of motion picture scores, had set up a coaching service in New York, after a brief recording career with Black & White and RCA-Victor. Among his clients were Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Marilyn Monroe, and Moore taught more than just singing, he coached his customers in stage presence and the creation of the right “atmosphere”.
Meeting Moore was the first step on Fay’s road to commercial success. “In a couple of days”, she declared in 1954, “Phil had done more for me than I had
been able to do with all the promises I’d gotten in a year.” A newspaper account of the day indicated that Moore was equally excited about his student’s talents:
“Faye Adams’ natural talent is so great that Moore says he is amazed at the things she can do with her voice. According to him, she has three distinct voices. He tells the story of how, during a practice session in his Carnegie Hall studio one afternoon, they were surprised to discover three people listening from his opened door. The three were voice teachers of opera who had studios on his floor. They had all thought, on hearing Faye sing from a distance, that three people were singing, and had come closer to hear better what they thought was a really phenomenal bit of trio harmony.”
Whether or not she could sing “harmony” with herself, as this report suggested, she needed a recording contract to be heard outside of Moore’s studio, and that was supplied by Herb Abramson.
“I was sitting in the office one afternoon”, Abramson recalls, “when this very lovely little girl came in, stuck out her jaw, and said my name is Fannie Scruggs and I want to make records for you. I said, well Fannie, what can you do? And she said, I have a gospel show in Newark. She sang a few things for me. She only knew a couple of pop songs, but had a strong voice. It just so happened that I needed a girl singer to replace Laurie Tate, who had just left Joe Morris to raise a family, so I put Fannie with Joe to get some experience.”
Joe Morris and His Blues Cavalcade, with Little Laurie Tate as featured “girl singer”, had been Atlantic’s answer to the highly-popular Johnny Otis Revue, with Little Esther. Morris and his troupe had been on the road for nearly two years and had provided Atlantic with some very good selling records. Fay left New York with the Morris revue and made a swing through the southern states. They returned to New York in late December, 1952, and Fay was included in a recording session, her first.
On this session she sang a Danny Barker novelty entitled ‘That’s What Makes My Baby Fat’ in duet with Joe Morris. She also did a bluesy solo, ‘I’m Going To Leave You’ and a bouncy duet with Jack Walker (a prominent New York disc jockey), ‘Sweet Talk’. The released discs of ‘That’s What Makes My Baby Fat’ coupled with ‘I’m Going To Leave You’ (Atlantic 985) were credited to The Joe Morris Blues Cavalcade, with vocals by Fay Scruggs.
Sales of this record were unexceptional, and Fay and Morris returned to the road. Abramson, meanwhile, was drafted into the Air Force (his schooling as a dentist back in the 1940’s had been paid for by the government), and temporarily assigned to Gunther Air Base near Montgomery, Alabama. That lovely city is also the home of Joe Morris and the band was playing there at the time.
“Every chance I’d get away from the base”, Abramson says, “I’d work with Fay and Joe in the studio at a radio station in Montgomery. Joe had written some good new tunes and I worked with them until they were ready to record. I told Joe to cut the tunes at his next session for Atlantic in New York.”
Some dubs were cut at the radio station and sent to Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, and then Abramson left for duty in Germany. One of those new tunes
was ‘Shake A Hand’, and Morris, Fay, and Abramson were all excited about it. It was especially suited to her gospel intensity, and the pseudo-religious “message” promised some cross-over sales in gospel and pop markets. To Morris’s surprise, both Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, who had replaced Abramson at Atlantic for the duration of Herb’s service, did not want to release the song.
With Morris’s contract with Atlantic nearing an end, he was approached by Al Silver, new owner of Herald Records, while the band was appearing at the Hotel America Ballroom in New York City. He loved Fay, ‘Shake A Hand’, and the other band vocalist, handsome Al Savage, and signed the entire Joe Morris entourage to a contract. The exuberant Herald version of ‘Shake A Hand’, ‘I’ll Be True’, and six more tracks were cut at a double session at Bell Sound. Al Silver renamed Fay “Faye Adams”, and moved her name to top billing on the record labels. ‘Shake A Hand’ (Herald 416) was released in August, 1953, hit the charts by the end of the month, and moved to #1 by the middle of September. It didn’t leave the chart until December 26th, when it was replaced by follow-up release ‘I’ll Be True’ (Herald 419), a similar sounding tune written by Bill McLemore, baritone sax man with the Morris orchestra.
Silver has stated that ‘Shake A Hand’ sold a million copies, and ‘I’ll Be True’ sold about eight hundred thousand platters. In the midst of this intense sales activity, Atlantic rummaged through its masters and came up with ‘Sweet Talk’. They coupled it with an even older Morris number and issued it as by “Faye Adams” in October, 1953 (Atlantic 1007). It never sold enough to make any charts.
Fay’s third release ‘Every Day’ (Herald 423), was also from the first session but failed to hit. There is a fascinating video of her singing ‘Every Day’ in 1954 that reveals a strangely stiff and uncomfortable singer, belting out the lyric with a frozen expression. More tracks were recorded in the summer of 1954 and of these, ‘Hurts Me To My Heart’, written by Rosemarie McCoy and Charlie Singleton, was a hit for 17 weeks and stayed at #1 for five weeks.
With these powerful hits, Fay was a very strong attraction on the theater and concert circuits. In early 1955, she was touring with the “Top Ten R&B Show”, with The Clovers, The Moonglows, The Charms, Lowell Fulson, Joe Turner, and the bands of Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and Bill Doggett. By the end of summer, she was headlining her own revue with Luther Bond & The Emeralds, Gene & Eunice, and the band of Jimmy Earle Brown (Ruth Brown’s ex-husband).
In the studio and on record, Fay was producing a stream of intense and beautiful ballads and jump tunes, but she was unable to score with another national hit on the R&B charts. Her dream of becoming a pop singer also fell flat. The pop market in those days simply would not make room for a number of black singers, and “rock ‘n’ roll”, black music adopted by white singers, was steadily taking over, to the detriment of many of the artists who originated the sound.
Her last record for Herald coupled the old Joe Morris-Laurie Tate hit ‘Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere’ with ‘The Hammer’, a powerful tune written by Fay and her mentor, Phil Moore. From Herald, she went to Imperial, where ‘Keeper Of
My Heart’ got enough airplay to briefly appear on the R&B Disc Jockey charts in June, 1957. After two sessions and poor sales at Imperial, she switched to Leo Rogers’ Lido Records in New York City, and then to Morty Craft’s Warwick.
After sessions for Savoy in 1961 and Prestige in 1962, Fay had to face the bitter truth. There was no place for her in black music any longer, the pop world was far beyond her reach, and her style was not interesting to the few jazz record buyers who heard her lone release on Prestige, ‘Goodnight My Love’.
Fay Scruggs left the secular entertainment field and went back to the church in the early 1960’s. Since that time, and now married to a minister in Englewood, New Jersey, she has remained aloof and inapproachable to people outside her immediate circle. As this is written, there is a faint glimmer of hope that her old friend, Ruth Brown, now a star of Broadway stage, television, and night clubs, will be able to convince her to return to the limelight.
If and when Faye Adams re-appears, she will discover that she has thousands of admirers all over the world – people who consider her one of the finest vocalists of all time, and all because of some songs she did nearly forty years ago.
© Pete Grendysa, Goldmine, 23 October 1987