NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes talent alone isn’t enough to forge a successful career in pop music.
Johnny Adams is so highly regarded in Southern soul circles that the New Orleans vocalist has been dubbed “The Tan Canary”. The acclaim has never really spread beyond his regional base, but Adams adopts a philosophical stance toward a lack of national recognition that many musicians would find intensely frustrating.
“I try not to let anything worry me because that’s where the mess starts, when you’re scratching your head all day or can’t sleep at night because of this music business,” Adams, 52, declared in Armstrong Park here. “Whatever is meant for me will come. I think it should hurry up, but I’m not going to be running out there trying to find out what’s the delay.”
Adams started his singing career in local gospel groups. Then a persistent songwriter persuaded him to record the blues ballad ‘I Won’t Cry’ in 1959. That Southern hit and a pair of successful follow-ups established him as a regional attraction, but a golden opportunity for national exposure slipped away when legal difficulties sabotaged a chance to record for a fledgling label named Motown in 1963.
He enjoyed a second round of regional success in the late ’60s with a string of singles — ‘Release Me’, ‘Reconsider Me’ and ‘Can’t Be All Bad’ — on the Nashville-based SSS International label. One album for Ariola gave Adams brief national exposure in the late ’70s but most of his recordings over the last decade have been singles for small southern companies.
Although essentially an R&B/soul singer, Adams has also recorded albums of Christmas and country material. “Wide-ranging” doesn’t just describe his repertoire; in live performance his voice can swoop from jazzy bass scatting to a falsetto whoop in seconds.
“I’ve never had an idol,” he related. “I don’t guess people who do their job well have idols because they always think in terms of doing better themselves. You might say I’m my own inspiration.”
Adams’ current From the Heart LP on Rounder marks the first time he controlled the selection of material and determined the basic arrangements with his regular New Orleans partner, guitarist Walter (Wolfman) Washington.
It’s his most satisfying album to date and includes some startling displays of vocal dexterity, notably the duel between saxophone great Alvin (Red) Tyler and a scat-singing Adams on the jazzy ‘Why Do I?’ and the latter’s expert vocal mimicry of a trombone solo on ‘Why Don’t We See Eye to Eye?’
The album’s slick, sophisticated blend of funky blues and straight R&B ballads makes Adams a logical candidate to inherit the substantial audience captured by the late Z.Z. Hill, but he puts no stock in riding anyone’s coattails.
“I don’t think of another man’s good fortune as meaning things are going to be good for me,” he explained. “I never go around saying my next record’s going to be the one. You can have hopes about records but I try not to let mine get too high.”
So what keeps Johnny Adams going after 25 years, if not the prospect that the next record will bring national and international recognition of his talent?
“I believe in getting there first,” Adams concluded. “I’ve never been one to grasp at things like fame. I just have fun having fun, man, making people happy when I can. I remember once a lady gave me a $15 check out of appreciation for singing ‘Release Me’ for her.
“Somewhere around the house I still have that check. I never did cash it.”
© Don Snowden, Los Angeles Times, 23 September 1984