Johnny Adams: The Tan Nightingale (Charly)

CHARLY FOLLOW-UP their 1978 reissue of Johnny’s Heart And Soul album with a wider-ranging retrospective on the man also known as the Tan Canary. (Given the current popularity of ‘Mellow Canary’ Barrington Levy, I think we’ll stick with Charly’s choice of songbird.)

One of the most unduly neglected Southern masters, Johnny’s distinctive trademark is a sudden soaring into high, shrieking falsetto which can only be described as birdlike. At first it’s hard to believe it’s the one man singing the two voices.

It’s a voice, too, that suits any number of styles, and Johnny’s been through his share of blues, pop, and country variations on raw soul. Perhaps his most satisfying sides are the early (1959/60) New Orleans 45s on Ric, many of them co-written and arranged by Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John – ‘I Won’t Cry’, a classic Crescent City sax/piano stroll, and ‘A Losing Battle’, a sleepiest horn arrangement in town, being included here.

The last two decades have seen Johnny on endless labels, from L.A.’s Modern to Boston’s Rounder, his longest stint being with Nashville’s SSS International, where the country influence of Music City sessionmen like Jerry Kennedy infuses such classic outings as ‘Release Me’ and ‘Reconsider Me’ (which even boasts a very discrete pedal steel).

Label supremo Shelby Singleton eventually dropped his R&B stable to pursue pure country, but not before Johnny had hit a few more peaks. I’d have preferred ‘In A Moment Of Weakness’ or ‘Georgia Morning Dew’ to Clive Richardson’s choice of ‘Proud Woman’, and where he disapproves of the 1970s update of ‘I Won’t Cry’ for its “gushing” brass arrangement, I would argue that Johnny stretches higher on this than ever before – a truly delirious waxing. For Adams maniacs there are three previously unissued tracks from this period, including the nicely bluesy ‘Let Me Be Myself’.

It’s dismaying to learn from Richardson’s sleeve-note that Adams is yet another great singer with sessions buried deep in some Atlantic vault – what was wrong with those people in Rockefeller Plaza? Mr Wexler? Dismaying, too, to read of a frustrated Adams singing over pre-recorded Brad Shapiro tracks at Miami’s Criteria.

Of late his stuff has appeared on New Orleans inside Hep Me, three sides featuring here. Paul Kelly’s ‘Love Me Now’ is a nice string-swept deepie with a country chorus which hit regionally in ’81, and ‘Hell Yes I Cheated’ is a Z.Z. Hill theme with further country inflections and some prodding New Orleans horns – the perfect Adams concoction, to be precise. A 1983 Rounder album From The Heart (here on Demon) showed him easing yet deeper into the Z.Z. field, with some jazzy diversions, and vocally he sounds more confident than ever. (I’d love to hear his early ’70s versions of Hill’s ‘Whoever Is Thrilling You Is Killing Me’.)

Oh yeah, and it would be nice to hear this particular nightingale sing in Berkeley Square (or somewhere close).

© Barney HoskynsNew Musical Express, 1987

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