JOHNNY ADAMS – The Tan Canary

I heard Johnny Adams for the first time in 1969 on one of my “go to” radio stations, CKLW, out of Windsor. The song was “Reconsider Me”. About a minute into the song Johnny slid up the scale effortlessly on the lyric “please”. Actually, he held onto “pu-lee-ee-ease” at the top end for about 5 seconds. It was a full blown melismatic Blues song achieved in just over 5 seconds. It sent the proverbial chills down my spine in that I’d never heard anything quite like it. It would be later that I learned that the unmatched falsetto was a Johnny Adams trademark.

Another Johnny Adams memory. Having decided to get into the music business in late 1997 I ordered a copy of the Living Blues Directory that included contact information for various artists. At the time, I was so taken with Adams after both continually playing his current CD at the time, One Foot In The Blues, and witnessing an outstanding cameo appearance at the recent Handy Awards, (backed by Bonnie Raitt’s band), that I decided to see if there was a contact number for him. My thought was to inquire about the possibility of Johnny playing a date in Toronto. Looking through the Directory, I found a number anticipating that I would be speaking with his agent. I dialed the number and a woman answered. I told her the purpose of my call and the woman’s response was that Johnny was resting and asked if she could help me, introducing herself as Judy, Johnny’s wife. It was Johnny Adams’ home number!

She seemed pleased that I called and relayed the info to Johnny. She then went on to explain that Johnny wasn’t feeling well but that he would get back to me when he was feeling better. Before hanging up Judy said that they were looking for a manager and asked if I would be interested in managing Johnny. I replied, that while I would welcome the opportunity, someone else might be better suited for the job. I left Judy my number, but when I read shortly after that Johnny was suffering from prostate cancer I didn’t have any expectations of hearing back. We never got to finish the conversation; Johnny Adams passed less than a year later.

Still another memory: I was working a show featuring the great singer / guitar player / songwriter Earl King in 1999 and I was transporting him from Buffalo to Toronto for the gig, and back to Buffalo after the show. We got into an easy conversation on the way back to Buffalo with me asking him a number of questions about New Orleans, New Orleans musicians, and general music stuff. When I mentioned Johnny Adams a big smile came across Earl’s face and he chuckled. He commented that Johnny was a gentleman, and indeed special. Earl said that the memory that came to mind was that when Johnny got into a hotel room, regardless of the outside temperature, before doing anything else, Johnny would to turn the AC on high. That, and the fact that Johnny chain smoked Kools, (menthol cigarettes).

Laton John Adams was born in New Orleans on January 5, 1932. The oldest of 10 children, Johnny was raised in a religious family and was singing Gospel for as long as he could remember, including doing so in the church choir. He left school at 15 to pursue a Gospel singing career, and sang with primarily 2 quartets: The Soul Revivers and Bessie Griffin & The Consulators.

Johnny continued singing Gospel for the next 10 years or so when songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie, who lived in the same apartment building as Adams, heard him singing “Precious Lord” and was taken with his voice. LaBostrie, a songwriter for Joe Ruffino (who owned the local record labels Ric and Ron), suggested to Adams that he should try singing some of her secular material; (according to a then reluctant Adams, LaBostrie worked on him for almost a year).

LaBostrie* had written a song “I Won’t Cry” and wanted Johnny to record it. It was 1959 and Johnny at 27 years of age, sensing that nothing was happening for him in the Gospel field, agreed to go over to the other side. (At that point in his life Johnny was trying to make ends meet working as a roofer by day and singing Spirituals at night). The single, the start of his association with Joe Ruffino, produced by the 18 year old Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), was a local hit that started Adams’ career in addition to beginning a lifelong working relationship and friendship with the Good Doctor.

(*LaBostrie, a songwriter of note, is recognized for having written, (read: “cleaned up”), Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruiti”, as well as Irma Thomas’ first record and hit “You Can Have My Husband {But Please Don’t Mess With My Man}”, and L’il Millet’s “Rich Woman”.)

While “I Won’t Cry” would prove to be a start, Johnny’s career wouldn’t get much traction. Johnny attributed that to three primary factors. Firstly, was Ruffino not having the business savvy to align himself with major distributors thus limiting the sales of any Ric or Ron recordings solely to the local market. Secondly, Johnny missing out on an opportunity that presented itself when Motown’s Berry Gordy showed interest in recording him. That is, until Ruffino thwarted that chance as well by not letting Adams out of his contract – that Adams, in later years, speculated was fraudulent – and threatening to sue Gordy. And lastly, the fact that Johnny wasn’t allowed to pick the material that he recorded implying that the selected songs either didn’t suit him and / or were not marketable product.

The year 1962 would mark Johnny’s first National R&B hit, “A Losing Battle”, written by Mac Rebennack and climbing to # 27 on Billboard’s R&B Chart. The Ric and Ron labels would also fold in 1962 after Joe Ruffino’s death thereby freeing Johnny for a re-start. But despite having developed a considerable local following, Johnny wasn’t well known outside of New Orleans thus restricting his ability to draw any interest from a prospective significant label. Accordingly, for the next 5 years, Johnny continued to record for primarily small New Orleans labels such as Gone and Watch in what would prove to be a prolonged dry spell.

Johnny would resurface in 1968 on Shelby Singleton’s SSS label out of Nashville hitting with a cover of the Country classic “Release Me” that made it to # 34 R&B and # 82 on the Pop charts. Staying in the Country Soul vein, (a style that Adams played a significant role in popularizing), Johnny followed that up with the aforementioned “Reconsider Me” that fared even better by making it to the R&B Top 10 (at # 8) and # 28 Pop in 1969. (Both “Release Me” and “Reconsider Me” can be found on the fine SSS album Heart & Soul). Unfortunately, Johnny wasn’t able to follow up the success of “Reconsider Me” because Singleton decided to abandon his pursuit of R&B hits to instead concentrate on his Country artists.

Now Johnny was back to cutting singles for obscure labels once again. But Adams took it in stride reasoning that even if the singles didn’t sell well they would at least provide him with some market presence and an appearance of being active in the business. That, in turn, would enhance his opportunities for live gigs. So, while still not making any significant headway with his recordings, Johnny, who was hugely popular as a local live act, decided to concentrate on that avenue saying “The money is in gigs, not in the records”. As such, from the early 70’s until the mid 80’s, Johnny cultivated a loyal following at a weekend residency at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge backed by guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s Soul / Blues combo. (It should be noted that Adams did hit locally – 50,000 copies – with a re-make of Conway Twitty’s “After All The Good Is Gone”, on the Hep’ Me imprint, in 1978).

For the most part never venturing very far outside of the New Orleans area, Adams continued to cement his local standing. Always handling an assortment of styles with credibility and authority, Adams used his multi octave voice to great advantage. Known for his swooping vocal gymnastics and unparalleled falsetto, Adams also exhibited great timing on his delivery that put him in a league with “silk” singers like Charles Brown and Bobby Bland. Add in flawless enunciation – sometimes reminiscent of Johnny Hartman in that regard – and you had a vocalist that was truly unique, and, for lack of a better descriptor, truly special. Such precision with passion and elegance would move New Orleans DJ Tex Stevens to christen Adams, the “Tan Canary”; a moniker that would stay with Johnny till he took his last breath.

In 1983 Adams came to the attention of Scott Billington at Rounder Records who wanted to record an R&B album with Johnny and his Walter “Wolfman” Washington led working band. (The sessions would evolve into his first Rounder album From The Heart). To Billington’s credit, he was quick to recognize Adams’ versatility and his interest in a wide range of genres. Billington sought to capitalize on Adams’ mastery of Jazz, Blues, romantic ballads, Country, Pop, Soul and whatever hybrid of the various styles on the Rounder releases. From Adams’ side, all was positive as well as he said that “This is the first time I’ve had the freedom to choose what to sing, and how to sing it”. Further, in describing his satisfaction with Rounder, he claimed that previous record companies wanted to categorize him as a certain type / style of singer when he instead had the capability of “doing it all”. The progressive environment provided Johnny with a new found confidence in his abilities and a willingness to test the limits.

Starting in 1984 Johnny Adams would go on to record 9 eclectic and critically acclaimed releases for Rounder that would eclipse much of his previous work. Johnny would not only reap the benefits of the recordings themselves but by extension would broaden his appeal by touring both nationally and internationally.

It’s safe to say that every one of Johnny’s Rounder albums hits the mark, has something to offer, and is complementary to the one that came before. The build from album to album can be attributed to Billington and Adams continually becoming more familiar with each other and Adams’ growing confidence in both his capabilities and desire to stretch out. And, if – subconsciously or otherwise – the fifty something Adams was intent on making up for lost time, he certainly did that and then some.

The first two releases, From The Heart and After Dark are wide ranging affairs as the Adams / Billington combo are establishing their varied direction. “Heart” is the first of the Rounder albums to feature two of Adams’ favourite songwriters’ works; those of Doc Pomus and Percy Mayfield. After Dark contains a great rendition of John Hiatt’s “Lover’s Will”. (One of Hiatt’s best, being such a fine lyric, it makes me wish that I could hear Johnny reprise the song using Bonnie Raitt’s outstanding arrangement. I have no doubt he could match Raitt’s resignation and longing and more.)

Things start to coalesce on the following records with Johnny at the height of his powers. The comparatively high points are Room With A View Of The Blues, Walking On A Tightrope: The Songs Of Percy Mayfield, Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me, One Foot In The Blues, and Man Of My Word.

“Room” is the first album to feature the twin guitars of Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Duke Robillard on truly first rate songs. It’s the Blues but there’s a Jazz feel in the arrangements and Johnny’s phrasing. The Percy Mayfield entry “Not Trustworthy (A Lyin’ Woman)” is a shuffle that flat out swings as Johnny tells the tale:
“I remember when I met you
You said your name was Mary Jane…
But when I saw you in the line-up
The heat was calling you by another name” 
And keeping the fun going is the cool funk of Robillard and Rebennack’s offering “Body And Fender Man”:
“I’m your body and fender man
Let me fix your car
When it comes to bodies and fenders
I’m sure some kind of superstar”
Also, “The Hunt Is On” bears mentioning; another great Mayfield shuffle that features Adams’ mouth trombone, (simulated trombone soloing), on the ride out.

“Tightrope” features all the Percy Mayfield goodies including the title song, “Lost Mind”, and “Danger Zone”. (The only missing piece is “Please Send Me Someone To Love”).The love that Johnny had for Mayfield is evident as he caresses every lyric. With all due respect to Brother Ray, the album exemplifies that Johnny Adams is indeed the premier interpreter of Percy Mayfield’s material.

Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus is Johnny’s tribute to his “other” favourite songwriter, and it’s truly unfortunate that the legendary Pomus, one of the top writers in the R&B / Blues idiom, didn’t live to see this album completed. Johnny was one of Doc’s favourite singers because of the feeling that Johnny injected into every song like no other. As reflected on this release, at this juncture in his career, Pomus’ songwriting had taken a turn to one of more simplicity and emotional directness. Both of those qualities were held in high regard by Adams thus making this outing a heart shared meeting of the minds. Johnny has commented that his favourite cut on the album is “There Is Always One More Time” because he could relate directly to the message of hope contained in the song:
“If there’s a heart out there
Looking for someone to share
I don’t care if it’s been
Turned down time and time again
And if we meet one day
Please don’t walk away
‘Cause there is always one more time
There is always one more time”

One Foot In The Blues got its title from the album concept of having one foot in Blues and one foot in Jazz. This is a masterful organ trio album featuring the eccentric Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B-3, (including covering the bass pedals), Jimmy Ponder on guitar, and Shannon Powell on drums. With Ed Petersen’s tenor forays and Johnny’s sublime vocals on selections from the respective Dann Penn, Buddy Johnson, and Percy Mayfield song books, the result is a combination that’s tough to beat.

Billington and Adams decided the next album A Man Of My Word would be an all stops out R&B / Soul album and planned to record it in Memphis. However, the logistics proved to be too strenuous for Adams who was suffering from prostate cancer. Instead they pivoted to recording the album at Ultrasonic Studio in New Orleans. Adams is backed by a star studded cast including two of Johnny’s former band leaders, Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar and David Torkanowsky on keys, renowned Memphis guitarist Michael Toles, and a rhythm section of ex Meters George Porter on bass and drummer Donnell Spencer Jr. who worked with Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan among others. The band is superlative as is the material. And given his physical condition it’s a true wonder that Johnny Adams’ considerable skills were intact as he commanded the room on a set of primarily outstanding covers including Bobby Bland’s “This Time I’m Gone For Good”, Little Willie John’s “Now You Know”, William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and Percy Sledge’s “It Tears Me Up”. Toss in a handful of originals and a definitive reading of Bobby Charles’ “I Don’t Want To Know”, and all make for an emotional tour de force. The icing on the cake is a breath taking duet with Aaron Neville on the Gospel standard “Never Alone”.

Such was the last recording, a fitting musical epitaph for one of the truly great singers of our time.

As I was writing this article I thought it would be appropriate to reach out to Scott Billington, vice president of A&R for Rounder/Concord Records – who knew Johnny so well and was so instrumental in Johnny’s success at Rounder and beyond – for a comment that I could include in my essay. Scott graciously provided the following that serves as an eloquent summary of all of the above:

“Johnny Adams was one of the great vocalists of the last century– in any genre. His contemporaries like Irma Thomas or Aaron Neville would likely say the same thing. He had a gospel singer’s soul and a jazz musician’s ear, which enabled us to make each new album different from the one before. So, we went from R&B, to jazz, to blues and back again. Finding songs that matched his talent, and that had the right harmonic foundation to give him space to sing, was my challenge.  

Johnny was a pro in the studio, and he always came prepared, knowing the songs inside and out. Songwriters loved him because he stayed true to the melody and phrasing of a song as it was written– at least the first time through. He was also a master of improvisation, so the vamps of the songs were often his space to play. He loved being in an environment with musicians who could improvise along with him. After we had finished a track, he would often ask to overdub his vocal again… and again. It wasn’t because there was anything lacking in his performance, but because he enjoyed exploring where else he might take it”.


  1. I Won’t Cry
  2. A Losing Battle
  3. Release Me
  4. Reconsider Me
  5. Lover’s Will
  6. Not Trustworthy
  7. Body And Fender Man
  8. The Hunt Is On
  9. Walking On A Tightrope
  10.  Lost Mind
  11.  There Is Always One More Time
  12.  Good Morning Heartache
  13.  The Jealous Kind
  14.  One Foot In The Blues
  15.  Roadblock
  16.  It Ain’t The Same Thing
  17.  Going Out Of My Mind Sale
  18.  I Don’t Want To Know
  19.  Bulldog Break His Chain
  20.  Never Alone
  • Rico Ferrara, May 2021

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