Johnny Adams

TrackSingle / Album
I Won't CryRic 961
Closer To YouRic 976
Life Is Just A StruggleRic 983
A Losing BattleRic 986
Release MeSSS International SSS 750
Reconsider MeSSS International SSS 770
After All The Good Is GoneAriola America 7701
A Shoulder To Cry OnAn Introduction To Johnny Adams
Sharing YouAn Introduction To Johnny Adams
I Don't Want To KnowMan Of My Word

Johnny Adams photo 1

 

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Johnny Adams playlist

 

 

DAVE STEPHENS’ NEW ORLEANS SCENES

#17 JOHNNY ADAMS

 

Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye … and Johnny Adams.

Does that have a ring to it? Is it codswallop? Or doesn’t that name mean anything at all?

Johnny Adams was a singer, and, in the words of others …

“One of the last of the great blues and ballad singers.” (‘New York Times’ Obituary 1998)

“He was absolutely a singer’s singer.” (Highly respected New Orleans music writer Jeff Hannusch in ‘Offbeat’, December 2002)

“Adams’ legacy: an extraordinary voice containing all the pain and joy of human experience.” (‘Tucson Weekly Review’ of updated Heart & Soul album, March 2013)

 

Laten John Adams Jr. was born in New Orleans on 5th January 1932, the oldest of 10 children. Like certain other artists who we call soul singers, he not only sang in church as a child, he also started a professional career as a gospel singer, initially with the Soul Revivers and then Bessie Griffin and the Consolators.

If we are to believe a story which appears in most biographies of the man but usually with words like ‘apocryphal’ attached to it, Johnny’s secular career started out by accident. Enter stage left, a lady called Dorothy LaBostrie who has a place in all the rock’n’roll history books as the person who produced the cleaned-up version of Tutti Frutti for Little Richard. She just happened to live upstairs from Johnny (or down the street according to Tony Rounce’s liner notes to the Ace album, Johnny Adams: I Won’t Cry: The Complete Ric & Ron Singles 1959-1964) and overheard him singing in his apartment. She decided that voice should grace a new song she had written entitled Oh Why (but would later be retitled, I Won’t Cry). After a little persuasion from Dorothy, they made a demo tape which was duly presented to Joe Ruffino, founder & manager of Ric, a label he’d created less than a year earlier.

I Won’t Cry was the start of it all, with plenty to follow. A scrutiny of 45cat or Soulful Kinda Music on Johnny gives the impression that his records were spread across a massive range of labels but the writer of the Johnny Adams Randy’s Rodeo article breaks this down straightforwardly: he states “Johnny Adams’ career is marked by three distinct commercial peaks – his recordings for Ric Records (1959-1963), SSS International (1968-1971), and Rounder Records (1984-1998)”. Which is totally correct but it doesn’t mean that recording stopped during the two ‘blank’ periods, hence my breakdown into five ‘phases’ for want of a better word.

 

Ric (and Ron)

The rumbling brass at the start of I Won’t Cry puts the record firmly in the Crescent City while the melancholic mood and plaintive lyrics, “Darling you give me heartaches and pain / It’s just the thought of you being with some other man”, characterise the song as a blues ballad just on the cusp of morphing into soul. The Adams voice is rich, resonant and controlled, unlike any other emanating from New Orleans in the time frame and only a very, very brief jump to the falsetto range at approx 1 minute 50 seconds in, gives any idea of some of the flamboyance to follow in later years. The record sold well locally but did nothing at national level. However, Tony Rounce declares with some confidence that it “is regarded as one of the pivotal records of New Orleans’ transition from rockin’ R&B to early soul”.

The flipside of I Won’t Cry also warrants a mention. Boasting more of a beat than the A-side and allowing Johnny to let rip with the occasional, still relatively controlled, shout every now and again, Who You Are also contained features of early soul, albeit more along Wilson Pickett lines than, say, Sam Cooke. The song was penned by Dorothy LaBostrie (and the Rounce version of the meeting with Joe Ruffino has it also appearing on that demo tape).

Eight more singles followed on Ric with significant variation in style. While production credits are not shown (and 45cat is coy on the subject), later biographic writers have attributed such credit based on interviews. For the I Won’t Cry / Who You Are pairing, Tony Rounce states that they “cut new versions of the songs at Cosimo Matassa’s studio, with a band under the supervision of Joe’s A&R man, guitarist Edgar Blanchard”. Other writers have attributed later Adams Ric records production to Mac Rebennack (who took over the A&R role), Harold Battiste and Eddie Bo.

Harold Battiste was particularly proud of the string arrangement on Closer To You, the flip side of Johnny’s fifth Ric single. To quote some of his words in John Broven’s “Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans”:

“Dave Bartholomew had been using strings (primarily with Fats Domino) and he had a white guy writing. I knew I could do better than that, but I knew it would never occur to anybody that me being black could write string parts. So I had to do it.”

The record captured Johnny in smooth balladeer mode for the first time, with the strings echoing the romantic aspects of the lyrics & melody line in time-honoured fashion – and yes, Harold did do well. I confess that this isn’t normally my type of music but it’s that delicious sax that comes in on the title line that gets me every time. Johnny is elegance personified with just a couple of brief but very sweet bursts of falsetto. I suspect that if this had been the A-side – which happened to be a late cover of Gene Allison’s You Can Make It If You Try – and got the plugs, it would have achieved the sales.

Skipping ahead to the one that did get the sales, A Losing Battle, released in early ’62, was co-composed by Rebennack and sounded as if he’d been listening to mid-fifties vintage Ray Charles; the pianist on the disc – Mac himself? – sounded more like Brother Ray than Professor Longhair. While the keyboard rattler didn’t quite imbue his playing with as much feverish intensity as Ray himself, the broad feel was there, reinforced by the bed of horns which entered with verse two. Compare with the horns behind the title line in William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, a record that had come out only a few months earlier. Maybe Mac had been listening to Stax in addition to The Genius.

No matter, the black public liked it and Johnny was rewarded with his first sign of national recognition: a #27 showing in the R&B Chart.

Without any previous awareness of Johnny’s output, you would be unlikely to have guessed the geographic origins of that track. Indeed, the author of the Randy’s Rodeo write-up reports Johnny as having once said:

“They got a whole lot of New Orleans music. I try to make mine different”.

Other people might have had different ideas, at least in the early days. The flip of A Losing Battle, another Rebennack co-composition entitled Who’s Gonna Love You, had the pianist sounding a little more like Allen Toussaint (or even a less extravagant Longhair). The horns stayed but added bounce to their vocabulary with the end result being more in Lee Dorsey-land than Ray Charles. Not one of Johnny’s more outstanding records but it illustrates his versatility and is one of very few NOLA sounding records by him and as such should be treasured.

Arguably the most New Orleans-sounding of Johnny’s Ric records appeared on the flip of his following single. The A-side, Showdown, didn’t differ terribly from A Losing Battle – no surprise there – but was a good record nevertheless. The flip, though, Tra-La-La, was penned by Eddie Bo under the name “D. Johnson” from his lady Dolores Johnson, and was an endearing trifle that could have come from nowhere else.

But I’ve saved the best of my NOLA treasures till last. Life Is Just A Struggle was penned by Chris Kenner, a man who had had a relatively short career but who managed to write (and record) several Crescent City classics during that time frame. Life Is Just A Struggle might not quite reach that level but that could be due to under-exposure – the Kenner original isn’t even on YouTube. The Adams version is and, yes, it’s excellent. Initially, you might be inclined to think that melodically and arrangement-wise -yes there’s a Toussaint-y piano and parping brass – this is the sort of thing you’ve heard a thousand times before, but it’s what Johnny and arranger Harold Battiste have done with those tropes that matters. For me this is one record that really marries New Orleans and soul music successfully. And Johnny’s deliberately gritty delivery gives the song that extra bit of edge.

“I want somebody up there to pray for me.” Chris Kenner could certainly write songs.

Joe Ruffino died from a heart attack in August 1962. Johnny’s final single for Ric, Showdown / Tra-La-La was released after Joe’s death but had been recorded beforehand. Joe’s two sons – Ric and Ron (he’d named his labels after them) – attempted to keep things going and drafted in Joe’s brother-in-law, Joe Assunto, to help; Joe owned the One Stop record shop in South Rampart St. But to no avail, and Ric (and Ron before him) ground to a halt in ’63. However, there was to be one final (and very brief) flurry of activity for Ron Records. Joe Assunto revived the label in 1964/65 purely to record and release two singles from Johnny. The discs were Lonely Drifter / I Want To Do Everything For You and Comin’ Around The Mountain / Cold Cold Heart and I should apologise for the fact that Comin’ Around The Mountain isn’t on YouTube (or Spotify). According to Tony Rounce, all the tracks were “from the same session, held at Cosimo’s under the supervision of New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue. It’s thought the session dates from late ’63 or early ’64 from aural evidence.”

The ‘non-appearance’ of Comin’ Around The Mountain shouldn’t cause too much grief. It is on the Ace album associated with the Rounce Notes and I can tell the reader that (a) it is the song you’re thinking of, and (b) the vocal & arrangement don’t provide anything of great interest. Both sides of the first of the pair of singles are slow soul-ish items with the second coming from the pen of Dolores Johnson/Eddie Bo. The most interesting of the bunch is the final flip side, Cold Cold Heart (and yes it is that number), this being the first time that Johnny had been heard on an outright country song. The arrangement, I feel, is over-ambitious and manages to largely lose the rhythm but this shouldn’t detract from the fact that Johnny is comfortable with the material – when hasn’t he been comfortable so far? – which was a good omen for the future.

Before moving on, I should log the fact that Johnny was given the nickname “The Tan Canary” “for the multi-octave range of his singing voice, his swooping vocal mannerisms and falsetto” (words from Wiki) at some stage in his career, though I’ve also come across “The Tan Nightingale” in places. Quite when either of these names got applied, I don’t know so I thought I’d just pop it in here.

 

The In-Between Years 1

Notwithstanding my jumping ahead in some of the more recent paragraphs, Johnny was effectively without a record label during much of 1962 and 1963 but that was resolved later in ’63 when Joe Assunto aided by Henry Hildebrand (of All South Distributors) formed Watch Records. Joe was happy to take Johnny on board where he came under the supervision of Wardell Quezergue. Their first single, I Believe I’ll Find Happiness was a very professional soft soul ballad with Johnny performing well – as usual – though not really my cup of tea. That was followed by a slightly jazzy interpretation of an oldie, Some Day, with which I can find no fault other than the fact that I couldn’t see people buying it in sufficient numbers to generate serious sales.

We then had the rather odd decision by Assunto to slap the Ron label on the output from one session which I’ve already covered. After which it was back to normal, or was it? The next single appeared on a label called Dynamics which, again appeared to be Assunto, followed by a second release of the same tracks on Gone (presumably for distribution). It’s difficult to make informed comment on the two tracks – Going To The City and I’m Grateful – since the reproduction on the only clips available is poor. About all that can be said with any authority is that Eddie Bo had some involvement since the composers were listed as E. Bocage and D. Johnson!

Next stop was Houston and a genuinely different recording outfit; the ubiquitous Huey P Meaux – he of many labels – and Pacemaker, for which three singles appeared circa ’66, ‘67. In general, and based on those that can be found – the sides are not all on YouTube – they were biased towards up tempo southern soul. However, one track stands out: it’s a slowie but not a ballad, more of a declamatory monologue along the lines of Wilson Pickett and the Falcons, I Found A Love but not quite that memorable. Indeed, aspects of Johnny’s (Sometimes) A Man Will Shed A Few Tears Too do suggest that Huey and he had been listening to that track, from the Wilson-esque screams to the guitarist making valiant but not entirely successful attempts to emulate the great Robert Ward on the Falcons disc. These slight elements of plagiarism don’t really matter though; the platter succeeds on its own terms (and it very nearly made the Ten).

If you follow the Soulful Kinda Music discography the Houston trip would appear to have been followed by one to L.A. since two discs appeared from a “Johnny Adams” in 1967, Modern 1036 and Modern 1044. However, 45cat list the man separately as “Johnny Adams (Los Angeles)” and trusty Tony Rounce warns us that these records were from a different Adams. For those curious, this is what the first of those discs sounded like (and the title is No In Between).

Confusing so far? I thought it might be even with some explanation. However, there were to be only two more discs released on Watch before things got simple again and it was the second of those discs that caused the change.

Release Me first appeared with a bracketed “(And Let Me Love Again)” in 1949. The performer and co-composer was country singer/songwriter Eddie Miller and later versions appeared from a range of artists including Ray Price, Kitty Wells, Lefty Frizzell and Patti Page. Wiki states that the rather splendid swamp pop version from Jivin’ Gene & The Jokers in 1960 was the one that caused Esther Phillips in 1962, and while I think this is just possible, I have to fess up and state that it hadn’t occurred to me before. However, the version that the reader must know is the one from Engelbert Humperdinck in 1967 which made his name and made the charts in a considerable number of countries in addition to the UK.

That was all in the past (and there were plenty more versions largely prompted by Engel’s massive hit). Quite what caused Wardell, Joe and Johnny to cut the track late in 1968 (if the month of October in SecondHandSongs can be trusted), I know not; it was rather on the late side to be going for a cover version. Maybe Wardell saw it as a challenge cum opportunity to get into the country soul field having had some local success with Cold, Cold Heart. But, cut it they did and from the Adams performance you get the distinct impression that he’d been told very clearly not to hold anything back, just go for it. And he did, in a way we’d never heard before. The end result was, I guess, something of a marmite disc; I’m sure it won’t appeal to everyone. OTT, yes – the falsetto appears as early as the first syllable – but for me rather magnificent. And while certain other records had sometimes suggested a chameleonic ability in our hero, this would seem to be him going way back to the gospel days.

 

SSS International

Johnny’s Release Me got the tills rattling in record shops in New Orleans and Louisiana to the extent that noise about the single penetrated well beyond his local patch. Music entrepreneur Shelby Singleton, who at that stage was running his own Nashville-based record label SSS International, sensed serious hit potential and bought out both the record and Johnny. Before moving on it’s worth taking note of a couple of things. Firstly, a relevant quote in the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame feature on Shelby: “Singleton had the knack of taking Country songs and having them recorded by non-Country acts. This started with Brook Benton’s recording of The Boll Weevil Song in 1960, which became a Top 3 record the following year.” And secondly, given Singleton’s production role at Mercury it’s not at all unlikely that he was involved in the supervision of the Jivin’ Gene version of Release Me.

Back to the plot. As a result of significantly improved promotion, the SSS International ‘version’ of Release Me gave Johnny his first sniff of the Billboard Hot 100 – a number 82 which at least was a start – and a #34 in the R&B Chart.

The title of the follow-up, Reconsider Me, was suspiciously like that of its predecessor and, yes, there were similarities. The song was once again a country weepie but this time not a cover; it had been penned by Margaret Lewis and Mira (sometimes Myra) Smith, a partnership which by this time had produced three Country Top Ten songs (for David Houston and Jeannie C. Riley). This is the demo from Ms Lewis accompanied on guitar by Ms Smith under the stage name of Grace Tennessee. And this is the Adams record:

The vocal at the start of the released single is conversational (like the demo) and there’s an understated building taking place within the arrangement which differs considerably from the Quezergue arranged Release Me. There’s also more evidence of planning. Whereas the ad libbing etc. on Release Me was relatively novel and possibly the result of just a few takes, on the new release it might well have been the target of careful planning with Singleton himself probably involved – he is listed as producer. The improvising guitarist on Reconsider Me is another difference between the records (and I’m suspicious that the man involved is Walter “Wolfman” Washington who joined Johnny’s touring band round about this time).

Or maybe all the above is rationalisation on why I’ve included both tracks in the Ten.

In terms of record sales, Reconsider Me was Johnny’s high point; #28 Pop and #8 R&B was as good as it got for him. Follow-up records with a distinct country tinge like I Can’t Be All Bad where a twin guitar attack is deployed, Proud Woman with the memorable opening line “You are just a splinter on God’s finger”, and Georgia Morning Dew reached low end Hot 100 or even less. Some like the first named and the flip of Proud Woman were Lewis/Smith compositions.

Johnny’s 6th single for SSS International (out of 11 including Release Me) was a remake of I Won’t Cry which contained plenty of the Adams falsetto and was cut in Muscle Shoals according to Tony Rounce. It was good but I prefer the flip, I Want To Walk Through This Life With You, another Lewis/Smith authored number featuring an arrangement in which country aspects were but a memory (as on the A-side).

SSS International released a Johnny Adams LP in 1970 entitled Heart & Soul. It was effectively a compilation of his singles and flips plus two tracks from the Ric days: the original version of I Won’t Cry and A Losing Battle. It was Johnny’s first album.

He left the label in 1971 after Singleton purchased Sun Records, lock, stock and barrel from Sam Phillips, which included all those famous recordings made for the label other than the Presley tracks which Sam had, as we all know, sold to RCA. We are informed – Los Angeles Times – that the cash for the purchase came from the profits from Jeannie C. Riley’s Harper Valley P.T.A. which was produced by Singleton and released on another of his labels, Plantation Records. Consequently he (Singleton) had a new project and Johnny wasn’t getting a look in.

Which brings us to …

 

The In-Between Years 2

Atlantic picked up Johnny’s contract later in ’71 which resulted in the release of four singles and confirmation of the proverb I’ve just coined: “Not everything that Atlantic touched turned to gold” (with apologies to Ahmet, Jerry, etc.). That’s a little mean; the singles weren’t bad but maybe they suffered from lack of promotion.

Best of the bunch for me were the first and the last: the Wardell Quezergue produced More Than One Way, a dancer with bang-up-to-date New Orleans cross rhythms, and the Allen Toussaint composed Whoever’s Thrilling You (the original of which had appeared on a Toussaint produced Ernie K Doe album) which was another dancer but a slow one. Both of these were possible candidates for inclusion; the second largely missed out because I checked out Ernie’s original and decided I preferred it.

One more of Johnny’s Atlantic singles deserves attention. The powers-that-be at Atlantic, who selected the Stones’ Salt Of The Earth (from Beggars Banquet) as a vehicle for Johnny, probably had in mind the success that the label had a few years earlier with Esther Phillips and And I Love Him/Her. The Adams platter was a decent effort, but that LP used to get played a lot in the Stephens household and my preference is still for Mick & co.

After Atlantic dropped Johnny he hooked up with maverick producer and record label owner, Senator Jones, back in New Orleans. Jones had just lost his key recording asset, deep soul artist Charles Brimmer, after an argument between the pair and was only too happy to take a fully proven singer on board. Wardell Quezergue was utilised once again to provide the majority of the arrangements so there was a thread of continuity to/from the pre-SSS International period. Jones had a habit of generating labels at the drop of a hat but the bulk of Johnny’s output appeared on the Senator’s Hep’ Me imprint (though his first Jones single, a good take on the O’Jays Stairway To Heaven appeared on another of Jones’ labels, JB’s). Other labels like Ariola were often used for distribution.

Jones focussed as much on albums as singles – though there was a steady stream of the latter in order to feed the jukeboxes – and put regular new records in front of potential buyers so they’d go to Johnny’s live shows. Five LPs were released from the Hep’ Me stable: A Christmas With Johnny Adams, Stand By Me, After All The Good Is Gone, The Many Sides Of Johnny Adams and The Sweet Country Voice Of Johnny Adams. I’ve not delved into the Christmas one though it did get reissued several years later but, of the others, only Stand By Me and After All The Good Is Gone are currently available on CD. However, there are other CDs which attempt to address some of this not insignificant volume of output. These include An Introduction To Johnny Adams (which has most of the Stand By Me tracks barring the title one but with extra tracks added including After All The Good Is Gone), The Ultimate Johnny Adams (which has 45 tracks including some from Johnny’s period on the Watch label but misses some from An Introduction) and a few more variations.

I said “not insignificant volume of output”, I should add that the Hep’ Me output wasn’t insignificant in terms of quality in addition to quantity. Indeed, I’m inclined to rate it more highly than the output from any of Johnny’s other recording phases. I should also explain that the mention of the track After All The Good Is Gone wasn’t gratuitous; Johnny’s version of the song – see below – was the only one of his Hep’ Me (and related) singles to chart at all; it reached the #75 position in the R&B Chart and was very popular locally.

The original After All The Good Is Gone which was released and penned by Conway Twitty (and produced by ex-rocker Jimmy Bowen), came out in 1976 and got Conway a #1 in the Country Chart. The Adams version which was arranged by Quezergue and produced by Jones may have been them saying to Shelby Singleton, “this is our way of doing country”. With the vocal chorale following the brass which had followed the strings, and the omnipresence of the Washington guitar weaving flurries of notes around Johnny who kept hanging on after all the good was gone – though the occasional screams indicated the pain of doing so – it was quite a record.

That wasn’t the only country flavoured track from the Adams Hep’ Me team, others like Hell Yes, I Cheated (what a title!) and The Image Of Me and more appeared on LPs although in general the influence was more subtle. Ballads were still the order of the day in part via oldies of varying vintage like an excellent Love Letters and a restrained (compared with Proby that is) version of Somewhere which song might even get a new lease of life after the December 2021 update of West Side Story. Ben E. King got targeted for the Adams/Quezergue/Jones treatment but both Stand By Me and Spanish Harlem received more spirited makeovers with at least one eye on the disco audience. Johnny’s evident enjoyment at being given the occasional more funky morsel was something to savour. In terms of timely covers and those on rather more tender lines, I shouldn’t ignore his interpretation of the Albert Hammond/Carole Bayer Sager big hit for Leo Sayer, When I Need You, which saw release shortly before Johnny left Hep’ Me/Senator Jones.

To give a wider view of the Adams Hep’ Me output I’ve selected two tracks, both of which appear on An Introduction To Johnny Adams though the second also saw release as a single. The tracks are A Shoulder To Cry On which, with its tripletting piano and limited chordal structure, has elements of Louisiana blues cum swamp pop running through it, and Sharing You which is smooth seventies soul with Johnny smouldering along nicely. Both have the ever-present Washington providing counterpoint.

 

 

Rounder

Those in charge of the Rounder label had already shown interest by picking up the rights to Johnny’s Ric & Ron material and issuing a compilation of those sides back in 1971. In 1984, he joined them properly and stayed with the label until his death from cancer in September 1998. Unlike many other artists for whom a relatively brief stay at a label like Rounder or Alligator was little more than a brief coda to an illustrious career elsewhere, the Adams stint at Rounder gave him a whole new national audience which in part wasn’t aware of or hadn’t explored his Ric or SSS International material.

With the benefit of some hindsight since the online music encyclopedia hadn’t started then, the AllMusic review (from Bill Dahl) of Johnny’s first album for Rounder, From The Heart, was very positive:

“With first-class production by Scott Billington, the delicious Crescent City combo led by longtime Johnny Adams’ cohort Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar with Red Tyler on tenor sax, From The Heart features Adams’ perennially luxurious pipes and stands as one of his finest contemporary outings.”

The album opens with a slightly jazzy New Orleans blues take on Ann Peebles’ Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home and continues with the out-and-out jazzy Why Do I before eventually finishing via a reminder of his Ric era, the Mac Rebennack co-composed, Teach Me To Forget (and for comparison, this was the Ric Teach Me To Forget). In between there were nods to Sam Cooke, Tony Joe White, Doc Pomus and Percy Mayfield with the last one featuring Johnny’s (superbly executed) mouth trombone vocalese.

And that was to be broadly the flavour of the 8 albums that followed From The Heart, not counting some reconfigured variations on some of this output (with the inclusions of a few tracks which hadn’t made the original sets). Billington stayed as producer and much of the support band remained in place with other New Orleans names like George Porter from the Meters, and Dr. John/Mac Rebennack also showing off their chops. There were explicit albums devoted to the work of Doc Pomus and Percy Mayfield and ones which zeroed in on blues and jazz respectively.

The initial enthusiasm from Bill Dahl at AllMusic did wear off just a tad with the phrase “perhaps a bit too jazzy from some R&B fans” appearing in his review of 1993’s Good Morning Heartache but ratings were back at a high level for both the final and penultimate Adams’ albums.

The final album Man Of My Word was one of his better ones with tracks included that are associated with William Bell, Brook Benton and Percy Sledge, and with Aaron Neville as guest vocalist on one number. I’ve included Bobby Charles’ I Don’t Want To Know as my final selection. I’m not sure that I’d place hand on heart and rate this higher than the original but it’s still very well performed with sympathetic backing – and it does take Johnny back to his homeland of Louisiana.

I don’t want to go
To New Orleans no more
I am too afraid
I might see her face
That I couldn’t take

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, directed by Werner Herzog (Saturn Films). Nicolas Cage’s lieutenant walks into a surveillance room across the street from a house detectives are checking out, hallucinating his head off from crack and coke. “What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?” he says, as one of the lizards only he can see begins to rotate an eye while Johnny Adams’s New Orleans version of Release Me comes out of its mouth – or its nose, or whatever it is that iguanas sing out of.” (Greil Marcus: Real Life Rock Top Ten October 2009)

If all had gone to plan I’d have followed that somewhat arcane reference with a cracking live version of that song from Johnny but you know the saying that starts “the best laid plans of mice and men” and, yes, that plan went agley; there is no such thing on YT. But I wasn’t going to remove the Marcus para, so here’s a cracking version of a totally different song, Walking On A Tightrope, a Percy Mayfield number, from Johnny & his band. Although the clip didn’t tell me, a little detective work identified the date as probably May and the year as 1990 with the location probably in Texas (from the ‘Lone Star’ sign in the background) with the band members consisting of Kenny Blevins (drums), George Porter (bass), Jon Cleary (keys) and Danny Caron (guitar).

 

Footnotes

1. There’s another story about Johnny Adams in his early days, though this one – it’s claimed – has some truth in it, which has Johnny along with other artists, Joe Jones, Earl King, Smokey Johnson, George French (detail from Home Of The Groove blog), travelling to Detroit to see if they could interest Berry Gordy of the, then, relatively new Motown. The story goes on to say that Berry wanted to sign Johnny but Joe Ruffino threatened to sue if he did, so nothing happened.

2. The bulk of the biographic articles on Johnny state that Mac Rebennack produced his debut single, I Won’t Cry. However, neither John Broven in “Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans” nor Tony Rounce in his extensive notes to the Ace album covering the Ric and Ron singles, make this claim, so I decided to leave it out. My suspicion is that due to some confusion – and Mac did produce some of Johnny’s later work – is that he did get credited with I Won’t Cry by one writer, maybe Bill Dahl writing in AllMusic, and then the story got copied into other essays on Johnny. I could be wrong of course and, if so, apologies to the late Mac Rebennack/Dr. John (who would have been 17 years old at the time).

3. Both I Won’t Cry and Who You Are show Joe Ruffino appearing on the composer credit line alongside Ms LaBostrie. I have assumed that this was in line with the normal practice by label owners in those day to obtain a portion of the song sales’ royalties (in the process reducing those due to the real composer/s). Perhaps ironically, Ruffino didn’t pursue this displeasing habit consistently and on Johnny’s bestselling Ric single, Losing Battle, his name is absent from the credits.

4. For anyone wondering where he/she could find the Adams Pacemaker tracks, Ace/Kent have the answer: they are contained in the South Texas Rhythm’n’Soul Revue series which focuses on the work of Huey Meaux.

5. Texan Shelby Singleton or to give him his full name, Shelby Sumpter Singleton Jr. started his working life in the late fifties at the Mercury Record label in the promotion of records. He fairly swiftly got himself into record production and his first success came with Brook Benton’s The Boll Weevil Song. That was followed by Walk On By (Leroy Van Dyke), Ahab The Arab (Ray Stevens), Hey Baby (Bruce Channel) and Hey Paula (Paul & Paula). He was named Head of A&R for Mercury in Nashville in 1961 and then promoted to run the overall company A&R from New York. He was responsible for signing Roger Miller, Faron Young and Jerry Lee Lewis to Mercury (or its Smash subsidiary).

In 1966, he left Mercury and set up the Shelby Singleton Corporation in Nashville founding a couple of record labels, SSS International and Plantation in the process. On the last named he had his mega-hit with Jeannie C. Riley’s Harper Valley P.T.A. In 1968 he purchased the rights to the Sun label which was timely in terms of the seventies rockabilly revival. He also signed and produced the Flatlanders for the reincarnated Sun Records.

6. If you’ve read my Toppermost on Dale Hawkins you’ll have come across Margaret Lewis who, with her sister Rose, sang back-up for Dale on several records and on stage. By that time, she had already appeared on the Louisiana Hayride radio show and had started writing songs in association with Mira Smith, founder and manager of Ram Records in Shreveport. In terms of song writing, the Lewis/Smith partnership had a modicum of success as reported in the main text. Margaret’s own recording career continued for several years. She had a minor hit in the US Country Chart with Honey (I Miss You Too), an answer record to Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey, and the Ace Records UK catalogue continues to list CDs from her.

7. Senator Jones also appears in another Toppermost in the New Orleans Series, the one on Barbara George wherein I report on his attempts to revive her record career. The best article I have seen on Jones is the one in Ponderosa Stomp which is highly recommended reading. Within it, Jones tells the interviewer the story of why he selected Hep’ Me as a label name:

“When John McKeithen (from north Louisiana) was running for governor, he would get on TV and say, ‘Won’t you please hep me.’ Well, it got him elected. I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me too.”

8. Soul (including deep soul) artist Charles Brimmer is a relatively little-known name although there has been some recognition of his talent within the UK Northern Soul community. He has no Wiki entry but the Discogs biog for him is substantial. The bulk of his recording was done for Senator Jones Hep’ Me (and related) labels. He left Hep’ Me after “Differences with the label and producer” (Discogs) and moved to the west coast where he worked as an accountant. His most famous record is his cover of Al Green’s God Bless Our Love.

9. I’ve made something of a habit of closing footnotes with a live clip (or two). There are surprisingly few in existence featuring Johnny but I have an undated one with Johnny & band performing Stand By Me. Note (1) the almost unseen “Wolfman” Washington who gets credit in Johnny’s intro but only comes into shot during a brief solo round about the two and half minute mark, and (2) the crowd response. Come on y’all!

 

 

Johnny Adams photo 2

Johnny Adams (1932–1998)

 

I Won’t Cry – The Complete Ric & Ron Singles 1959-1964 CD

Johnny Adams at 45cat

Discography (Soulful Kinda Music)

Walter “Wolfman” Washington official website

Walter “Wolfman” Washington (Wikipedia)

Johnny Adams biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis, #11 Professor Longhair, #12 Shirley & Lee, #13 Lloyd Price, #14 Dr. John, #15 Huey “Piano” Smith, #16 Roy Brown; #17 Johnny Adams

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post: William Bell; Bobby Charles; Ray Charles; Sam Cooke; Lee Dorsey; The Falcons; Al Green; Little Richard; Percy Mayfield; Esther Phillips; Tony Joe White

TopperPost #1,002

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 6, 2022

    Have to admit I hadn’t heard of Johnny Adams before reading this great piece. Such a fine voice and some superb songs in here. Thanks again.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jan 8, 2022

    Johnny Adams was head and shoulders vocally above all the other male artists operating out of New Orleans other than Aaron Neville though he (Neville) was/is something of a specialised taste. Johnny never seemed to get the continuity of songs and/or management to achieve real success. Perhaps Release Me and Reconsider Me typecast him too much.

  3. Cal Taylor
    Jan 10, 2022

    This Toppermost must have been difficult to put together and Dave has made a splendid job of making it as comprehensive as possible in a relatively short essay.
    Johnny Adams has always been vastly underrated. He had a wonderfully pure voice that with the right material could have taken the charts by storm – but it never really happened, just a few minor hits. Poor promotion of his talents and maybe bad timing (he seemed to be either ahead of the game or desperately trying to follow it) both would have contributed to being largely unknown. In the U.K. it’s criminal that in the quarter of a century from 1959 he had just three singles released here compared with around fifty in the U.S.
    He was certainly an early soul pioneer and could have made it big when soul took off in the 1960s. If only …

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