“The Tan Canary”
The Big Easy has spawned more than its fair share of musical offspring. But just being a native son does not guarantee success. One has to earn it. There are many who vocalize in R&B and blues, but not too many real soul singers. They have a tendency to get weeded out real quick.
Johnny Adams was a long-time regular on the New Orleans music scene, beginning with his 1959 rhythm and blues hit "I Won't Cry." Adams, whose velvety voice could stretch into a high falsetto with ease, mastered a handful of musical styles, including gospel, blues, soul, jazz, and country. Over his nearly 40-year career, he recorded in these varied genres on a number of labels, yet he never reached the national stardom of some of his contemporaries. He performed largely in New Orleans, where he became a local legend.
The eldest in a family of ten children, Adams was born on January 5, 1932, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was raised in a religious family and sang in the church choir, so it is not surprising that he was first drawn to gospel music. At age 15, Adams left school, got a day job, and began performing at night with the Soul Revivers, a gospel quartet. With this quartet, he honed what was to become his signature style of vocal acrobatics, ranging deftly from low to high notes. From that group he signed on with Spirit of New Orleans, and with Bessie Griffin and the Consolators. Yet Adams's virtuoso voice stood out from the ensemble.
In 1959 he jumped onto the rhythm-and-blues charts with a single, "I Won't Cry," produced by Mac Rebennack on the Ric record label. The ballad became one of Adams's most memorable songs. Although it might have been the first step on his road to stardom, the song did not catapult Adams into the national spotlight. Ric label owner Joe Ruffino held up national distribution of the singles, and Adams claimed that Ruffino held him back. "I really believe I could have gone somewhere if Ruffino would have just co-operated with the major record companies." Still, Adams continued to record with Ric, gaining national attention with "A Losing Battle," written by Rebenack, which made the rhythm and blues charts in 1962.
After Ruffino's death in 1963, Adams was free to forge his own path. He toured the "sugarcane circuit" of local bars and clubs, where he earned a solid reputation and a loyal fan base. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Adams recorded a handful of albums for several independent labels. Among the most commercially successful were his singles "Release Me," which made a brief appearance on the Hot 100 charts, "Reconsider Me," a soul-country hybrid, and the album “Heat and Soul.” In 1978 his remake of Conway Twitty's "After All the Good Is Gone" landed on the national rhythm-and-blues chart. While he remained a New Orleans fixture throughout the 1970s, the rest of the world remained largely unaware of himDespite these modest successes, it was not until 1983 that Adams developed a good working relationship with a record producer, Scott Billington of Rounder Records.