Lathen John Adams Jr., born on 5th January 1932 in New Orleans in a religious family, was called as “Johnny Adams” by his fans. He was the eldest of the 10 children of his parents. Johnny Adams was one of the gifted artists with a soulful voice. He excelled in singing blues, rhythms and blues, soul and jazz, and was capable of performing the best in any of these styles.
Due to his multioctave range of singing voice, swooping vocal mannerisms and falsetto, he was known as “The Tan Canary”. In his lifetime he sang lots of hit songs but the ones that gave him a good identity in the start was his versions of “Release Me” and “Reconsider Me” in the late 1960s.
Johnny dropped out of school at 15 to start his career in music. He started his musical journey from singing with gospel groups like the Soul Revivers and Bessie Griffin and the Consolators. However, according to Johnny himself, his voice was too loud that it couldn’t blend with the others.
Being a die heart fan of music, Adams was once singing in his bathtub when his neighbor Dorothy LaBostrie, a songwriter, heard him singing in a melodious voice. After that, she persuaded Johnny to start performing secular music. Finally, in 1959 he went on to perform secular music and recorded his first ever local hit – A ballad “I Won’t Cry”, written by Dorothy LaBostrie and produced by Mac Rebennack for Joe Ruffino’s Local Ric Label. Soon the song was on the lips of everyone around the town.
After the success of Johnny’s first song, he went on to record more songs for the next three years that were produced by Mac Rebennack and Eddio Bio. In 1962, Johnny’s “A Losing Battle”, written by Rebennack was a huge national hit that also managed to reach the #27th spot on the Billboard R&B Chart. Seeing the success of this song, Barry Gody Jr. urged Johnny sign to his Motown label but unfortunately, the deal didn’t occur because Ruffino threatened to sue because Johnny was already signed to Ric Records.
After the death of Ruffino in 1963, he left Ric Records and started recording for various other records including Eddie Bo’s Gone Records, Wardell Quezergue’s Watch label and the Los Angeles-based Modern Records. In 1968, when he signed up with the Shelby Singleton’s Nashville-based, SSS International records, he became more popular for the hits that came by.
His song “Release Me”, a reissue originally released on Watch, successfully reached the #34th spot on the R&B Chart and #82nd spot on the pop chart. However, the country song ‘Reconsider Me’, produced by Singleton in 1969, is considered as one of the biggest hits of Johnny and reached the #8th spot on the R&B chart and #28th spot on the pop chart. He went on making several reissues, which gained a lot of popularity among his fans across the globe.
Just like many other artists, Johnny Adams had his fair share of good and bad times. In 1971 when he left SSS International, he worked with several labels including Atlantic and Ariola over the next few years – all the songs he did there were unsuccessful and never reached any chart. But he didn’t lose hope, he began performing at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge in New Orleans regularly. He remained a New Orleans fixture throughout the 70s – it was the reason that the rest of the world remained unaware of this gem of a person in the beginning.
Adam himself believed that the major problem behind these flops was the record companies trying to limit his range of music. He followed his own singing approach that led him towards success and restricting that approach caused a series of unsuccessful recordings.
Finally, after having a bad experience with a number of record companies, Johnny signed up with Rounder Records in 1983 and recorded a series of nine critically acclaimed albums, produced by Scott Billington. It was the collaboration that would last for the rest of Johnny’s career. The song that highlighted the real potential of his voice was “From the Heart”, sung in 1984. It consisted of a wide range of blues, jazz, and R&B styles. Behind the success of these albums was Johnny but Scott Billington himself too, because he allowed him to sing with freedom and exercise his own artistic singing style rather than restricting him. This was the period that marked a turning point in Johnny’s career.
His work with Billington didn’t just open more paths to his success but also made him well-known outside New Orleans.
When Billington paid tribute to Adams, he described him as being the “first and foremost a jazz singer with one of the best pairs of ears in the business”.
Many other albums recorded by Johnny earned him huge respect and several rewards (including W. C. Handy Award) include:
- Room with a View of the Blues (1988)
- Walking a Tightrope (1989)
- the Real Me (1991)
These recordings were basically tribute to the music of Percy Mayfield and Doc Pomus. They were back-to-back hits that allowed him to travel the world so the people can hear his melodious, multioctave singing voice. His trips included Europe and other international tours, promoting his songs. In this period, he also worked with great musicians of his time like Aaron Neville, Lonnie Smith, Dr. John, and Harry Connick Jr.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer – even this didn’t let him down. He went to record his one final album “Man of My Word”, which was released in 1998. Although Johnny was going through a lot, he still managed to put together a strong album that would be remembered and listened for many years to come.
This great musician’s forty-year career, however, ended with his sad death on September 14, 1998, at Baton Rouge, Louisiana after battling with prostate cancer. Even after his death, he continued receiving recognition from the work he left behind. He received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation in 1999. In 2000, Rounder issued an album “There Is Always One More Time” – consisting of a compilation of Johnny’s best works. The album didn’t just feature his singles but also some collaborations with other performers.
Here is a list of selected top discography by Johnny Adams:
- “I Won’t Cry”, Ric, 1959.
- “A Losing Battle”, Ric, 1962.
- “Release Me”, SSS, 1968.
- “Reconsider Me”, SSS, 1969.
- “I Can’t Be All Bad”, SSS, 1969.
- Heart and Soul, SSS, 1969.
- From the Heart, Rounder, 1984.
- After Dark, Rounder, 1986.
- Room with a View of the Blues, Rounder, 1987.
- Walking on a Tightrope: The Songs of Percy Mayfield, Rounder, 1989.
- Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me, Rounder, 1991.
- I Won’t Cry: From the Vaults of Ric & Ron Records, Rounder, 1991.
- Good Morning Heartache, Rounder, 1993.
- The Verdict, Rounder, 1995.
- One Foot in the Blues, Rounder, 1996.
- Man of My Word, Rounder, 1998.
- There Is Always One More Time, Rounder, 2000.