Adams Sings Bo
"Tra-La-La" (D. Johnson)
Johnny Adams, Ric 992, 1962
Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Joe Ruffino, owner of the Ric and Ron labels, was putting out some great records in New Orleans by top-notch local artists such as Tommy Ridgley, Eddie Bo and Professor Longhair, plus promising newcomers including Irma Thomas and Johnny Adams, who both scored national R&B chart hits. Thomas' "You Can Have My Husband" rose to #22 in 1960; and Adams's "A Losing Battle" made it to #27 in 1962. With a background in gospel music, Adams was a truly gifted singer just learning the ropes of the music business at this time. He went through his ups and downs with Ruffino, but managed to have 11 singles released on Ric between 1960, when he made his debut as a recording artist, and the demise of the label, due to the death of its owner, in 1963. Though some were good local or regional sellers, nothing else he did for Ric broke nationwide; and he did not have another substantial hit until 1968.
For the most part, what I've collected from this era in Johnny Adams' career has come through the Rounder Records 1991 CD compilation, I Won't Cry. It contains 14 of Adams’ Ric sides; and, while not complete, aptly shows how accomplished the singer was when he was starting out. Not all of the songs were top rate; but he already seemed comfortable with various styles and had a voice that could make good songs great and lesser ones palatable. A few weeks back, I bought this copy of Ric #992, which came out later in 1962. It has two fine sides that are not on the Rounder CD: “Showdown”, a Mac Rebennack-penned soul/blues ballad (he also wrote and produced "A Losing Battle"), and the uplifting “Tra-La-La”, written by Eddie Bo under the pen name, D. Johnson (for his second wife, Delores). Both Rebennack and Bo were quite active with Ruffino’s labels during this period, assisting with production, writing and arranging. While I have not discovered much of any session information for Ric and Ron, it is likely that either or both Rebennack and Bo were involved in the making of this 45.
Funny thing is, Adams recorded this one twice. He redid it and several of his other Ric tunes when he was with Shelby Singleton’s SSS International label, recording mainly in Nashville between 1968 and 1971; but it remained unreleased until CD compilations of that material started coming out. On those, it is titled, “Down By the River” (surely confusing a few Neil Young fans). I believe “Tra-La-La”/"Down By the River" to be one of only four Eddie Bo songs Johnny Adams recorded in his 40 year career. He cut "I Want to Do Everything For You" when he was still recording for Ruffino; and it was released on Ron in 1962, after the owner's death. Two others were on a Gone single (5147) Bo produced on the singer in 1964, the incredible "Going To The City" b/w "I'm Grateful".
Having only heard the SSS version of our feature before, I am glad to have found the original, which can't be topped. Johnny’s inspired delivery dovetails perfectly with the song’s gospel leanings. Just the way he lets lose with the first four words, “I’m on my way…”, lets you know you're hearing a formidable vocalist. The track is expertly arranged and played to boot, with righteous piano runs throughout (Bo?), hip, understated horn charts, and a swinging back-beat groove.
Right before this record came out, Adams had gone to Detroit with a group of other New Orleans artists (including Joe Jones, Earl King, Smokey Johnson, and George French) to audition for the fledgling Motown label. It is said that, out of the bunch, Berry Gordy wanted to sign Johnny, but Ruffino threatened to sue them, so it didn't happen. Instead, the singer returned home and went on to have a respectable but sometimes lackluster recording career, until Rounder made a string of impressive, first class CDs with him during the final dozen or so years of his life. Makes you wonder, though, what might have happened decades earlier had he become a part of Motown's impressive stable of artists and gained more exposure to a national and worldwide audience.
You can hear a few more sides from various stages of Johnny's early career at the Soul Club Jukebox, and sample some of his later Rounder material here.
And, as Lyle helpfully pointed out in the comments, a few Rounder cuts are also available as free downloads at amazon. So, you have ample opportunity to hear the man that Cosimo Matassa said was his favorite New Orleans singer.
For some more background, check out this earlier post.