I love all kinds of blues music, but every once in a while it’s good to sit back and bask in the sounds of one artist, or one type of music, and see where it leads.
That’s how I started a while back — in the mood for some soulful music to accompany a contemplative mood and a smooth libation (softly-aged 15-year-old Matusalem rum) — I settled on Johnny Adams, the wonderful, soul-blessed New Orleans singer fondly known as the “Tan Canary.”
Adams was born in New Orleans in 1932, and started singing with the Soul Revivers and Bessie Griffin’s Consolators, but left the fold for the devil’s music in 1959, when he recorded “I Won’t Cry,” for the Ric Records label. The song was written by his songwriter neighbor, Dorothy LaBostrie, who supposedly talked him into recording after hearing him sing in the bathtub. The record was produced by Dr. John (Mac Rebbanack), who would have been about 18 at the time. Certainly an auspicious beginning.
And it didn’t hurt that Adams could sing. He could range over a variety of styles, from soul to jazz to R&B and blues. But no matter what he sang, it was how he sang. His voice could be silky and sultry, his vocals a work of musical art, and his falsetto can still raise the hair on your neck.
I have a couple of Adams albums in my collection — “There Is Always One More Time” and “Man of My Word” — but I wanted to hear more. So I checked my streaming service (Amazon Prime, if you really wanna know, with Alexa as my obedient DJ) and picked a couple of compilations: “The Great Johnny Adams R&B Album” and “The Great Johnny Adams Blues Album.” And because I love the songbook of the great Doc Pomus so much, I threw in “Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me.”
It turned out that it’s all great music, from this fantastic voice. I didn’t really solve any of the world’s problems while I listened, but I sure felt better about myself. (Or maybe it was just the rum!) Songs like “Room With A View of the Blues,” “Release Me,” “Reconsider Me” — all overflowing with the sublime essence of soul music, and the rich sweetness of Adams’ magical voice.
But listening to any music usually sets my mind to wandering off on its own. This was no different. It reminded me that were other soulful crooners named Johnny who had stirred some of my younger teen genes.
The first was a powerful crooner, sort of Johnny Mathis meets doo-wop, or something like that. He was a short-lived but influential — and also very soulful — singer from the early 1950s — Johnny Ace.
Ace, born John Marshall Alexander Jr. in 1929, cut his first record, “My Song,” in 1952. Over the next two years, his music took off, and he had eight hits in a row, including “Cross My Heart”, “Please Forgive Me”, “The Clock”, “Yes, Baby”, “Saving My Love for You” and “Never Let Me Go.”
But his biggest hit, “Pledging My Love,” was released shortly after his untimely and unfortunate death backstage between Christmas day shows in 1954 in Houston, Texas, when he accidentally shot himself in the head while playing with a loaded revolver. Members of Ace’s band said he did this often, sometimes shooting at roadside signs from their car. There were some claims at the time that Ace had been playing Russian roulette, but according to Big Mama Thornton, also part of that holiday concert, he had been playing with the gun but not playing Russian roulette. So that tragedy left us just a little more than two years of his engaging vocals.
I first heard Johnny Ace somewhere in that timeframe, because Pittsburgh’s legendary disc jockey Porky Chedwick (the Daddio of the Raddio) played his records, and if my memory isn’t too faulty, I heard “Pledging My Love” many, many times. It was a very fine tune for very, very slow, almost motionless, dancing. It was probably Ace’s most successful song, and it was later recorded by everyone from Teresa Brewer to Billy Thunderkloud & the Chieftones. My favorite version, after the original, is by Solomon Burke, on his excellent (highly recommended by me), album “Soul of the Blues.”
And yes, I promised a third soulful singer. It’s Johnny Ray, who also rose to popularity in the 1950s for his dramatic onstage shows, featuring his dramatic vocals. Tony Bennett once called him the “father of rock and roll,” but blues fans know better than that!
He hung around much longer that Johnny Ace, but his fame in the U.S. declined in the late ’50s. although he remained popular in the United Kingdom and Australia, and eventually made somewhat of a comeback in the States.
Ray’s big early hits came on the Okeh label in 1952 with songs on both side of his single — “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried,” and his vocal histrionics immediately gave him teen idol status. I’m pretty sure I first heard him on the Porky Chedwick radio show, but I could be wrong, since Ray also made TV appearances during those years.
His career was long and checkered, with high points like working with Judy Garland in Europe, and nightclub work, along with many other recordings.
But I include him here because I was so impressed by his vocal style while I was still a young and impressionable person. Plus his emergence with other early ’50s music that broke the mold, especially for white audiences. I wouldn’t necessarily call it soul music as we think of it now, but it seemed to pour out of Ray with that same kind of passion and intensity.
And maybe that’s all you need to satisfy your soul.
Here are samples of the work of these three great entertainers:
If you’ve made it this far in this long-winded post, congratulations. And consider yourself lucky I didn’t decide to include Johnny Rawls, Johnny Cash, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Mathis or John(ny) Németh.