Johnny Adams has a classic soul biography, with his start in gospel music and crossover to mainstream music at the end of the ‘50s, but he managed to bend a number of musical styles to his voice. After some mild success, he essentially disappeared until he began a nine-album run with Rounder from the mid-‘80s until his death in 1998. Following last year’s blues collection, Rounder has gathered a series of his soul tracks for The Great Johnny Adams R&B Album. While the disc stays focused on one broad genre, it does show his ability to adapt to various styles and moods, even if it doesn’t offer us completely solid argument.
The compilation sticks to tracks that highlight Adams’s vocal ability; even though the disc contains performances by strong artists like Dr. John and Duke Robillard, you won’t listen to these tracks and think about how tight the combos are. They don’t fail on any of the dozen songs, but they also stick to their place in the background, allowing Adams full freedom to do his thing in whichever way he chooses.
The disc opens, unusually, with a previously unreleased recording of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I Need a Lot of Loving”. It may never have made it into the discography, but the cut sets a nice tone for the set. Recorded by a New Orleans set of musicians, the song has a Stax groove to it. Adams manages the vocal well, expressing his need in a tone that approaches a plea without ever turning to desperation. His singer becomes a man of confidence who just needs some loving, recognizing that “Your lovin’ makes me strong” carries a present tense that can add a little surety to the situation. It’s a steady performance, with Adams not restricting himself to the beat, but without varying the melody too intensely. When he breaks into some shouts at the end, it carries a feeling of general overflow, lacking both urgency and reward, yet still brimming with energy.
Adams uses that full solid voice to good effect on the more upbeat numbers, like the horn-based “She Said the Same Things to Me” and the funky “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”. The latter track shows the same control of emotion. While Adams is angry enough to break up someone else’s relationship, he recognizes the futility of any action. He sings, “I know it’s useless / After all, you belong to someone else”, and that sentiment keeps him grounded. It’s an intelligent rendering of the lyric, as Adams keeps the song’s energy high without boiling over, allowing himself to reach just to a simmer at key moments before pulling back (without ever turning the heat down too much).
Adams isn’t limited to working around funk grooves here. He also skillfully navigates some smoother, jazzier works. However, while tracks like “The Jealous Kind” succeed wonderfully, others don’t live up to the rest of the disc. Closer “Still in Love” comes across as far too treacly. The problem comes largely from the lounge-y arrangement, but Adams doesn’t sound as thick on this track as he usually does. He performs with refinement and distinction, but without being memorable.
Earlier ballad “From the Heart” (from the album of the same name) contains a better performance. Adams stretches his voice out more, maintaining a clear tone while emoting well. The slow groove gives him room to work the melody and pick his moments to be expressive. It’s the song itself that fails Adams, though, by not being strong enough to be the big statement moment his vocal deserves.
In essence, that’s the only problem with this compilation. It contains a number of strong tracks, and Adams certainly makes his case as a great vocalist. Unfortunately, none of these tracks ever truly sell the point. While Adams manages a consistently good listen, he never provides that stunner, that one track that forces you to take notice. It’s a shame because he’s got plenty of minor gems worth the time, but their shine isn’t always obvious.