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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Johnny Adams, "The Real Me: Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus"

Johnny Adams
"The Real Me: Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus"
Rounder (1991)
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

You would be forgiven for hearing Johnny Adams singing and labeling it as "white boy blues” because his muse on “The Real Me,” is Doc Pomus, a white bluesman from New York City. I don’t mean to sound racially insensitive; all races are equally inclined to get them blues, but the lyrical approach is generally different. For starters, compare the works of buddies B.B. King and Eric Clapton and you’ll see that white bluesmen tend towards a cleaner sound (which I would typically label as less bluesy as a result). Keep in mind that in terms of style, nothing is black or white.

Having gotten that uncomfortable dialectic out of the way, I can assert my point. Adams has a combination of range and strength in his voice that makes him great for R&B, which is exactly what I would argue this album is. His range is much higher than say, Issac Hayes, but the problem is that his professional tone lacks the inherent cool of Hayes.

That professional tone makes him ideal for handling the work of Pomus. Pomus’ lyrics tend towards more finesse than traditional blues, and Adams’ voice is well suited for working with the more poetic lines (of tracks like “Imitation of Love”) while still nailing the emotions of a man whose baby just quit him.

Pomus had been a writer for the famed Brill Building songwriting clique, and he’s responsible for songs like “Viva Las Vegas” for Elvis Presley and “Save The Last Dance for Me” for “The Drifters, work which influenced his later approach to more natural blues writing.

The backing band adds a jazzier feel to the album, and it’s no wonder. Alvin “Red” Tyler contributed saxophone aside from arranging the tracks, and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack handles the pianos. Dr. John is a New Orleans legend in his own right, and he’ll get his own attention later down the line. He adds some upbeat swing to the bridges of tracks like “I Underestimated You” and plays a more humble, unaccompanied role when Adams finally tackles the title track.

Don’t take my description of this music as “white boy blues” as making it worth less than any other blues variety. Pomus got it, Adams got it, and you’ll get it too when you give a listen.

INTERESTING FACT: Not to hammer on race any more than I have, but Pomus was the first Caucasian to be awarded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. The foundation would later give him his own award, through the Doc Pomus Financial Assistance Program.

"I Underestimated You"

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