Oleta Adams adopted a motto of perseverance from the very beginning of her career as a singer. After more than a decade of playing piano bars with no break in sight, one night she impressed two key members of her audience without the slightest knowledge of their presence. Within a few years, Oleta Adams had become a hit sensation. Her persistence and talent led her to fulfill a dream of stardom.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Oleta Adams moved to Yakima, Washington when she was in the sixth grade. She grew up singing in the choir of the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, where her father served as minister. At the age of nine, she started taking piano lessons and established her love for music. “In my religious training, I was fed guilt and fear for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Adams told David Ritz in Essence. “Still, I was feisty. By the time I was 11, 1 was directing and accompanying four choirs. They all became my responsibilities. That’s when I really went to work—and haven’t stopped since.”
Once in junior high school, Adams continued her musical training under Lee Farrell, a Juilliard-trained teacher and voice coach. Farrell continued to support and encourage Adams’s career for many years. In the early 70s, she moved to Los Angeles to hit the big time. She spent $5,000 on a demo recording, but didn’t get the attention she had hoped. With Farrell’s assistance, Adams moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where she played piano bars, hotel lounges, and showrooms. Within a few years, she had become an institution at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crown Center, and even had her own billboard.
In 1982 she met her husband, drummer John Cushon, who became her support through the rough times. “John loved me before the success,” Adams later told Ritz. “He’s taken the journey with me…. Though he’s still my drummer, we never let the personal interfere with the professional.” While Adams played piano bars, she would meet other musicians as they came through town on tour. Some of these acquaintances even tried to launch her career. George Benson, for example, tried to help her get a contract with a record company for three years, but was unable to do so.
In 1985 Adams finally reached the break she wanted, although she was unaware of it at the time. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith from the British rock group Tears For Fears heard her play in the Hyatt Regency Hotel one evening. They said her voice made such an impact on them that she moved them to tears, yet they left that night without ever introducing themselves.
For the Record …
Born in Seattle, WA; moved to Yakima, WA at age 11; married to drummer John Cushon.
Trained as a singer during childhood; led church choirs by age 11; recorded demo in Los Angeles, CA; moved to Kansas City, KS; played lounges and showrooms; discovered by Tears for Fears, 1985; recorded and released Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love, 1987-1989; signed record contract with Fontana Records, 1990; released debut,Circle of One, 1990.
Addresses: Record company —Fon tan a/Mercury Records, 11150 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 1100, Los Angeles, CA 90025.
“It was just incredible, really, only three people—bass, piano, drums, and Oleta’s voice, of course—yet she had us in tears,” Orzabal told Keyboard. “The experience brought home how powerful music can be when it’s at its most basic. That really got me going.”
By the following year, Oleta Adams had become bitter about her career, and business had declined so much at the Hyatt that she broke up her four-piece band. Angry and dejected, she decided to go back to playing piano bars. But her slump didn’t last for long. She rediscovered her religious roots, and used her strength in her beliefs to reset her priorities. Once she picked herself back up, she received a long-distance call from London in 1986. Orzabal and Smith asked her if she would travel to London to record the next Tears For Fears album and video. By the following year, she had a record deal of her own.
Oleta Adams’s contribution to Tears For Fears’ The Seeds of Love led her to join the duo on tour as well. In the group’s“thank you’s” on the LP sleeve, they recognized Oleta for “authenticating our soul.” In 1990 Adams signed with the British label, Fontana Records and began recording her debut. Before the album’s release, she was invited to perform at the Prince’s Trust Gala charity benefit at Wembley Arena in London.
Originally released in the U.K., Circle of One launched Oleta Adams’s European success. But within the year, she had a hit single in the United States with “Get Here,” which Brenda Russell had written and recorded two years earlier. The song became an anthem of sorts during the Persian Gulf War, and Adams had cemented her arrival in her home country. By the end of 1990, she had landed “Circle of One” on the soundtrackfor the film Sleeping with the Enemy.
On March 5, 1991, Oleta appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which assisted in propelling Circle of One up 10 places to number 20 on the Billboard Top 200. After 16 years of struggling as a lounge act, she finally received a gold album and later a platinum. “I laugh when people call me an overnight success, because you can tell from my performance that it’s not overnight,” Adams told Benilde Little in Essence. “I don’t have that overnight wet-behind-the-ears style…. You get the feeling that I’ve sort of been around for a while.” In 1992 Adams received a Grammy nomination for “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.”
After the success of her debut, Adams headed right back into the studio. She and Brenda Russell performed “Get Here” as a duet for the first time in a small Los Angeles club, but otherwise Adams spent her time recording. By August 3, 1993, she released her second LP, Evolution, and the single “I Just Had to Hear Your Voice.”
“This album is a lot more romantic,” Adams told Carrie Borzilloin Billboard. “That was the part that was missing from the first album. There were a lot of statements being made, and it showed off my abilities, but it didn’t hit that sensuous zone.” Jeremy Helligar wrote in his review in People Weekly, “Equal parts jazz chanteuse and choir belter, she sits at the piano, pouring the contents of her love-struck heart into her songs.”
In 1994 Adams contributed “O Come All Ye Faithful” to the Joyful Christmas LP released on Columbia Records. She also teamed up with Brenda Russell on “We Will Find A Way” for the Corrina, Corrina soundtrack. Keeping her work schedule on high speed, she immediately embarked on her third album. This time, she increased her involvement in the process by producing two of the tracks herself.
Adams released Moving On on November 7, 1995, along with the single “Never Knew Love.” As she matured in her career, she once again decided to explore her style. “This album is a real attempt to step outside myself and try some new things,” she said in her record company biography. “The encouragement I’ve received to take more responsibility on myself has led to an album that not only sees me take control over complete songs for the first time, but one which, I think, re-emphasizes my R&B heritage.”
As Adams kept her mouth to the microphone and her career in motion, she insisted on her ability to hold on to her foundation. “I would describe myself as down-to-earth: a person first, a woman second, a musician third, and add passionate to all of that,” Adams told Lynn Norment in Ebony. “I’m passionate in life, love, music, and temperament, but I’ve learned to control my anger.”
Adams told Carol Cooper in Billboard that she intends to maintain her motto of perseverance, in spite of her success. “I want to be identifiable to the public as a performer—a voice—that intends to stick around for a while.”
Circle of One, Fontana/Mercury, 1990.
Evolution, Fontana/Mercury, 1993.
Moving On, Fontana/Mercury, 1995.
Billboard, August 11, 1990; September 8, 1990; September 7, 1991; June 12, 1993; September 3, 1994; October 29, 1994; October 7, 1995.
Ebony, November 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, August 6, 1993; September 23, 1994; November 19, 1995.
Essence, June 1991; January 1994.
Keyboard, April 1990; September 1990.
New York Times, March 6, 1991; March 1, 1994.
People Weekly, October 18, 1993; November 27, 1995.
Rolling Stone, November 2, 1989; December 14-28, 1989; December 9, 1993.
Seattle Times, February 23, 1992.
Seventeen, October 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Mercury Records press material, 1995.
Adams, Oleta 19(?)(?)–
Oleta Adams 19(?)(?)–
After struggling for over a decade as a nightclub singer in and around Kansas City, Oleta Adams captured America’s musical heart during the 1991 Gulf War with her top five hit “Get Here.” A versatile talent with classical training, Adams honed her craft during her long apprenticeship, and gained respect over the 1990s as a musician’s musician, as a star who had climbed to the top through sheer talent rather than through her appearance or command of the skills of marketing.
Adams was born in Seattle (the date is uncertain), but moved with her family to the predominantly white inland city of Yakima when she was in the sixth grade. At a very young age she attracted attention for both her singing and her piano playing, and was soon drafted into the choir at the Baptist church where her father was minister. By the time she was 11, she was directing or accompanying four separate choirs. Adams told David Ritz in an Essence interview, “That’s when I really went to work,” she recalled, “and haven’t stopped since.”
Having taken piano lessons as a youngster, Adams turned to vocal studies in junior high, working with a classicallytrained teacher named Lee Farrell who steered Adams in the direction of opera. For a time, Adams considered an operatic career, even winning a scholarship to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, but chose not to enroll. Farrell, who continued to play a role in Adams’s career through the 1990s, suggested that Adams might be more successful if she stuck with her natural voice and with the soul, jazz, and gospel music that had shaped it.
Adams headed for Los Angeles in the early 1970s with dreams of stardom. She spent $5,000 on a demo tape, but found that her quiet, artful vocal style was ill-suited to the demands of the rising style of the moment—disco music, which prized flamboyance, extroversion, and a studio-oriented (as opposed to live-performance-oriented) musicality. Again with Farrell’s help, Adams undertook a more modest sort of musical career—she moved to Kansas City and quickly made a name for herself singing R&B, jazz, and pop in the city’s nightclubs and lounges. It was “very local but very steady,” she recalled to Ritz. Adams rose to the top of the local scene, at one point publicizing her efforts through a large billboard.
At a Glance…
Born in Seattle; moved to Yakima, WA at age 11; married John Cushon, 1994. Religion: raised Baptist, currently Methodist.
Career: Trained as a pianist and singer in childhood;led church choirs by age 11; recorded demo in Los Angeles, 1970s; performed as nighclub singer in Kansas City area, late 1970s–late 1980s; recorded with Tears for Fears, 1987; signed to Fontana label, 1990; released debut album Circle of One, 1990, released Evolution, 1993; Moving On, 1995; Come Walk with Me, 1997.
Awards: Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album, 1997.
Addresses: Management —Gallin & Associates, 345 N. Maple Dr., Suite 300, Beverly Hills, CA 90210 Record Company —Fontana/Mercury Records, 11150. SantaMonica Blvd., Suite 1100, LosAngeles, CA 90025.
The life of a barroom musician is always a difficult one. “You work through anything,” Adams told the Sacramento Bee, “the blender, the waitresses, groups from conventions coming through, even people falling over you drunk.” Adams continued to dream of a record contract. She made another demo in 1980, working with drummer John Cushon and gaining in the process not only a band member but also a life partner—the two married in 1994. Her talents were recognized by several celebrities who passed through Kansas City. The rock group Yes arranged an audition for Adams with Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun, and jazz-pop musician George Benson tried for several years to land her a record deal. Adams was “discovered,” but success eluded her.
In 1985 Adams caught the attention of yet another topechelon act: the British duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who comprised the group Tears for Fears, saw her perform at Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency hotel. Unlike some of the other stars Adams had met, this duo did not make their presence known to her, although they had been very moved by her music. The following year, Adams’s life hit a particularly disillusioning stretch; she was forced to break up her band, experienced problems in her relationship with Cushon, and began to despair of ever making a life for herself in music. It was at this point that Adams returned to her Christian religious roots. “I gave my life to Christ, and it was like a big weight coming off my shoulders,” Adams told Lynn Norment of Ebony.
Not long after that, Orzabal and Smith began work on the Tears for Fears album The Seeds of Love. Like much British pop of the day, the duo’s work incorporated elements of American soul music, and they placed a trans-Atlantic phone call to the vocalist they had heard in Kansas City. Adams sang backup on the album, toured Europe with the band, and soon saw her dream come true as she landed a record deal with the Fontana label. Her album Circle of One, with Orzabal as producer and dedicated to Lee Farrell, was recorded in London and soon released in the United States.
The release of Adams’s single “Get Here” coincided with the 1991 Gulf War, which saw large numbers of U.S. soldiers deployed in the unfamiliar and at the time frightening desert terrain of Kuwait and Iraq. With its refrain of “I don’t care how you get here, get here if you can” and its evocation of passion and separation, the Brenda Russell composition became for some listeners a wartime anthem, eventually putting Adams in the pop top five. “Get Here” brought Adams to a level where her immediate future was assured, and remains her bestknown recording. The album, she recalled to Ritz, eventually sold over one million copies.
Circle of One and its two successors, 1993’s Evolution and 1995’s Moving On, mixed pop, jazz, and R&B elements. Adams has been difficult to categorize stylistically, a quality that at times has hampered her acceptance among format-policing radio programmers, but that has won her raves from discerning listeners impressed with her versatility. She has cited as vocal influences the classic soul stylists Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. The low, smooth vocal ornamentation of Anita Baker’s singing also may have influenced Adams; Baker’s early producer and songwriter Michael Powell contributed to Moving On The elegant interplay of voice and piano in Adams’s music also recalls the 1980s work of Patrice Rushen, although that artist had a more pop-oriented style overall.
Adams emerges in interviews as an articulate, wry observer of the music industry and of her own career. She told Norment that she was glad to have been “tenderized” by her long years of nightclub singing. Returning to her pre-nightclub roots, she released the gospel album Come Walk with Me in 1997 (the album earned Adams a Grammy nomination) and planned a secular release for 1998. Adams has not regained the commercial heights of “Get Here,” but she is a solidly respected performer with a strong following both in the United States and in Europe, where her stardom began. “I’m not major major,” Adams admitted to the Boston Globe. “But the respect is there, and that’s very important to me. I’m not starving. I still have a place to sing, and I figure that’s what it’s all about.”
Circle of One, Fontana, 1990.
Evolution, Fontana, 1993.
Moving On, Fontana, 1995.
Come Walk with Me, Harmony, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, voume 17, Gale Research, 1997.
BET Weekend, June 1997, p. 26.
Billboard, June 21, 1997, p. 42.
Boston Globe, August 16, 1996, p. D15; August 1996, p. 84.
Essence, June 1991, p. 34; January 1994, p. 44.
Sacramento Bee, July 19, 1996, p TK14.
—James M. Manheim