GOLDMINE: Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of your pop Top 40 debut with “Get Here,” written by Brenda Russell.
OLETA ADAMS: Thank you. I first heard this Brenda Russell composition when I was in Norway where I was playing in a piano bar. During the day, I was in a dress shop and there was background music playing. I was very accustomed to listening to Brenda Russell’s music and had performed some of her other songs in my shows, so I recognized her distinctive voice right away when I heard the song. I thought it was a fantastic powerful ballad and wanted to get it. At the same time, my future husband had sent her new album to me on cassette, which was Get Here, which also included her Top 40 hit “Piano in the Dark.” I fell in love with the song “Get Here” and learned it. When I got back to the U.S. I started singing it and wore it out in my club shows. Even half-asleep people in the lounges would wake up on that one.
GM: Now you perform “Get Here” in all your shows as your signature song. My wife Donna and I enjoyed your version of it with the orchestra at the MasterPeace In Concert Music Above Fighting special. A year before the Top 40 debut of “Get Here,” I heard your voice as a guest vocalist on Tears for Fears’ Top 40 hit “Woman in Chains.”
OA: Yes. In 1985, I was in Kansas City, where I still live, performing with my trio at the Hyatt. Tears for Fears were in town on tour, and they were staying there. The Tears for Fears duo, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, heard me sing but we didn’t meet on that night. Two years later they hunted me down and Roland told me how moved they were. They asked me to sing and record “Woman in Chains” with them and it became a hit and is timeless. I learned a lot from them about music and writing. I like the feel of their U.S. debut No. 1 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and that sound inspired me when I was writing the title song for my album Circle of One. I also embraced Roland’s philosophy to write songs with lyrics that are meaningful to a variety of people.
GM: Your song “Circle of One” is nice and bouncy.
OA: Yes, it is. When I got signed to Polygram/Fontana, they sent me to L.A. to be with some traditional writers like Allee Willis, Albert Hammond, and others, but even surrounded by people, I felt lonely in L.A. I didn’t have a circle of friends. I had me, so that is what “Circle of One” is about, and I was more inspired by what Roland had previously taught me that being surrounded by writers who were focused on getting their songs placed with Anita Baker, Whitney Houston and others.
GM: Speaking of songwriters, Elton John and Bernie Taupin come to mind, when I think of some of your finest recordings. Thirty years ago, when I bought the tribute CD of their music, Two Rooms, your name was alphabetically listed at the top of the sixteen acts, so that is great placement.
OA: It is so good to have a last name like Adams. I think I started out with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” but I fought very hard to record “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which I thought fit my voice best. Another performer wanted to do that one, but they managed to get it for me. We recorded it for the album, and they were going to release it as a single, but then George Michael’s live version with Elton was released, so that didn’t happen. Later on, Elton and I were performing at a benefit concert and there was a knock at my dressing room door. It was Elton and he came over and apologized. We laughed and both received Grammy nominations in two separate categories that year, so that’s a great story.
GM: Speaking about stories, what can you share about “I’ve Got to Sing My Song,” which is my favorite flip side of yours.
OA: That is an old song which I wrote over forty years ago. I was a preacher’s kid, raised by my great-uncle who was a Southern Baptist minister. It always troubled him that I was not, as they say, singing for the Lord. I left home so that I wouldn’t embarrass him in town, to pursue my career. I needed to write something to him to explain why I needed to do this, singing music that would really soothe the soul of man, songs that would help people feel better about themselves, which included gospel music but not just gospel music. I wrote it in a gospel genre, although it is not a gospel song. I wrote it for him hoping that he would understand my message in a style familiar to him. He did hear it and came to a couple of my shows. It is something I needed to do to express that to my family, particularly my father, really my great-uncle who I call my father, to show why I chose this as my career. My biological father is also a minister and he needed to hear that because he was also very critical. Fortunately, both got over it and my biological father, who is still alive, now comes to my defense saying, “She is doing a lot of good work in music that is quality music and bringing a lot of joy to people.”
Flip side: I’ve Got to Sing My Song (produced by Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal)
A side: I Just Had to Hear Your Voice
Billboard R&B debut: October 16, 1993
Peak position: No. 97
GM: You brought a lot of joy to a songwriter who I spoke with recently, Kathleen Wakefield, who co-wrote “Never Knew Love.” She said that you did a great job singing it.
OA: Aw. That is very nice of her. That was an experience where I had to co-write on the spot. I prefer to do the two rooms thing that Elton and Bernie do, as I write differently than others, but in that circumstance, we were all together. I was able to switch gears. That’s what all the years of doing club music will get you, driving versatility. The song became a big hit in certain regions of Europe, and I forget about it and I am always surprised when it is requested. That song helped pay for my house, ha ha. I am grateful for the experience of working with Vassal Benford and Kathleen Wakefield on that song.
GM: You draw upon your family’s gospel roots with your new single “Place of Peace,” which is so peaceful. You sing, “I don’t need to walk on water. Just help me find a place of peace.” This is one of the songs which will be in my Fabulous Songs of 2021 list publishing December 27.
OA: Oh, thank you very much. I waited many years to release this. I recorded this in 2006, around the same time as my album Christmas Time with Oleta. I decided to release “Place of Peace” because the pandemic hit us hard. We thought we really went through something with 9/11, when the skies were cleared where you did not hear a helicopter or a plane for almost a week. Things changed forever after. We thought that was something, a once in a lifetime crisis. Now we have this new crisis and I think that the time was right to draw on my gospel roots and share this song of peace.
GM: Let’s talk about Christmas Time with Oleta. First of all, the album cover is very beautiful.
OA: Thank you very, very much. Randee St. Nicholas was the photographer and she just did a beautiful job. I love working with her.
GM: We bought Amy Grant’s first Christmas album, when it was released in 1983 and I thought it was so sincere. With her second Christmas album in 1992, she was all grown up, and there are four songs which really stood out for me, that I thought were so powerful, including one she co-wrote, “Breath of Heaven.” I hadn’t heard anyone but her perform that song, so I was so pleased that you chose that song. Your version fits you so well.
OA: You know, that is probably one of my favorite songs and it became a lot of people’s favorite song. Someone told me recently that they listen to my version of “Breath of Heaven” every morning. When one of the pastors at my church retired in early summer, a few years ago, he wanted to hear that song and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t Christmas time. I love singing that song. It just feels good in the throat. The song has a “wrapped up in a warm blanket” feeling and just caresses you. Amy got below the surface with the story in that song and that is what I also love to do in music.
GM: One of my favorite songwriters is Beth Nielsen Chapman and she co-wrote “There’s Still My Joy” with Melissa Manchester and Matt Rollings. Immediately you would think this would be a classy piano driven song. Thank you for introducing me to this song. We will get your version of it on the radio December 18.
OA: Wonderful! I have done Christmas tours with Melissa twice and that is where we met and fell in love with each other. I heard her sing this song, so when I was deciding on songs for my Christmas album, this was high on my list and it is interesting how many people gravitate toward that song. I think about people where at Christmastime at home may not be a joyous time because they may have experienced a loss. Tons of people have gone through this. I hope that my music is comforting to them.
GM: It has been a few years since we have interviewed Melissa Manchester and we are keeping an eye on a potential release from her for next year, which will look back at her music from 45 years ago.
OA: In the clubs I used to sing many of her songs and wanted to emulate her vocal richness on her big numbers like “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” It was a dream come true doing concerts with her and singing her music.
GM: You have a couple of concerts coming up this month and then quite a few more next year, which I know were postponed from 2020.
OA: I spent the past few years before the pandemic talking about retirement. After the first two months of isolation I said, ‘I ain’t never gonna retire!’ Thank you for putting a spotlight on my music and after all these years for still listening. It is really kind of you to do this interview with me for Goldmine.
Oleta Adams link:
Hear Oleta Adams’ “There’s Still My Joy” on “12 Songs of Christmas” Saturday, December 18 between 8-10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time as part of Moments to Remember on wvcr.com or on iHeart.com (search for WVCR).