Versatility and longevity were the hallmarks of saxophonist Benny Waters, guitarist Tal Farlow, and vocalist Johnny Adams, all of whom died within the last few months. They were admired and respected not only for their distinctive skills, but also for their ability to evolve over the years without sounding trendy or losing their identities.
Benny Waters, who died Aug. 11 at age 96, was arguably jazz’s oldest active musician. Born Jan. 23, 1902, in Brighton, Md., he was a child prodigy who grew up in a musical family. He was giving piano recitals at age 7 and playing E-flat clarinet at age 8. He became a regular member of Charlie Miller’s dance band during his high-school years, playing with the group from 1918 to 1921. During that time, he also mastered soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones.
At 18, Waters entered the Boston Conservatory. Not only did he become an outstanding student, he eventually developed into a highly touted private instructor. Among his pupils were Harry Carney, who subsequently became the baritone foundation for Duke Ellington’s orchestra for nearly 50 years. Waters learned the principles of swing at an early age; he was a masterful accompanist, superb melodic interpreter, and robust blues balladeer.
From 1926, when he joined Charlie Johnson’s orchestra in Atlanta, until two months before his death, Benny Waters played with a legion of jazz greats both in America and around the world. Fletcher Henderson, Hot Lips Page, Jimmie Lunceford, Claude Hopkins, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Criss, Roy Milton, and Jimmy Archey were among those with whom Waters worked, and he played swing, traditional New Orleans, jump blues, and R&B with equal fluency and aplomb. Like many others who’d matured musically in the pre-bop era, Waters never particularly liked the bop style, preferring to call his latter-day music “mainstream.” Even so, he easily meshed on record and onstage with bop and hard-bop giants.
His solo career accelerated in 1969 at age 67, when he opted to live in Europe, undertaking frequent and extensive tours there. About 12 years later, Waters started making annual return trips to America. At 85, he cut his first domestic LP as a leader in 1987, the acclaimed From Paradise (Small’s) to Shangri-La (Muse). He returned permanently to America in 1992, and though failing health plagued him for much of the decade, he maintained an active schedule. His final release, Live at 95 (Enja), was issued last year, and his last live performance was in Manhattan in June.
By contrast, Tal Farlow didn’t even begin playing guitar until his late 20s, and he never learned to read music. He was a natural, gifted with incredible agility and dexterity, not to mention an unbridled imagination; he refused to be stifled by traditional notions about his instrument.
Farlow, who was born in Greensboro, N.C., on June 7, 1921, rocketed to fame in 1949 and 1950. He first played in vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio alongside bassist Charlie Mingus, then in clarinetist Buddy DeFranco’s ensemble. Though he made brilliant guitar statements while playing in clarinetist Artie Shaw’s Grammercy Five, Shaw’s volatile nature and mood swings led Farlow to seek his fortune as a solo act. He made a string of first-rate albums for Blue Note and Verve in the mid- and late ’50s, taking shopworn standards and harmonically inverting them, playing with zeal and fire yet never sacrificing a song’s melodic focus.
At the peak of critical and commercial success, Farlow abruptly retired and returned to North Carolina, becoming a sign painter. Just as suddenly, he resumed playing in 1969, astonishing the music world with the superb Xanadu LP The Return of Tal Farlow. Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, he alternated between periods of inactivity and bursts of magical playing at concerts and on record. His last great album, 1994’s A Tribute to Wes Mongtomery (Project G-5), linked Farlow with fellow guitarists Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Cal Collins, and Royce Campbell. His last live date was in New York this year, one month before his death of cancer on July 25 at age 77.
Despite fighting his own prolonged battle with cancer, vocalist Johnny Adams maintained an incredibly heavy schedule of domestic and international dates during much of his illness. His nickname, “The Tan Canary,” was a testament to his rich, resounding voice, which he manipulated with ease, hitting wrenching highs and resounding lows. He truly loved music and shunned categories, singing gospel, blues, R&B, soul, jazz, and country without any considerations about whether a selection was commercial or marketable.
A lifelong New Orleans resident who was born in the Crescent City on Jan. 5, 1932, Adams’ early fame came in the gospel field. He sang with Bessie Griffin and the Consolators in the ’50s; their harmonies were so high and glorious that audiences sometimes wondered which vocalist was the male and which was the female. Adams made the switch to secular material in 1959, cutting the anthemic “I Won’t Cry” for Ric Records. Only the threat of a lawsuit from Ric owner Joe Ruffino kept Motown’s Berry Gordy from signing Adams to his fledgling label. Though many observers felt that the move forever kept the singer from attaining the national stardom he merited, he seldom mentioned it throughout his career.
Adams’ sound and style were so earthy and animated that he resisted any attempts to plug into prevailing contemporary movements. His late-’60s records for SSS Internationalincluding “Release Me,” “Hell Yes I Cheated,” and “Reconsider Me”were country-soul gems, but they went largely ignored by soul and country stations outside Louisiana. His live New Orleans dates were must-see affairs, fortified by the stinging guitar of Walter “Wolfman” Washington and spiced by such attractions as snake dancers and 300-pound go-go girls.
Adams finally won some measure of fame in the ’80s, thanks to his association with Rounder Records. Producer Scott Billington took full advantage of Adams’ versatility, placing him in masterful settings that fully showcased his complete talents. These landmark albums included Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me, Good Morning Heartache (his first jazz vocal LP), One Foot in the Blues, Walking on a Tightrope: The Songs of Percy Mayfield, and his final release, Man of My World, which returned him to classic soul. In his final years, he also received some long-overdue awards, among them a W.C. Handy Award, a NAIRD indie honor, and multiple awards from his peers in New Orleans.
While Johnny Adams’ death Sept. 15 at age 67 was not as surprising as those of Benny Waters and Tal Farlow, it’s still an immeasurable loss. Even in his final years, he continued evolving as a vocalist, and as his last release demonstrated, he still had intriguing, fresh things to say.
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