“The emotion in the music is what makes me special.” It’s still the consensus that singer and pianist Oleta Adams hears from fans after 46 years in the entertainment business. She doesn’t necessarily think she’s the greatest vocalist but is quite aware that her rich, powerful vibrato has a lot to offer listeners.
Released this past February, Adams’ current studio LP, Third Set, is a throwback to the piano bars, showrooms and hotel lounges she frequently performed at for 17 years. The first new full-length set Adams cut in eight years, Third Set consists of her interpolations of jazz standards, protest songs and folk-pop numbers by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Cole Porter, and Nina Simone. The album also includes acoustic reworkings of two of her previous recordings (“Evolution” and “Rhythm of Life”) and an inspired pair of new compositions (“Wilted Roses” and “His Loving Eyes”). The title is an homage to the Seattle-born performer and her band curating songs for the subset of past performances with the lowest attendance.
That low turnout, Adams recalls, gave the musicians the liberty and flexibility to experiment. “When you play a place throughout the year for a lot of years,” the charmingly throaty-voiced Grammy nominee says, “you have to do the kind of music that reaches you don’t know what. We would pick what we wanted to play. That’s where the most creativity came in.”
Originally, Third Set was supposed to be released as a live album. The project was recorded over two-and-a-half days with very few overdubs. Adams decided to scratch the plans for a live recording because of glitches and imperfections hindering the sound she wanted.
“We could control the environment and make sure we got a really good sound,” the veteran entertainer shares. “It’s what the people wanted.”
Delivering memorable performances has always been a gift Adams possesses. Her great uncle, who she affectionately calls her dad, pastored churches in both Seattle and Yakima, Washington. The youngest of five children, Adams accompanied and directed four choirs between both churches, allowing the multi-talented, teenaged prodigy to learn the art of teamwork and directing people.
Not everyone was a fan of her sound. Adams, once a lyric soprano with aspirations to study at Juilliard, thinks back to performing for Eddie Kendricks, the late co-founding member of the Temptations, who made it clear her performance had an expiration date. Other chance moments led to performers like Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Billy Joel, Yes, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, and Air Supply catching her act.
British pop duo Tears for Fears, though, first heard Adams in 1985. Two years later, the Songs from the Big Chair pair tracked her down and asked her to join their touring band.
Immediately, Adams shines light on the importance of taking care of her voice. She actually encourages entertainers to set boundaries when it comes to frequent performances. “You try to keep the richness and try not to overdo it,” Adams warns, adding that years of performing in smoky venues could’ve potentially damaged her instrument.
Traveling the globe and listening to close staff is how Adams landed her biggest hit, a cover of Brenda Russell’s “Get Here.” The road warrior was shopping for dresses in Norway in 1988 when she heard the ballad on the radio. Her boyfriend sent her a cassette of the song, prompting her to add the song to her third set. The crew on the Tears for Fears tour even convinced her to sing it for them during every soundcheck.
Once Adams recorded “Get Here,” it skyrocketed up the pop Top Five. Her official debut LP, 1990’s Circle of One, was co-produced by Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal, released via the band’s label at the time (Fontana Records), and ultimately certified platinum. Troops in Desert Storm adopted the song as an anthem. Oprah Winfrey even acknowledged Adams’ robust, ear-splitting chops as “the song that got her out of the shower” when the singer appeared on her then-NBC talk show.
“It was a great feeling to know that it was connected to a very moving, emotional moment in history,” Adams declares.
Adams subsequently released a slew of albums like Evolution (1993), Moving On (1995), Come Walk with Me (1997), All the Love (2001) and Let’s Stay Here (2009). Along the way, a potentially life-threatening bout with lupus made Adams’ purpose more clear.
The pain, she says, would throb in her feet, leaving her feeling almost broken. Never one to be deterred, a resilient Adams prefers to continue working. She looks to entertainer Tony Bennett, who turned 90 last summer, for encouragement on how to live life.
“It brings about a lot of inspiration,” Adams believes. “When you can’t hit a high note anymore, you just put it in a different key and keep going [chuckles].”
These days, Adams wallows in the beautiful atmosphere of Kansas City. Her spirit remains as warm as the weather was on the day we spoke. Still a road warrior playing to euphoric audiences, the down home Adams aspires to share her gifts with music lovers in countries far and wide, including New Zealand and Australia.
Much like Third Set being a gift to her fans, Adams wants her voice and songs to act as vehicles to help people get through good and bad times. “I hope that today in the midst of all the chaos going on when people feel uncertain, they’ll find peace inside,” Adams declares.
“That’s what we’re working towards: trying to find our place in society. I’m thrilled if my music can be a part of that. If not, I hope they can find a special place they can go, live in the present and enjoy realizing that they’re children of God.”
SEE Oleta Adams on tour | Dates
STREAM Third Set & our Essential Oleta Adams playlist here: