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Disco legend Patrick Adams shares the stories behind his songs

Written by
Bruce Tantum

“Even when I was 12 years old, I wanted to be a record producer,” Patrick Adams says, his voice full of enthusiasm even as his career reaches the half-century mark. “I wasn’t actually sure what a record producer did, but I had this burning desire to be one. So I practiced all my instruments—guitar, bass, drums, keyboards—and wrote as many songs as I could. Between the time I was 12 and 17, I probably wrote 200 songs—not that any of them were spectacular, but practice makes perfect!”

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In his case, it certainly does: Adams, a songwriter, arranger, producer and musician, is one of the most talented and prolific studio savants of the ’70s and ’80s, possessing a book-length discography that boasts some of the most soul-stirring music committed to vinyl. There’s the creamy R&B of Black Ivory and Inner Life; the disco strut of the Universal Robot Band and Cloud One; the playful funk of Fonda Rae and Phreek, the genre-defining hip-hop of Eric B. & Rakim—Adams’s work overflows with an emotion and musicality that few can match. Even productions that in other hands would be, at best, novelty hits—Bumblebee Unlimited’s “Lady Bug” or Musique’s “In the Bush,” for instance—have entered the canon of dance-music classics.

Yet Adams, a godlike figure to those who obsessively scour album credits, remains something of an unknown entity to the casual listener. That’s, at least in part, by design: The Harlem native (“I’ve lived there for 90 percent of my life,” he says) has never sought the limelight. “The generation I grew up in, you just wanted to be known for the work that you did. You didn’t want to be known for just being known.”

But fame has a way of sneaking up on you, and the past few years have seen a mini-explosion of Adams profiles. His status will get an extra boost on Thursday 11 when he takes the stage at the Music of Patrick Adams, a Red Bull Music Academy–produced salute held at Harlem’s Alhambra Ballroom, only a few blocks from his boyhood home. The night serves as an all-star reunion, with a coterie of Adams-associated musicians and vocalists—Leroy Burgess from Black Ivory, Fonda Rae, Christine Wilshire and Mary Seymour of Musique and Phreek’s Donna McGhee among  them—joining the guest of honor.

“People have been asking me if I would deejay at their club or festival,” says Adams. “No way I wanted to do that—I thought it would be a slap in the face to real DJs—but I would tell promoters, ‘Look, the only way I’d be willing to do a show is if I could use live musicians, including strings and horns.’ It would have to be big, you know? And of course, they would say, ‘Oh, that’s too expensive. Nobody’s gonna hire you to do it.’ So I think, Well, then we just won’t do it! But out of the clear blue, here comes this [opportunity]. I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right!?!’ I am really looking forward to this night.”

"I said, ‘Well, it’s music—let’s just call it Musique.’"

It would take a book—literally—to fully cover Adams career, from coming up through the Apollo Theater, though such seminal labels as Perception, P&P, Red Greg and Prelude, to serving as one of soul’s elder statesmen. His Discogs page gives him 444 production nods and lists 610 writing/arrangement credits—and that’s probably lowballing the number. But over the course of an hour and half conversation, he was happy to talk about a few of his personal highlights.

His first big break was as a member of the band in the 1967 film Up the Down Staircase.
“This story is still so amazing to me. This guy, Tony Major, was an assistant on Up the Down Staircase, and he knew they wanted a band to be in the movie. And then there was an interesting string of events. Tony told the director he knew a band, which he didn’t: He only knew a drummer, John Cooksey, who used to practice at the local community center. Tony talked to Cooksey, and Cooksey said, ‘Yeah, I have a band,’ which he didn’t. But he went to school with a guy named Larry Robinson, a keyboard player and vocalist who lived where I lived in the St. Nicholas housing project. Larry knew a guy named Olmon Hairston, who lived in the next building and who played bass. Olmon said, ‘Well, I hear this guy playing guitar all the time!’ And that was me. So we learned two songs, auditioned and got the part. That ended up being my first band, the Sparks. We made $150 a day for that gig. When you’re 17 years old, that’s a lot of money!”

The best advice he ever got came to him when he was a kid.
“Tony Majors knew Pete Long, the stage manager at the Apollo Theater. Together, as part of a summer program, they had developed a musical concept called Listen My Brother, to be written and performed by young people in Harlem, and they put out a call for auditions. This was around 1968. Believe it or not, Luther Vandross was one of the people who showed up for the auditions, as was Fonzi Thornton…a lot of talented people. Anyway, the Apollo’s piano player was late, and Pete Long wanted to keep things moving, so he asked if anyone knew how to play. I was still pretty shy about stuff like that, but John Cooksey says, ‘Patrick can play the piano!’ Pete Long walked down the aisle, grabbed me by my collar, yanked me up out of my seat and said ‘Listen, if you think you can do something, say yes, because you never know what you can accomplish.’

“That message really stuck with me. A year and a half later, I was walking back and forth to Tin Pan Alley trying to get a record deal for Black Ivory, who I was already producing. When I sitting into the lobby of Today Records, I could hear them having a discussion about finding an arranger for a Welch’s grape juice commercial. At the time I had never done much more than a rhythm arranger. But I stood up and said, ‘Hey, I’m an arranger! Whatcha got?’ They explained it was going to be a 30-second commercial with strings and horns, kettle drums…basically a 20-piece orchestra. I told them, ‘Yeah, I can handle that.’ When I walked out of there and went back uptown, I really did some tremendous studying. And you know, I did a good job.”

He was an early devotee of the Moog synthesizer.
“The first recording studio I ever walked into, way back when the Sparks was my group, was Broadway Recordings, which later became Sigma Sound. It was in the Ed Sullivan Building, on 53rd Street and Broadway. I went in there to find out about pricing, and [prolific R&B producer] George Kerr was in there, recording “Hypnotized” with Linda Jones, which was kind of amazing. Anyway, we booked the studio to do our demos, and along one side of a whole wall was all this electronic stuff; it turned out [synthesizer pioneer] Robert Moog had taken up residence at the studio, and these were all his instruments. I got to meet him, and I got a basic understanding of amplitude and filters and everything—through Bob Moog himself! I first used a Minimoog for all the French horns on Black Ivory’s first album, for instance.

The Moog-heavy 1976 track “Atmosphere Strut,” produced and performed by Adams under his Cloud One alias, was born of frustration.
“By 1975, I was getting a hell of a lot of work as an arranger—I was making ten or 15 thousand dollars a week doing string and horn arrangements for everybody in New York City—but I wasn’t getting any production work, which was very frustrating. I decided to do some to do some records on my own.“Atmosphere Strut” was going to be the great Patrick Adams record—but I realized that if you go out under your own name, and then the record doesn’t happen, that’s not a great way to start [laughs]. That’s when I came up with the name Cloud One. But as it turned out, maybe I should have released it under by own name after all.” 

Big-name artist are a joy to work with.
“Melba Moore, Cuba Gooding Sr. and the Main Ingredients, Eddie Kendricks, Benny King…almost every major artist I ever worked with has been great, really. And they’re all really open to suggestions. Like when I was working with [jazz flautist/record executive] Herbie Mann on the Super Mann album in 1978—shoot, I’d been hearing him since I was 12 years old, and here I am producing him. I was terrified! But you know, when I walked in the studio, the first thing he says to me is, “So what are we gonna record?” That kind of blew me away, because I assumed a guy like Herbie Mann—who pulled a lot of weight at Atlantic Records—would normally  be the one telling me what to do. But he was such a sweetheart.” 

The buzzy sweet nothings—i.e., “A nectar and tonic? Make it double!” and “I'm a perfect 36-37-36!”—of Bumblebee Unlimited’s “Love Bug” were Adams’s idea.
“I’m always trying to keep an eye open for possibilities. I’m watching Saturday Night Live one night, and here come the bumblebees [from SNL’s recurring ‘Killer Bees’ sketch]. I’m thinking, wow, it would be fun to do a bumblebee record! We had Alvin & the Chipmunks back then—I guess we still do—and just from fooling around with recording so much, I had already figured out how to do that kind of voice. That whole thing was recorded at a slightly slow speed, so when we sped it up to the speed we wanted, that’s how the voices came to be that way.

“Most of the records I’ve done are spontaneous, and if you listen to “Love Bug,” there are two or three cross-conversations going on at once—but it was all ad-libbed, I swear. I just imagined what the conversation would be between Bee Number One and Bee Number Two, and if you think about the words, they make sense. How it worked is I did three or four tracks of vocals, responding to what I had said on the first track. I had to do that whole song—I was both the male and the female bee!”

The money for Musique’s Keep on Jumpin’ was in Adams’s hand before he recorded its first note.
“[Prelude Records founder] Marv Schlachter called me into his office and asked, ‘Can you do a disco album for me? And how much would it cost?’ I said yes, and did a quick calculation and gave him a price. ‘How long would it take?’ Maybe three weeks, I told him. He said ‘Okay,’ goes into his bottom drawer, pulls out a checkbook, and gives me a check to do the whole record. And the only thing he said was, ‘Bring me a good album.’ He never asked me who I was going to use, what songs were going to be on it, or anything—all he asked was, ‘What are we gonna call it?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s music—let’s just call it Musique.’

“At this point, I had had three or four years of frustration built up in me—and I was out to prove that I knew who I was, and I knew what I was capable of. That is why Keep on Jumpin’ is so musically intense. But we had no idea i was going to blow up as big as it did.”

The album’s lead single, “In the Bush,” was considered a bit racy upon its release. (And still is.)
“My older brother and his friends were always chanting ‘to the Bush, to the Bush,’ referring to this club they used to go to. So in my dirty mind, I translated it to ‘in the bush.’ I had no idea where that was going to go lyrically, but one of the background singers came up with ‘push.” And it all came together in my head at that point: “push, push, in the bush.” Now, I’m a First Amendment guy who loves freedom of speech—but 600 stations refused to play it! To this day, WNBC here in New York has never played the record, and they probably never will."

He added a dose of musicality to 1987’s Paid in Full, Eric B & Rakim’s groundbreaking debut LP, which he engineered.
“A lot of what happened on Paid in Full was the result of the creative process: 'How do you do this, how did you do that, how do you make that happen?' One thing that was important to me that all of the samples we used had to be in tune with each other. If you listen to a lot of rap records made around that time, people would just throw samples together, and very often the samples were in different keys so it would just sound dissonant. That’s why a lot of people were turned off by rap when it first started—it just seemed like a lot of noise to them. But the success of that album is really because it’s so musical, which was unusual for a record like that back then.”

The Music of Patrick Adams is at Alhambra Ballroom Thursday, May 11 at 7pm ( $25.

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