Disco futurist Patrick Adams found his voice through the synthesizer

by Mathew R. Warren

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Patrick Adams at the piano. Photos by Terry Adams.

Patrick Adams at the piano. Photos by Terry Adams.

 
The Music of Patrick Adams: On Thursday, May 11, 8 PM, at the Alhambra Ballroom in New York, trumpeter/musical director Todd Simon leads an all-star band with Patrick Adams, Leroy Burgess, Donna McGhee, Christine Wiltshire, Fonda Rae, James Calloway, Quantic, Binky Griptite, and others.

 

By 1975, disco pioneer Patrick Adams had left his job as a songwriter, arranger, and producer at Perception Records and was looking for a new sound—his own sound.

“I wanted to do Patrick Adams, but Patrick Adams is not a great singer,” he says. “I decided the synthesizer was going to be my voice.”

 

Originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 31 as “Synthesizer Symphonies”

 

Through the Minimoog, Adams began to sing uninhibited and raw verses. He recorded a futuristic, ethereal disco cut called “Atmosphere Strut” and soon after met fellow producer and record promoter Peter Brown, who convinced Adams to release the single on a new label, P&P Records. The rest is what serious disco fans talk about when trying to convince nonbelievers of the genre’s value, an onslaught of heavy New York disco grooves from the man who would become known as “the master of the masterpiece.”

Born in 1950, Adams grew up in Harlem, New York. His story as a young artist revolves around 125th Street, where he remembers seeing Malcolm X and running into people like Muhammad Ali. He would hang out by the Apollo Theater as a teenager, trying to meet the artists who performed there. Acts like the Miracles sometimes played basketball with neighborhood kids near the back of the theater, and Adams took advantage of the opportunity to talk music.

“They would come out and play basketball with everybody. It was real cool. That was a different time,” says Adams. “But I wasn’t going there to play; I was going there to learn music. I was going to ask people like Marv Tarplin, the guitar player for the Miracles, ‘How do you do that?’ ”

On one occasion, Adams asked Smokey Robinson for some advice. “I knew he had started when he was fifteen,” Adams says. “So I asked him, ‘What advice would you give a young person who wants to be a producer?’ Smokey looked me straight in the face and said, ‘Forget it.’ I look back at that, and I cherish it, because it was the right thing to say.”

Adams spent so much time hanging around the Apollo that Pete Long, the stage manager, and Rueben Phillips, who conducted the orchestra, gave him a job. “I guess they saw that I was not just trying to hang out to hang out, that I really had an interest in music,” says Adams. “They actually let me sit in the middle of the orchestra, like, in the middle of the saxophones. I’d sit there, or I’d hand out music. I guess you could call it, like, being the band boy.

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Patrick Adams overseeing the orchestra. Photo by Terry Adams.

 

“That got my ears accustomed to great arrangements, because you figure this week, it’s the Stax Revue—Sam & Dave and that whole crew—and next week, it’s the Supremes, and the week after that, it’s the guys from Chicago. So every week I’m sitting there absorbing the best music of the day.”

Adams had first been exposed to music in Catholic school, where he appreciated the “richness” of hymns. He never took a lesson, but his father, a merchant seaman, saw potential in his middle son and bought him a trumpet at age ten. “I don’t know what I did to let him know I liked music so much,” Adams says. “I guess I was always humming in the house or something. I guess he felt that because I was a Pisces, maybe I might be like Quincy Jones.”

After seeing the Beatles for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, Adams realized the trumpet wasn’t for him and asked his father for an electric guitar. “He bought me a cheap acoustic guitar,” he recalls, “and said, ‘I’m going away for three months, and when I come back, if you can show me that you learned how to play that guitar, I’ll buy you an electric.’ ”

He taught himself enough chords to convince his father, and, in three months, he had his first electric guitar. By the time he was fifteen, Adams had written hundreds of songs. “I used to write every day,” he says. “Every time I learned a new chord, I tried to find a way to incorporate it into a song.”

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One day, a group of teenagers from the neighborhood came looking for a guitar player to audition with them for a part in a movie. “They came to me,” says Adams, “and I didn’t know any of the guys. And it was like, ‘How would you like to be in a band? And we’re going to audition for a movie tomorrow.’ ‘Sure.’ ” They learned two songs in one day and got the part as the high school band in the Warner Brothers production Up the Down Staircase. The band members named themselves the Sparks.

Around that time, there was an in-house production being put together at the Apollo called “Listen, My Brother,” for which the Sparks became the backup band. The show had a cast of local teenagers that included a young Luther Vandross. It was performed four times over the summer of 1967, and the cast was featured on Sesame Street, where they performed one of Adams’s songs, “You’ve Got to Learn Something.”

“Here I am seventeen,” he remembers, “and I’ve got a song on an international show; it’s a great start.”

Signed to MGM, the Sparks had no hits but toured through the late ’60s, opening for some big acts. “It was like a dream come true. Here we are one week with the Commodores, one week with the Young Rascals, the Temptations. We were on the bottom rung of the show, but we were there, and it was everything you could imagine it would be when you’re seventeen, eighteen years old,” says Adams.

He remembers being mesmerized, peeking in on George Kerr producing an O’Jays session when the Sparks went to record at Broadway Studios. Adams had always been fascinated by recording techniques. “When I was five years old, my father had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and my older brother Gus had a singing group,” he recalls. “They would come over to the house, and they’d record themselves singing. When I was fourteen, I got my father to buy me a reel-to-reel tape recorder with sound-on-sound [overdubbing], and my younger brother Terry and I, he would play bass and drums, and I would play guitar, and we would do sound-on-sound recordings. That gave me a chance to experiment with all these things.”

Adams’s initial studio experience came at sixteen, when he began working at Avant Productions, run by Al Avant on 125th Street. Avant had let Adams teach himself piano in the rehearsal studio and, in turn, asked Adams to rehearse artists. There, he learned to engineer sessions and got his first chance to write and arrange with a group called the Carlettes. They recorded one of Adams’s songs called “Lost Without Your Love,” which was later put out by Bobby Robinson and is now a goodie for rare-soul collectors.

Patrick Adams at the mixer. Photo by Terry Adams.

Patrick Adams at the mixer. Photo by Terry Adams.

 

In 1968, Adams was told by a friend to check out a talented young singer from the neighborhood named Leroy Burgess. “I knew he was a star when I saw him,” says Adams of the then sixteen-year-old Burgess. Feeling like there were no good New York falsetto groups, he put together the group Black Ivory with Burgess and some other local teens. As backup, they used a funk band from the projects called the Soul Severes, whose recording “I Got It” was reissued by Kay-Dee Records.

“So we had an organization at this point, where you had three vocalists, young, like, seventeen years old,” says Adams. “The band was between seventeen and nineteen years old, and there were, like, seven guys in the band. It was one big family.” The group began touring, performing alongside acts like Kool and the Gang, who would also sometimes play backup for the group. Adams recorded Black Ivory at his own expense and went to Perception Records to see if they would sign the group. While in the lobby at Perception, he overheard that the label needed an arranger for a Welch’s Grape commercial.

“When I heard the words ‘arranger, television commercial,’ I thought, ‘I can do that,’ ” says Adams. “I had never done strings at that time, but I said, ‘I can do that; I’m an arranger.’ That’s a really gutsy move when you’re nineteen years old.”

After a crash course in arranging strings, he pulled off a successful session. Adams’s jingle got Perception more advertising work and landed him a job at the label. Through Adams, Black Ivory got a deal, and they continued to work together, recording two albums on Perception’s subsidiary, Today Records. Adams wrote, arranged, and produced music for a slew of other artists at Perception, including J. J. Barnes, Debbie Taylor, and Astrud Gilberto.

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But after a dispute over Black Ivory’s contract, Adams left the label in 1974. In spite of his new position as vice president of A&R, Adams sided with the artists who had brought him to Perception in the first place.

He was out of work and in search of a new creative outlet for his music. Adams had already experimented with synthesizers, using them at first to replace the French horns on Black Ivory records. Then, influenced by Stevie Wonder, he used the instrument more and more. By the time he began working independently, Adams had decided the Minimoog synthesizer would be his main musical tool. “I could express what I wanted to express through the Minimoog,” he says.

In the summer of ’75, Adams wanted to record a dance record that reflected the changing sounds of the day. “Music was going through this transformation, it was heading towards disco, but it hadn’t really gotten there yet,” he says. “Disco, at that point, was an extension of R&B; it wasn’t the garbage that it became later.”

Patrick Adams at Media Sound Studio. Photo by Terry Adams.

Patrick Adams at Media Sound Studio. Photo by Terry Adams.

 

Adams remembers vividly the first time he heard disco in a club. “The first record I experienced was ‘Love to Love You Baby’ by Donna Summers,” says Adams of the night when, at twenty-four, his girlfriend took him to a gay disco. “That night opened my ears and body to disco on an emotional level. It was shortly after that I started the Cloud One and Bumble Bee [Unlimited] and Universal Robot stuff. It really helped me to focus on the importance of emotion to the dance experience.”

With Sparks bandmate John Cooksey keeping a hustle-style two-step on drums, Adams began laying down riffs and improvising with the Minimoog in the studio. “Once I had decided on the concept of Cloud One and ‘Atmosphere Strut,’ it seemed logical to go out on a limb,” he says of his synthesizer explorations on the now classic cut. “I was trying to get the most out of the instrument. I was experimenting.”

He brought a group of friends into the studio, that included Sylvia Striplin, to sing the chorus, “We’re gonna fly, fly away,” and to add crowd elements to parts of the song. The project was a form of release for Adams. “ ‘Atmosphere Strut’ was my opportunity to be my other self,” he says.

A few months later, in the fall of ’75, Adams was introduced to Peter Brown, who was starting an independent disco and funk label called P&P Records, the other “P” for his wife Patricia Brown. Brown heard “Atmosphere Strut” and asked Adams to release it as one of the label’s first singles.

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“Peter says to me, ‘I have all the connections you don’t have, I’m very tight with all the programmers up and down the East Coast, I do record promotion for people, and I can press x amount of records,’ ” remembers Adams. “I wasn’t in great financial shape, because I hadn’t worked in a year, and, out of frustration, I said sure. So he put out ‘Atmosphere Strut.’ ”

Frankie Crocker, a radio personality and DJ broke the record in New York. “Frankie Crocker, God bless his soul, was one of those great music people with vision. He was the first person to play a lot of hit records,” says Adams. Club DJs were soon spinning the single throughout the Northeast, and Brown suggested Adams do a Cloud One album.

Adams repeated the process that had originally created “Atmosphere Strut,” this time using a new drummer, Richie Taninbaum, and a group of background singers. Over a weekend, they recorded five more songs for a Cloud One LP that would be titled for its hit single.

Adams knew he had found a home at P&P, a place where he could do his thing and ideas flowed freely. “I recognized from that point on, after ‘Atmosphere Strut,’ that P&P would always be, like, my personal playground,” he said. “P&P Records became sort of the catch basin for talented people who had concepts that they wanted to try. We never told anybody on P&P what they could or couldn’t do, what they should or shouldn’t do. It was like, ‘Go for it, if you want to bang pots and pans together, that’s your sound.’ ”

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After Cloud One, Adams established a slew of musical identities to showcase his synthesizer virtuoso. The first was the Universal Robot Band, launched by the soulful party track “Dance and Shake Your Tambourine.” Adams’s next project would add a new buzz to his repertoire of strange personas. “I’m listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks, and I don’t know where the concept of the bumblebees came from, but I guess I was looking once again for a way to have a voice without having a voice, because if you’re doing bumblebees, you don’t have to be that great. That’s how I did ‘Love Bug’ and [other tracks as] Bumble Bee Unlimited.”

He continued to experiment at P&P, while taking on work producing and arranging for major labels, such as Atlantic Records. “On P&P Records, I would never do the same things I would do on Atlantic. That’s one of the reasons why I established separate identities,” he says. “P&P became this place where artists could be free, as opposed to an Atlantic Records or a Columbia Records, where everything is high spit and polished.”

Adams appreciates the attention his independent work at P&P has garnered and is pleased by the acclaim it has brought him. He is especially fond of one review of “Atmosphere Strut” that compared his synthesizer innovations to Miles Davis’s trumpet work. But in today’s world of Internet snark, even Adams can’t escape an occasional critic. “I was reading somewhere on the Internet,” says Adams, “where somebody was saying that Patrick Adams’s synthesizer work was wonderful, and this and that, and then somebody leaves a comment, ‘Patrick Adams isn’t all that great; I hear a lot of mistakes in his playing.’ My response to that would be, ‘Yeah, that’s true, I’m not trying to be perfect on Cloud One records or Universal Robot records; I’m just having fun.’ ”

Making experimental disco music was fun, but participating in the disco scene was less appealing to Adams, who wasn’t interested in the clubbing. “I’ve never had a peacock mentality of ‘Hey, everybody look at me, I’m dancing,’ ” Adams says. “Mentally, I’m dancing all day long.”

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Throughout the late ’70s, the disco in Adams’s mind made its way onto the dance floors and across radio waves. But his biggest disco hit, “In the Bush” by Musique, would prove too risqué for some radio stations. Prelude Records had hired Adams to produce the female disco group, and, to his and the label’s surprise, the album cut—never intended to be a single, with its chorus chant of “push, push in the bush”—became a hit. The song was subsequently banned on six hundred radio stations across America for its suggestive lyrics.

“I guess, in some small way, I’m guilty for pushing the linguistic line of censorship,” says Adams. “Here in the twenty-first century, I’m not even sure there are any dirty words anymore.”

Another, less controversial hit Adams had was with Inner Life’s  1979 single, “I’m Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair)” on Salsoul Records. “I will always think of ‘Caught Up’ as a high point in production for me,” says Adams of the disco anthem. “There are moments when everything just comes together right.”

As the ’80s came and disco died out, Adams looked to stay busy and on top of new sounds and recording technology. He took a job engineering sessions at Power Play Studios, where he worked with countless hip-hop legends including Eric B. & Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Marley Marl, Mister Magic, KRS-One, and Nice & Smooth. In the studio, Adams played the role of mentor, teaching his recording techniques and encouraging the young artists to produce themselves. Adams is especially proud of his engineering work on Paid in Full, which he considers one of the greatest rap albums of all time.

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Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Adams continued writing, arranging, and producing his own music. In 1991, a remake of “Touch Me (All Night Long),” a song he wrote with longtime friend and musical partner Greg Carmichael, became a number one hit single.

Today, Adams’s music is still being covered and sampled. He received a platinum plaque when Nas sampled Black Ivory’s “We Made It” for the song “Revolutionary Warfare” on the 2002 album God’s Son. A recent remake of Musique’s “Keep on Jumpin’ ” that has a video featuring scantily dressed female soccer players has become a YouTube sensation.

With over forty years in the music business, Adams is not humble about his achievements, nor should he be. He has had hundreds of his songs recorded, and worked on hundreds of records more. With his music now being reissued and appreciated by fans beyond the disco fanatics, Adams is beginning to receive the recognition he knows he deserves.

“Very few people on this earth can do what I can do,” Adams says. “I will never claim to be the best, but I know that I am among the best.”

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