Interview recorded January 23, 2012
We were first introduced to Ada Dyer as Miss Adaritha on Norman Connors' INVITATION and TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT albums. The Chicago native now resides in New York City. Michael Lewis chats with Ms. Dyer about her career, from Norman to Motown to singing with Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Boz Scaggs and beyond...
Michael Lewis: Greetings, SoulMusic community. Any Quiet Storm listener knows the title song “Invitation” from Norman Connors’ 1979 Buddah album. We are so excited that the featured vocalist has accepted our invitation to spend some time with us today. Please welcome a truly extraordinary singer of rare passion and excitement, Miss Ada Dyer. How are you today, Ada?
Ada Dyer: I’m good, Michael. How are you?
ML: I’m great, great. Thank you for spending a little time with us today.
AD: My pleasure.
ML: As a longtime admirer and supporter of your work, I wanted to give you the opportunity to tell your story: how you came to meet Norman Connors and record that classic song and so many other great songs; your aborted stint at Motown Records; what’s been happening in your career since then, and what you’re up to now.
ML: Sounds like a lot, but let’s start at the beginning. When did you realize that you had such a special gift?
AD: I guess I would have to go back to … this isn’t necessarily my special gift, but where I felt the power of music was hearing, for the first time, Mahalia Jackson, I think it was. Well, I know it was Mahalia Jackson, but I’m thinking that that’s where it all began.
I was raised in Chicago in a gospel background, and there was always music around the house, for the most part, always gospel. And I remember the effect of hearing Mahalia Jackson sing a song—I can’t remember which song it was necessarily—but I just remember getting chills. And that was the first time I realized that singing and music can do that to you, can have that physical effect on you, and that was pretty powerful for me.
And the love of the music, I suppose, began there, and of course, going to church every Sunday and listening to the choir and wanting to be part of the choir and being turned away because I was too young, and I had to wait and I had to wait. And I just remember crying, those Sunday mornings in the back, just listening to the choir as they marched in. Until finally, when I was around eleven, they let me join and I sang my first song, and I saw their reaction to what I did. I guess if there’s a gift, that would be the first time that I realized that I had something.
ML: So what did you do growing up and getting involved in music? Did you get in bands?
AD: Well, from there, I was in the choir at my high school. They didn’t really have singing much at my grammar school, but in high school I joined the choir, not necessarily thinking that … I hadn’t even really decided yet that it was going to be a career; it was just something that I enjoyed doing. And that I didn’t have to take a language, I think, was the real reason I took choir, to get out of taking a language. But I excelled in that as well.
I hooked up with a couple of musicians in high school, and we did some talent shows and we won some awards, and it just started growing from there. Then I worked with other bands and branched out, and started doing concerts in clubs and in colleges and whatnot around Chicago and the Chicago area, and it just kept going from there. Do you want me to continue on until I’m meeting Paul Wilson and Norman Connors, or do you want me to stay there?
ML: I want to get to how you got your introduction to Norman, and got to that first recording.
AD: All right. Well actually, the song “Invitation” was recorded before Norman Connors—and I think a lot of people probably know this by now—but that was a demo, originally, that I did in Chicago a few years before I met Norman. It was written by Paul Wilson, who’s a writer, and he owned a jingle house. I started doing a few jingles while I was in Chicago, after I graduated.
When I met Paul Wilson, I started doing demos for him—songs that he had written, I would put down vocally for him, and he could present them to whoever he wanted to present them to. They weren’t necessarily recorded for me, but that one we both thought was very, very special. That was sent, actually, to Stevie Wonder, because Stevie had inquired, looking for a background singer. And we sent it to Stevie to listen to, and I ended up going down to meet and hang with Stevie for that weekend.
But things didn’t quite work out with Stevie at that time, and Norman heard me—he heard the demo, rather—and he contacted my manager, and the rest is history. I ended up doing the INVITATION album, but he just basically picked up the whole recording, the whole demo, and just the whole thing. We never rerecorded it.
AD: Really. And he … the whole demo, and that was that.
ML: Wow, that is amazing. So what was it like recording for that? Was that your first time being in a recording studio on that level, with your first real recording?
AD: Well, some years before I had done, I think, my first recording. It wasn’t mine; it was background with Jerry Butler. That was my first experience, really, in a recording studio. I think it was “Suite for the Single Girl”… that goes way back. But yeah, in terms of my very own solo situation? Yes, that would probably be it, yes.
ML: How did that feel, working with that level of musicians? Norman had the best musicians and arrangers in the business, people like McKinley Jackson and the guys from the Starship Orchestra. I just met Jacques Burvick, by the way, recently.
AD: Oh, is that right?
ML: A great guy.
AD: Yeah, a sweetheart. I haven’t seen him in a while.
ML: He’s here in the D.C. area, not far from where I live.
AD: Yeah, I know—actually that I do know. And I think I have his number, I got it from Duke Jones … you may know Duke as well.
ML: Haven’t met him. I’m familiar with him, though.
AD: He’s the trumpet player. But yeah, he gave me a number on Jacques, but I haven’t tried it, and it is a 301 area code, if I remember correctly. Well, tell him I said hello next time you see him.
ML: I will. So what was it like, stepping into that—?
AD: It was great, it was great. We all became very good friends—to this day, obviously, me and Duke. I don’t get to Washington very often, but yeah. No, it was a wonderful experience, absolutely. And some good music came out of that. It was a lot of fun; they were a lot of cool guys.
ML: Now you were featured on four songs on there: “Invitation,” “Be There in the Morning,” “Together,” and “Handle Me Gently,” which features that beautiful introduction by Jean Carne, and also background vocals from the Jones Girls.
AD: Oh, yeah.
ML: Now when you recorded, were the tracks already laid out before you did your lead vocals, or how did that work out?
AD: Actually, they were. I was still living in Chicago at the time, and all of this was being done in L.A. That’s actually how Jean ended up doing the intro on “Handle Me Gently.” We had done the song and we kept saying, “Okay, we’ll go back and get the beginning later. Let’s just go through the song, get the song down, and then we’ll go back.” And before you knew it, everybody forgot to go back, and I was back in Chicago. They had to move on, so Jean just threw it down, and there it is to this day. I don’t think a lot of people know that.
ML: No. So when that record took off, how did that make you feel? Because even to this day, it’s a quiet storm standard.
AD: I know, and it’s really amazing. That song … I don’t even know what to say. But to this day I still get people on Facebook, strangers, and people from all over the world that are still asking about songs from that album: “Handle Me Gently,” just the other day; “Invitation” all the time … it’s just amazing, the lifespan that that song—or I suppose I should say the album—is having. Matter of fact, I spoke to Norman a couple of weeks ago, and he’s talking about re-releasing some of that stuff.
AD: If not already--I know he mentioned doing it; It might be done by now. He’s talking about re-releasing some of that stuff, and I think it’s a great idea.
ML: It’s curious that I think that’s the only album that has not been reissued on CD in its entirety.
AD: Really? Well, I don’t know what he’s got in mind, but he’s re-releasing something, and I’m sure it’s going to be in CD form.
ML: That’s great. it’s well overdue.
AD: So keep an ear out for that, because he just said this a couple of weeks ago. I think it might be coming from Europe, though.
ML: That could be, because Expansion released TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT and MR. C, which was the album after that. And usually, when a reissue label starts doing an artist they try to do all of their material, so that’ll probably be coming out soon, hopefully.
AD: Right, right. Well, keep an eye out for that.
AD: According to him, it’s on its way.
ML: So a year later you did TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT.
ML: Again, you were featured on four songs there. Can you give me some memories from working on that project?
AD: Well, that was a long time ago. It’s just that a lot of it I don’t remember, because I couldn’t stay. I was back and forth: I would do some vocals and come back to Chicago, and then I’d go back to L.A. and do a little more, and come back … so I was back and forth a lot. I didn’t have that much—other than the lead vocal; there really wasn’t a lot of it that was in my hands. Jean, for the most part, was producing the background vocals, and I would come in and do the lead, and of course, Norman was laying down the tracks that had already been laid down. So there wasn’t very much for me to do other than come in and do my vocals.
ML: Lay out those vocals.
AD: It wouldn’t take a long time to do, in most cases.
ML: Which you really did a great job on.
AD: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. He chose the material and everything, obviously, because it’s his album. So that’s the way it was.
ML: “Take It to the Limit” was a pretty good-sized hit. You also had “Justify”…
AD: “Justify,” right.
ML: …“You’ve Been on My Mind.” David Lasley wrote “Justify,” and he also wrote the classic, “You Bring Me Joy.”
AD: “You Bring Me Joy,” absolutely he did. And another one after that, which is THE classic as far as I’m concerned: “Crazy Love.”
ML: “Crazy Love,” right.
AD: Yeah, that was David Lasley as well, a brilliant, brilliant writer, and even singer. Let me tell you something: if you’d heard the demos with his voice on it, as far as I was concerned, you could have put those out that very day, because they were just as cool as what anybody else has done with his songs.
ML: How did you feel when you heard Anita Baker singing that on RAPTURE six years later?
AD: Well … she’s great, I love her—don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan—but I just wish that the original had gotten a little bit of … it was never really released as a single, and not a lot of people knew that I did it until years later. To this day, a lot of people—because I sang it on one of my gigs here at Ashford and Simpson’s bar, the Sugar Bar here in New York a couple of months back--and I included that because one or two people knew about it; one or two people were like, “You never sing that song, would you do it?”
So I did some originals, and I did “You Bring Me Joy,” and it just caught on on the Internet. There were a lot of people going, “I didn’t know Ada Dyer did that; I didn’t know …” blah blah blah, back and forth, back and forth. And people were saying, “No, but that’s Anita Baker’s song,” and they were like, “No, that’s Adaritha’s song.”
ML: That’s your song.
AD: It was just mine first. But listen, she did her thing. What can you say? She’s Anita Baker. I can’t say anything bad about it. I just wish the original had gotten a little more airplay, is what I would say.
ML: Absolutely, I do, too.
AD: That would have been nice.
ML: This is completely off subject: have you seen Zach Galifianiakis, the actor? Have you seen his performance of the song? The video?
AD: Of “You Bring Me Joy”?
ML: You know, the guy from …
AD: I know exactly; the guy with the beard. He did what now?
ML: You have to look it up on YouTube. He does a lip-sync to the song, and it’s just completely ridiculous.
AD: Oh, you’re kidding.
ML: Yeah, you’ll love it.
AD: I didn’t know that … I didn’t know that. Well, obviously her version?
ML: Yeah, her version.
AD: Oh, okay. I will definitely check that out.
ML: Look for that.
AD: That’s very funny. He’s a funny guy.
ML: Back to the story. So after TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT … now you did some touring, I know, with Norman after that, because I saw you in L.A. in a couple of venues. There was a place called Concerts by the Sea, and then another venue …
AD: Concerts by the Sea--oh, I love that place.
ML: I can’t remember the other place I saw you guys, but I met you briefly there. I’ve got pictures to prove it.
AD: Oh, wow.
ML: You were really cute, but camera-shy.
AD: I still am to this day—don’t like the camera. But you know, the funny thing is that I actually toured with him before INVITATION. I was doing the songs for THIS IS YOUR LIFE —I did that tour for THIS IS YOUR LIFE first, and then we did Invitation, and then I toured INVITATION. I think I may have toured after TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT; I’m not sure, but yeah, so I toured before we did INVITATION. But I met you?
ML: Yeah, at Concerts by the Sea.
ML: Sure did.
AD: Oh my God, that’s crazy. That’s a long time ago.
ML: It was.
AD: We’re old friends.
AD: And you’ve got pictures to prove it.
ML: Yes, I do. I’ll show you one day.
AD: Well, I hope they look halfway decent. I’m camera-shy for a reason.
ML: No, no, no.
AD: I’m just not photogenic, honestly.
ML: Yes, you are.
AD: Not really, but thanks—thanks, though.
ML: There’s a curious thing, because I was just looking at the liner notes on the sleeve for TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT, and it says: “Adaritha courtesy of Columbia Records.”
AD: Right. No, you’d have to talk to Norman about that—it’s really interesting.
ML: Because I know he produced those albums by Starship Orchestra and Al Johnson around that same time.
AD: Right. He was supposed to have gotten me something with Columbia Records, but somehow … and you know what? It’s interesting that you bring that up, because I’d forgotten all about that, but somehow that fell through. What do I know? I’m back here in Chicago, and everything’s going on there in L.A., and all I know is what they tell me, and I didn’t get the specifics. And of course, I was young and I guess they didn’t figure I needed to know the specifics, so let’s just go with the flow.
But yeah, there was supposed to be a situation with Columbia, and for some reason it didn’t happen. I don’t know the story behind why it didn’t happen, actually. I’m going to have to find that out; I’d be curious to know. That’s why it says what it says, but why it didn’t happen, or why it ended up not happening is a mystery to me, like so many mysteries in my career.
ML: So after that there must have been some kind of interest in you. You’d already had a track record, and these records that were popular. Seems like there would have been some interest in the industry in you at that point.
AD: Well, then the interest came, because I was looking for, like everybody else, a solo career. Well James Carmichael became interested, but he was in the midst of a few other projects at the time—Atlantic Starr and Lionel Ritchie, Commodores or something …
ML: He was very busy during that time.
AD: Very busy, yeah. But he wanted me to wait, wait, wait; just hold on. So while they were trying to shop a deal for me, he was already lined up to produce me. But he was on staff at Motown, which … I appreciate Motown for the giants they are, but I didn’t think that was necessarily the label for me. And I wasn’t thinking about going to Motown at all at that time.
ML: It just presented itself.
AD: Well, James Carmichael presented it and he talked me into it, being that he figured if I was on Motown it would be easier access--we could work closer if we’re both in the same place, and Motown would treat me nice--they didn’t have any female stars, singles singers … or something he was telling me at the time: “You can be the next Diana Ross!” and everything you wanted to hear. So I went in and they said, “Okay, all right, let’s do it,” and then we went into …
ML: Your first record was called MEANT TO BE. It came out in 1988.
ML: There were a couple of singles on that: “I Bet Ya I'll Let Ya” and “I Don’t Feel Like Crying,” which was an early L.A. and Babyface song.
AD: It was; there was a couple of theirs on there. And I’m going to tell you a couple of things. First of all, I really didn’t have any control over … again, it was my album—my picture was on it with my name—but James Carmichael had total control.
But Babyface and L.A. did send me some music, and the first time I heard it my first question is, “Why are you sending this to me?” Because, in my opinion, they should have been releasing it themselves. But nobody knew them then; I was just meeting them, but I was certainly impressed by what they had. But they had requested at one point—and this is the only thing I regret—is that James didn’t let them produce their two songs, which is what they wanted to do.
ML: Oh, really?
AD: Yeah, and I asked James, on their behalf, if he would let them do their two songs, and he didn’t really want that to happen, so it didn’t happen. But I still loved their material. And then, of course, they subsequently went on to be big stars themselves. But yeah, that’s right; I think they had one other one on there—they had “I Don’t Feel Like Crying,” which I loved, and I really would have loved to have had another shot at that one.
ML: It was called “Lifetime Warranty.”
AD: “Lifetime Warranty,” that’s it. Right, right, right.
ML: I got it in front of me. I have the records.
AD: Oh, boy. See, and I don’t … so that’s kind of crazy. No, I probably do have it somewhere. That wouldn’t have been my choice. I lived in a little bit of fear, because I had so little control over it, and those little, what I consider very bubblegum songs just wasn’t what I thought represented me at all.
ML: That’s what I felt. I don’t think the songs really captured your essence.
AD: And like I said, I didn’t pick ’em. I did pick the two Babyface’s--I have to say that … well, we agreed on those two. The other ones, whether I wanted to or not, they were going to get done. So, okay … I love James Carmichael, don’t get me wrong—to this day he’s the man—but what can you do? I’m a young girl--he’s got all these gold albums on his wall; who am I to say he doesn’t know really what he’s talking about, or he doesn’t know what he’s doing, because he had all of these gold albums on his wall? But I just wish he had listened to me just a little bit, in terms of my knowing basically what I want.
ML: And also what happened was that Berry Gordy sold Motown to Universal in 1988, which was around the same time that you came on board.
ML: And one thing people don’t realize is when you sign to a record company, you may only be valued by the person who signed you, and if they move on, or if your champion is not in good favour with the new regime, it’s easy for an artist to get caught in the middle.
AD: It’s true.
ML: A full disclosure: I started working at Motown in 1990, and I thought you were signed to the label, but during my interview I was told you were no longer there. But you had recorded a second album.
AD: I had, which most people didn’t know about either.
ML: Which was never released, other than a few promotional copies, which I have also. Now there was a single that had some release called “That’s What I Look for in a Lover.”
ML: But there were some real Ada songs on there …
AD: Wait, you’re talking about the second album, right?
ML: Yeah, the second album. “It Happens Every Time”…
AD: Well, can I go back just a little bit?
AD: To say yeah, Jheryl Busby did come in and take over—a lot of people were dropped from the label. I got lucky in that Jheryl Busby came to New York, and we sat down and had a meeting. But just as that sale went on, all releases stopped—everything stopped; nothing was going out of Motown at all. So I figured, “Good. There’s my album. I don’t have to worry about it coming out, because it’s over. Nobody’s ever going to hear those songs.”
ML: Oh, the first one.
AD: The first one. Yeah, I’m told everything stopped. Everything closed down while they figured out how they were going to do business. Nothing was going in or out of Motown, so I was a little bit relieved about that. And I ended up being in Japan—I think I was out there doing The Wiz, or something, not too long later—and I’m walking down the streets, just out being a tourist, and I hear this song way off in the distance, and I start humming along to it. And it’s like, “Wow, I know this song. It sounds so familiar,” and I realized it was me. It was me, and it was that record that was released in Japan.
ML: Oh, no.
AD: I didn’t know it was released at all, ever, anywhere. And that’s how I found out that somehow—I don’t know how or why they gave it all to Japan, because I don’t think it was released here. I don’t know what they were doing up at Motown. I’m telling you, I was so confused. But anyway, I figured, “All right, well, all of that is behind me. I’d rather be hearing that here in Japan than back in the United States anyway,” when I really thought about it.
So he came to New York, Busby, and we talked about it, and we listened—he actually put the record on, and we listened to it—and he was like, “You could have made a much better record.” And I’m like, “You know what? I absolutely agree, but I’ll tell you what: I had no control; I had zero control over that piece of product right there, and that might have made all the difference in the world, had I been.” So he said, “You know, we’re going to give you another shot,” which I appreciated very much. And now we get to the second album.
ML: Okay, great. And those songs, “It Happens Every Time,” “Everything You Want Me to Be.”
ML: “Tell Me Why.”
ML: And the two ballads, “Half Crazy,” which was written by Linda Creed and Lonnie Jordan—
AD: Oh, yeah.
ML: —and that “Crazy Love,” that you mentioned earlier, the other David Lasley song.
AD: Oh my God, that “Crazy Love,” absolutely.
ML: Which was subsequently recorded by Patti and Luther.
AD: I heard that. Somebody else, too … but I just heard, literally, like three weeks ago--I just heard Luther’s version. I had no idea he had rerecorded it. I had no idea. And it’s beautiful, obviously.
ML: So altogether it was a very solid effort.
AD: I thought so. I co-wrote a couple of the songs, “Everything You Want Me to Be” and one of the other ones; I can’t remember what the other one was, but I co-wrote a couple of those songs, and I was very happy with it. I thought it was a good effort. I had several different …
AD: … producers on that, and I thought it was really good. And I thought there were at least two, three good singles on that, and I was waiting and I was ready, and I was like, “Yeah, now let’s put this out and see what happens.” We had two-three good singles on there, I thought, but that one didn’t get a chance either. And I think … well, I can tell you what I’m told, but there were still a lot of questions that were unanswered in terms of why that one wasn’t properly released—and, I thought, not released at all again, until I found out later that several people had copies. Just really, really kind of nasty business up there at Motown, as far as Ada Dyer’s concerned, anyway--still a lot of unanswered questions. I have no idea about a lot of what went down there.
ML: So how did you move on beyond that?
AD: Well, beyond that, what I did was I said, “Let me just pull back.” And I pulled back from the business as a solo artist; I just retreated for a bit and said, “Let me just figure out how I want to deal with this business, if I even want to stay in this business.” It has no sense of loyalty and just really doesn’t care a whole bunch about you, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be a part of that industry.
So I decided to do some background, and as it turned out, I got a call from Chaka and started singing background with Chaka Khan. And then I was with Roberta for about five years or so, Roberta Flack, and just started touring with different people—Boz Scaggs—so I’ve been touring a lot and singing background with other people. And then I started doing the jingles, which paid really well, for a while, and just doing things like that and just really put my whole solo career on hold for a little while … in terms of recording and recording contracts, I did. But not in terms of my club dates and my parties, and my tours.
And I go to Russia two or three times a year, doing my own solo thing. I’m in the process, actually, of writing--I haven’t been writing in a while, either, so I do plan on trying to get back out there and trying to get something released again. People have been asking me to do that as well—when am I going back into the studio—so I’m in the studio now. And we’ll have to see what happens.
ML: So I’ve seen some things on YouTube, and I guess those are some of those shows in Russia that you’ve done?
AD: Yeah, some were in Russia; some might have been in Martha’s Vineyard or something. And I’m going to be going to France, actually, in February, for a couple of days, doing this thing out there. But yeah, some of them are definitely in Russia and different places. I don’t know … you know me: if it’s a camera, especially moving, I’m really not interested. So I really don’t know what’s there. If you say it’s there, I believe you; it’s there.
ML: Lately you’ve been doing some gigs there in New York, and hopefully, I’ll get up to see one of those.
AD: Yeah, absolutely; maybe you’ll make it up on the 14th. Bring your wife up, we’re doing this thing at B.B. King’s on Valentine’s Day, which should be a lot of fun.
ML: Oh, I think I have a show here that day in Virginia.
AD: Oh, shoot.
ML: The Angela Bofill Experience.
AD: Oh, nice! How is she?
ML: She’s good. I interviewed her earlier this month; her interview’s up on the website also.
AD: Oh, great. I’ll have to check that out.
ML: And she’s going to be working with Melba Moore this time out on The Angela Bofill Experience.
AD: Oh, good. But she’s up and working again?
ML: Well, on The Experience she talks about her career and then the vocalist on the bill does the songs, because she can’t really sing.
AD: Okay, that’s what I thought I heard.
ML: She’s still able to be her humourous, loving, outgoing self onstage.
AD: Well, good for her.
ML: And it’s good to see her, and see that she’s still thriving and happy.
AD: Very good, I’m glad to hear that.
ML: Any thoughts of coming to D.C.? You have a lot of fans here in the original home of the Quiet Storm.
AD: I know, and you know what? We used to be there constantly. Norman … Philly was big for him, Washington was big for him—he had certain little pockets—Maryland … we were always down that way. I don’t know, but you know what? I would love to work something out, I would love to get a little tour.
ML: Maybe you and Jacques will get together and do something.
AD: That can definitely happen, for sure. Maybe I’ll give him a call. But I’d love to get a little tour that would take us through. Is Ju Ju House still there?
ML: Who was that?
AD: You know Ju Ju House, the drummer?
ML: No, not familiar.
AD: Okay, because he’s a drummer; he was with me—
ML: I moved here recently, I’m not from here.
AD: Oh, okay. Well, he’s a Washington drummer—I hope he’s still there—but he played with Roberta for a while. But he was just badass, and I’d love to hook something up and come down that way. But listen, if we can hook it up … I’ll call Jacques, and if it can be hooked up, you’ll be the first to know.
ML: Okay, I’m looking forward to that.
AD: I would love to do that; I really would.
ML: Well, Ada, this has really been a pleasure. I am so glad we got together and had this conversation. Thank you. Thanks to our mutual friend Steve Abrams—shout out to Steve—
AD: Abrams, shout out.
ML: And you have a wonderful rest of your day.
AD: Thank you very much, and you do the same. And we’ll keep in touch, okay?
ML: All right.
AD: All right, darlin’. Take care.
About the Writer
Michael Lewis is a long-time associate at SoulMusic.com. His industry experience includes Sony Music, Motown and La Face Records, and a tenure at HEAR Music. He is grateful to contribute to sustaining the legacy of R&B and soul music.