When Oleta Adams appeared on the scene in 1990, she was hard to dismiss. Here was this slender, dark-skinned woman with inviting eyes, a full mouth -- and she wasn't selling sex. Her elixir voice was rich and steeped in the gospel of her childhood. Because she infused her songs with deep feeling and played the piano fluidly, critics quickly called her the new Roberta Flack.
The two soul stylists have some things in common -- namely, a sharp musical ear and a strong perfectionist streak. But unlike Flack, Adams writes the bulk of her material. Her sound is all her own.
"The comparisons, of course, were flattering," says Adams, who is calling from her home in Kansas. She plays Rams Head in Annapolis tomorrow. "But I've always done my own thing. I've always tried to stay true to my own voice."
Adams' latest album is All the Love, her first pop set since her 1997 gospel CD Come Walk With Me. It's an engaging blend of smooth jazz, refined pop and earthy R&B. Although some live instrumentation punctuates the tracks, the overall sound is decidedly polished, the drums mostly programmed. But it does not cool the warmth of Adams' approach.
She says, "We wanted it to be a very light, a very positive type of record."
Thirteen years ago when Adams' classic debut, Circle of One, dropped, junky New Jack Swing productions littered the urban soundscape. Picture-perfect, tinny-voiced performers such as Paula Abdul, Jody Watley and Janet Jackson dominated pop airwaves. There seemed to be no room for Oleta Adams, a small-town woman whose sound and approach borrowed a little from Mahalia Jackson and Sarah Vaughan. With its soulfully organic tracks and introspective lyrics, Circle of One was a harbinger to the so-called "neo-soul" movement, which has become a tired marketing tool for record companies pushing artists who name Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway as their chief influences.
When the Gulf War erupted in '91, Adams' heart-heavy take on Brenda Russell's "Get Here" became an unofficial anthem.
"We didn't know we were gonna get into war," Adams says. "The record company planned on releasing the single during the holidays. ... A news person on KTLA in Los Angeles put together this documentary footage using 'Get Here' in the foreground, not the background really. They did the whole song that way. In the song where I sing, 'you can reach me by railway,' they'd show troops on the trains. When I'd sing, 'cross the desert like an Arab man,' they'd show a caravan of troops in the desert. They showed this everywhere around the country, and the song caught on like that."
The exposure catapulted Circle of One to platinum sales. And Adams toured extensively around the world. She had come a long way from crooning in hotel piano bars in Kansas City, Kan. It was at the Duck Club in the city's Hyatt Regency where English pop duo Tears For Fears discovered her in '87. The guys were in town for a show, staying at the place, when they wandered into the showroom. Taken by Adams' enthralling vocals, Roland Orzabal, TFF's leader, invited Adams to sing on 1989's Seeds of Love. That gig led to a full contract with Fontana Records, a British label distributed in the United States by PolyGram. Like Donna Summer in the mid-'70s, Adams' thoroughly American music arrived as an import.
She earned a Grammy nomination for "Get Here." Subsequent albums -- Evolution and Movin' On -- displayed greater artistic depth. But they failed to catch on, and Adams was unceremoniously dropped by her label.
"I do what I do," she says. "There are some places were the new stuff that everybody else does doesn't fit in, and what I do fits in. We do jazz festivals, churches, conventions. My versatility is my saving grace. That's the way I like it, because I'm not just a one-basket type of person."
Adams still tours heavily around the world. The singer's husband, John Cushon, accompanies her on drums.
"Life is wonderful these days," the performer says, and you know she's smiling. "I simply stay true to what I do. I can live with the decisions I've made."
Oleta Adams plays the Birchmere in Alexandria at 7:30 tonight. Tickets are $35 and available through Ticketmaster. Call 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com. She plays two shows at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $38.50. Call 410-268-4545 or visit http:// ticketing.ramsheadtavern.com.