It's Fun to Sing at the YMCA

Imagine if the photographer had asked Clark Adams to smile for the camera!
Tony Nelson

You can't hear Clark Adams singing on America's Next Top I-tube Space, because he may be the last person in the land of milk and honey who isn't pimping and podcasting to get famous. Nope, the only place you can hear Adams's sweet voice—a honeyed baritone that gives way easily to a trilling falsetto—is on the sidewalks of the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis, where he can be heard crooning most every day, or in the halls and exercise rooms of the Blaisdell YMCA, where he works as a custodian most every night.

"What up, Motown?" a husky jock-type says to Adams on his way out the door of the Burger King on the corner of 34th and Nicollet. "Motown" is the name some of the regulars at the Y have given Adams, accustomed as they have become to hearing him sing as they work out, shower, and towel off. He's sort of the artist in residence there, a man whose organic talent might prompt a hypester to label him the next Eva Cassidy or Ted Hawkins.

"Everybody says, 'Man, you should be on American Idol,'" says Adams, sitting in a window booth; he chose the venue so no one would be subjected to his "messy" apartment nearby. He sports a straw Cuban-style hat and a black FUBU football jersey, and the easy glint in his small brown eyes suggests he has seen more than his share of mischief in his 50 years on this earth. "For one thing, I'm too old for American Idol. It's no big thing to be famous; I've had a good time. You can have all the money in the world, but if you ain't got no love in your heart, you might as well be broke."

Adams started singing in Arkansas, where he and his 16 brothers and sisters worked the 120-acre farm his father owned, raising cotton and soybeans. He sang while he worked, but the only time he took it to any type of stage was in church. "I sang in the gospel group because there was a girl in the group I wanted to go with," he cracks. "The best way to get to a spiritual woman was to be singing in church."

After he graduated from high school, he moved to Los Angeles to be near his uncle and two sisters. He sang on the street amid dice games and worse. A friend who noticed his talent hooked him up with Earth, Wind and Fire's Maurice White. Adams recorded some back-up vocals for White, which he says were used on record and as in-concert ear candy. He sang a few L.A. gigs with Earth, Wind and Fire, and performed at clubs, most regularly at Sammy's Place, whose namesake, Sammy Davis Jr., famously said, "If you want to get known as a singer, you hire five sexy chicks and let them fight over you onstage and for the cameras. That's publicity, man."

Adams never learned that lesson, but he continued singing. He was crooning one day in 1975, as he played Frisbee at Hollywood Park, where his cousin had decided he was going to ride a horse around a small horse path adjacent to the famous racetrack. When the Frisbee flew near a group of 30 Rastafarians sitting under a tree, Adams struck up a conversation.

"I meet people so easily," Adams says. "There was a guy sitting down playing a guitar, and I started joking around. And it was Bob Marley, sitting in the middle of this whole group. I didn't know who he was; I had never really heard reggae. I sat down with him and they were all getting blasted. And then my cousin comes out of that gate, and that horse took off running and he dragged him around that track.

"I said to all these guys, 'I told him not to get his crazy black ass on that horse. He shoulda stayed up here with me. That horse ain't got no sense at all.' And Bob Marley dropped his guitar and was on the ground laughing, holding his stomach. They were all just cracking up, and then my cousin came up with us and Bob said, 'You should've listened to the mon.'"

Adams stayed in touch with the reggae mystic until Marley's death 1981, and he's taken to heart what Marley told him: "I'm just a person. I believe in all people together, all people united."

Adams spent 30 years in San Diego, then moved to Minneapolis three years ago, leaving behind two ex-wives and two grown daughters. He came to be near his brother, a preacher at New Creation Church in Brooklyn Park, in an attempt to find God and get away from the street hustling and high life he was living in San Diego. He was also hoping to "slow down from dating all the fast, good-looking women I could find."

The transition has mostly worked, but like many bon vivants, he can't get a handle on the clenched buttcheeks of the residents of his new hometown. "I love people; I don't put anyone above me, or under me," he says, spreading his arms in a phantom embrace. "People are drawn to me, and I'm drawn to people. I'll be sitting on the bus stop, runnin' my mouth, and before you know it, people be, 'Who is this crazy guy?' The way in Arkansas is we always speak to each other. Sometimes 15 times a day, with a humble greeting. But here, you talk to most of the brothers here on the street—'Hey, my brother, how you doin'?'—and they look at you like they're angry about something.

"I don't know what it is about people in Minnesota. The only place you can [get] good old hometown down-to-earth hospitality is from seniors in church. It's a change I've never seen. Even in California, people speak to you. They might have something wrong, but they're still hospitable. Here, it's like something really wrong happened. I don't know what it is, but people are killing each other, and it's a small place. It's like we're not close anymore. It's a shame."

Adams has 72 nieces and nephews scattered across the country. His family gets together once a year for a reunion, and often they sing. If you can't get down there, you can hear Clark "Motown" Adams sing at the Blaisdell Y—sing the way he sang work songs while tilling the farm in Arkansas; the way he sang gospel songs in his mother's and brother's churches; the way he sang country and western in the country bars of California; the way he sang ballads in the cantinas of Mexico; the way he sang soul-funk on stage and in the studio with Earth, Wind and Fire; the way he sang soul chestnuts on the streets of Hollywood; the way he's sung at the countless odd jobs—tour bus driver, carpenter, church bus driver, mechanic, chauffeur—he's had over the years.

"I'd like to go on American Idol, just to go have a good time," he concludes. "I know I have a gift from God, and if I could just give back to him with all of my best, some old school or something like that. I would knock 'em dead. They'd be left with like, 'Who was that?' 'Who was that guy?' I'd give 'em something to remember."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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