A mainstay on American blues festival stages in the 1990s and early part of the subsequent decade, Alberta Adams is billed alternately as the Grand Dame of Detroit Blues and Queen of Detroit Blues. Remarkably enough, the majority of her reputation rests upon her live performances. Her recording career did not begin until the late 1990s, when she was already more than 80 years old. These late-career recordings, however, capture Adam's gritty vocals that describe hard times and broken hearts while conveying a deep religious faith and a desire to persevere. For more than 60 of her 80-or-so years, Adams has entertained audiences in both the United States and Canada with nary a break. Her powerful voice is fraught with the pain brought on by lost love and penury, yet tempered by resiliency and toughness.
Born Roberta Louise Osborne, Adams survived a Depression childhood with no father and an alcoholic mother in Indianapolis, Indiana. Biographical resources are unable to pinpoint exactly what year Adams was born. The latest birth date reported is 1925, but R.J. Spangler, Adams's manager and band leader, believes that date shaves nearly ten years off her actual age. Adams and two siblings were surrendered to the state by their mother. When she was three, Adams was adopted by an aunt. Eventually she was brought to Detroit, where she lived with her aunt in abject poverty. The young woman's hard luck and troubles proved to be good as gold, however, helping Roberta Osborne transform herself into Alberta Adams—Detroit's first lady of the blues.
Adams began her career as a dancer in the early 1940s, performing at Club B and C, which was located in Detroit's African-American entertainment area on Hastings Street. Going by the stage name Tap Dancer DeLuxe, she convinced the manager of Detroit's Club B and C to let her sing when the club's scheduled singer became ill. "I asked the manager if I could take her place," Adams told a reporter for the Royal Oak Daily Tribune. "He said as long as you keep tap dancing, too, you can sing your two blues tonight." Adams entertained the crowd with a rendition of the Lionel Hampton and Curley Hamner song "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop," which later became a 1946 hit for the Tex Beneke-Glenn Miller Orchestra. The only other song in her debut repertoire at the time was "I'll Be So Glad When My Man Comes Home." She recalled, "I stayed at the Club B and C five years and I've been singing jazz, blues and rock ever since. But, I can't leave the blues. I love it." Adams worked nearly nonstop beginning in the 1940s, also finding time to locate her birth mother, whom she took care of until her death, and to battle her own addiction to gambling.
Before long Adams was a familiar performer on Hastings Street, performing in a cultural mélange that included Detroit musical ambassadors Big Maceo, Wynonie Harris, and John Lee Hooker. Although she had no formal training, she credited Big Joe Turner, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and LaVern Baker as among her many influences. Her crowd-pleasing style was highlighted by intimate strolls through the crowd, a new style of performing for which she is credited as an originator. She was soon singing with the Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams Orchestra, and later with TJ Fowler's jump blues combo. She stayed at the club for five years before moving on to tours with such acts as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Roy Eldridge, Louis Jordon, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. She has also performed with Texas guitar legend T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Lavern Baker, and many others.
"I belive she's the only representative left in Detroit from that era," declared Spangler in a 2005 interview. "She's a walking, talking history of twentieth-century blues. "She has her own take on the blues, her own way of phrasing the blues, which I love. It's rooted in the traditions of the 1940s and 1950s, but it still sounds fresh and original today."
In 1962 Adams recorded a single for the Motown subsidiary label Thelma. "I'd forgotten the songs until my manager dug them up," she recalled. "I don't remember anything about recording them or what they sounded like until he played them for me." Adams categorized the A-side of the single as a "semi-blues" and the flipside as "rhythm and blues." The two songs were digitized for the first time in 2005 and included with two new songs recorded with R.J.'s Rhythm Rockers on a special edition extended play CD single.
Despite recording early singles for the Savoy, Chess and Thelma labels, Adams didn't release a full-length album until the 1990s. "A lot of times people would ask me about recording, but they would wind up disappearing or worried about how much money they were going to get from it and it never worked out," she told a Royal Oak Daily Tribune writer. In the late 1990s Adams appeared on the Cannonball Records' Blues Across America anthology that focused on Detroit blues artists. The four tracks Adams recorded for the anthology with Detroit band Johnnie Bassett & the Blues Insurgents netted her a recording contract with Cannonball, and she recorded two compact discs for the label, Born with the Blues and Say Baby Say. The full-length CD recordings earned Adams four W.C. Handy award nominations for "Best Female Vocalist," invitations to play blues fests across the country, Canada and Europe, and a featured spot on the nationally syndicated "House of Blues" radio show. In addition, Born with the Blues was named one of Living Blues magazine's Top 25 albums of 1999. Adams's 2004 CD release I'm on the Move contains three songs penned by her, including "I Paid My Dues to the Blues."
"I live the blues. I was born with the blues," Adams said. "I've gone through so many hardships; I know how to bring out the blues when I tell a story." Adams has credited her career longevity to her sense of showmanship: "Singers are a dime a dozen. You've got to have something with it and you've got to get to the people. It's showmanship. I'm not bragging, but I know I've got that."
Born with the Blues, Cannonball, 1999.
Say Baby Say, Cannonball, 2000.
I'm on the Move, Eastlawn, 2004.
For the Record …
Born Roberta Louise Osborne in Indianapolis, IN.
Began performing in Detroit, 1930s; toured with Duke Ellington, 1940s; recorded for Chess Records, 1960s; released album Born with the Blues, 1999; released I'm on the Move, 2004.
Addresses: Management—Spangler Blues Productions, phone: (586) 778-9344, email: [email protected], web-site: http://www.spanglerbluesproductions.com.
Metro Times (Detroit, MI), August 17, 2005.
Royal Oak Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI), August 12, 2005.
"Alberta Adams," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 21, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was taken from interviews with R.J. Spangler and Alberta Adams.
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