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|Blues Fest 2007: Hot, and Still Improving - Alberta Adams: Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Tent Stage|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Wednesday, 27 June 2007 03:08|
Alberta Adams gained a foothold in the booming Detroit entertainment industry as a tap dancer in the early 1940s at Club D&C. But "I always wanted to be a singer," she said in a recent phone interview.
One night her friend Kitty Stevenson, the headliner at the club, took sick. "I asked the boss if I could sing in her place," she said. "I knew two little tunes [‘Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop' and ‘When My Man Comes Home']. That night I did her spot. The next day the man told me to learn some more blues songs - I had the job. I stayed there for five years." And she has been singing ever since.
With a repertoire that consisted of jazz standards and the blues, Adams was soon creating quite a sensation. "I was hot, baby!" she told Blues on Stage. "They'd bring in big-name acts that couldn't follow me."
Word of her vocal prowess spread, and in the '40s and '50s Adams performed with musical greats such as Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and T-Bone Walker, as well as with most of the premier jazz, R&B, and blues groups in Detroit during that era.
"Touring with the big bands, it was beautiful. It was a lotta fun," she said. "In those days we had a show - not like now with a three-piece band - they had a show with chorus girls, dancers, blues singers, a comedian, 12-piece bands." And Alberta Adams was the star blues singer.
"I can prove where I've been," Adams told Detroit Metro Times' Keith Owens. He wrote: "She's talking about the photographs. Stacks upon stacks of photo albums containing endless photographs chronicling Alberta's journey through the blues life. One of the most sage pieces of advice that she gives to younger artists coming up is to keep everything. Photos, band reviews, anything and everything that can show you are who you say you are. No bragging, just fact. Like the fact that Alberta used to tour with the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan."
It's easy to calculate that Adams has been in show business for over 60 years, but her actual age is another thing entirely.
Dubbed the Queen of Detroit Blues in the 1950s, Adams was born Roberta Louise Osborne in Indianapolis. According to Michael Murphy in the Detroit Metro Times, Alberta "doesn't reveal her age, but says she thinks she was born in July. According to her manager, R.J. Spangler, no one knows exactly how old she is; there are varying birth certificates with different birth dates. Adams says one document lists her date of birth in 1917, another says 1924. Ask Adams and she will tell you [she's]: ‘99 and one dark day.'"
In an interview with NPR's Scott Simon in 2000, Alberta said she has four birth certificates; she doesn't know why except that "I was an orphan." She was raised by aunts in Detroit. But she also told NPR that she was 77 when she made her first album, Born with the Blues, in 1999.
Owens, in a 1999 Detroit Metro Times piece, questioned: "But seriously, doesn't she know the actual number of years she's been on this earth? Nope ... . There's evidence of a rough-and-tumble upbringing that involved an alcoholic mother, an absentee father, an early stint in an orphanage, and, well, a lot of other tough times that eventually left her to raise herself, for the most part, during the Depression."
"I was born with the blues," Adams told me. "The blues will never die. The blues is here to stay because your whole life ain't nothin' but the blues."
Although she told me that she had her favorite singers - Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Dinah Washington, Della Reese, Sarah Vaughan, and LaVern Baker - Alberta Adams is a self-taught singer who admits no direct influences. "I just... I do have my own style," she said. Yet like the singers she admires, Adams is a soul-inflected blues shouter whose strong, rich voice has a tone and expressive quality that grabs a listener and won't let go.
Adams' vocal power still amazes even her. "It seems like the older I get, I'm improving," Adams told Blues on Stage. "When I go into a club, I'll be sitting there looking right silly, right stupid. Hit the stage and it's, ‘Wait a minute. Where'd that voice come from?' It scares me, my voice is so strong."
She's also a songwriter; she penned most of the numbers on her latest release, 2004's I'm on the Move, which she recorded with R.J.'s Rhythm Rockers, her band for the Blues Fest performance.
Detroit bandleader and drummer R.J. Spangler revived Alberta's career in 1994. Alberta said, "Ever since the '40s, I never stopped - I kept on going. God has been good to me - that's how I come this far. Without Him and without R.J. I couldn't have made it." And Alberta shows no signs of stopping now, even with more than 60 years in the blues business behind her. She's getting ready to release another album in a couple of months.
Her talent, longevity, and lack of recorded material make Alberta a prime candidate for the MVBS RiverRoad Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes those blues musicians who may not be as recognized as the stars but who are the embodiments of the living history of the blues. Adams' set is sure to show the festival audience that she is indeed a legend.
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