It's 1944, and there's a raucous crowd inside Club B&C, a hip joint in Paradise Valley, Detroit's center of black entertainment. The liquor is flowing and smoke hangs in the air like a cloud both dirty and sweet. The sound of laughter is noticeable, but it doesn't drown out the house band. Everybody looks immaculate — the men's suits are pressed, and the women look beautiful in figure-hugging dresses and skirts. The dancing can get wild because, in these comfortable surroundings, the B&C patrons are going to let their hair down (at least metaphorically). All eyes are on the singer.
Seventy years later, and Alberta Adams' experiences are practically etched onto her face like tattoos. Yet, when you consider that this is a woman born in 1917 who was 35 when she landed her first contract with Chess Records in 1952, and when you think that this is a lady who tried to save her burning record store during the 1967 race riots but would later gamble away much of the money she did have, she looks remarkably well.
It occurs to us, in her Detroit kitchen, that Adams would have been 21 when blues legend (a word that certainly applies here) Robert Johnson died. Johnson, of course, is the man who, according to myth, sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads near the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi in exchange for his guitar-playing prowess. There are few people alive who knew Johnson personally, so we have to ask Adams if she ever hung out with him. As it turns out, that's the question that results in Adams' eyes misting over a little, the memories apparently overwhelming. "I played with him in New York," she says. "He was nice."
That, and the arrival of Adams' manager and drummer RJ Spangler, triggers the sort of change in Adams we had been looking for. Her hearing is bad enough we have to basically shout every question, and she still doesn't understand many. Her speech is slurry, and it's tough to make out every word. But with a little patience, she's a fascinating interview. She's as sharp as a knife, too; she might not remember the year when something happened, but she remembers the details. So we slowly voice one question after another and, with each mention of one of her old friends and haunts, the years near-visibly peel away like a scene in a movie, like The Green Mile, when an elderly person is reminiscing and we cut away to those golden days. And so we do ...
Roberta Louise Osborne was born in Indianapolis to an alcoholic mother, who lost her three children to the state. Her aunt adopted her and took her to Detroit, but she was in no financial state to take care of Adams on top of her own children, so the child that everyone took to calling "Alberta" had to take care of herself, eating the crumbs left from the bread and the juice from the beans. As soon as she could leave home, she did. She describes Detroit in those days as "nice."
"There's wasn't any robbing and stealing," Adams says. "You could drop a dollar on the street and somebody would come by and say, 'You dropped your dollar.' Not now."
In 1952 Adams landed her first record deal with Chess; prior to that, she sang and danced in clubs, like Club B&C. "They paid me to play in show bars," she says. "I was singing. Club B&C was jumping. I tap danced there. I was pretty good. It was nice there. Blues and jazz. The blues will never die. Never. I was asked to go to [famous promoter] Dave Clark's table and he said, 'You play good. Would you like to record?' He called me in the next morning. I went into the studio and recorded 'Remember Me.' That was a hit, and I didn't get a dime."
Spangler picks up the story. "Often people would have a revue, so there'd be a house band and then they'd have a comedian, maybe a ballad singer, and a blues singer," he says. "She did that kind of thing. She was a single. There was a blues singer, Kitty Stevenson, who took sick, and she took her place. That was her first real break. Alberta said, 'Hey, I can sing.' This was at Club B&C. She got up and sang 'Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop,' which is a blues song by Lionel Hampton, and a Lil Green tune. She sang those two songs, the only tunes she knew really. The club owner said, 'Learn some more tunes and you've got the job.' That's when she went from being a dancer to a singer. Then she was known as Alberta Adams. She took the name of her then-husband, Billy Adams, a musician around town."
Adams barely remembers the race riot of 1943, although she does say that it was "better afterwards — they made themselves heard." She remembers the riots of 1967 a little better, not least because she was trying to save the record store she owned (she doesn't remember what it was called, and nothing seems to be on record).
Spangler shares one vivid memory of Adams' from the 1960s, though. "She was sitting [at] a Woolworth's lunch counter in the early '60s, and a little white boy came up to her and he was pulling on her dress saying, 'nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger,'" he says. "She turned around and smacked him, and he ran out crying. She don't take no shit. Alberta's never been a drinker, ever. Alberta liked playing cards. It was not always the best thing for her. She was a sober person her entire life, and she owned a business. She carried herself with a certain amount of dignity all of her life, so people around her tended to treat her with respect. She wasn't pompous or arrogant. Her mother was a drunk, so that turned her."
There are many missing years when delving into Adams' life, partly because she gambled heavily for a while. Still, she never stopped performing in clubs (and a nursing home for a while) despite the fact that her first album wasn't released until 1999, when she was 82 years old and about more than half a century after she started performing. That in itself is astonishing, and the fact that she found such a great level of respect and some success so late in life can largely be attributed to Spangler.
"In 1994 I walked up to RJ and told him to do something with me," Adams says. "He said, 'All right.' Now I'm nationwide. He's the cause of all of it."
"We turned down about 20 good offers to go to Europe because she wouldn't get a passport, and she didn't want to fly," Spangler says. "I tried to get a passport for her, [but] we never did it because she was born Roberta Louise Osborne, and she married Billy Adams — but we don't think it was a legal marriage. It was probably never registered. She created a Social Security number and [driver's] license with the name Alberta Adams. Her birth certificate says Roberta Louise Osborne. You can't get a passport without a birth certificate. She and I drove across America together — I don't know how many times. We burned out a lot of vans together. The woman is a consummate pro. We could drive 10 hours in the van in the daytime, show up at a gig, set the gear, and she'd come in and wow the audience. She didn't have a bad day. She always kicked ass. She didn't copy anybody else. She had influences, but she had her own style."
Adams, together with Spangler, put out the Born With the Blues album in 1999, and then saw her profile explode. The "Queen of the Blues" tag, already in use, was cemented, and she was booked to play all over the country. The cruel irony is that she was only able to enjoy the adoration for a relatively short time. Time marches onward, and Adams does not appear fit to tour again. But she holds no grudges.
"I love people," she says with a smile, then closes with an anecdote that just pops into her beautiful mind.
"I was on tour with RJ, and I did a show," she says. "I was up on stage and there was a man sitting there. I was leaning in and a woman said, 'Take your hand off my man.' She went crazy. I don't steal nobody's man."
But the thing is, despite Adams being in her 80s at the time, the woman believed that she could, and that's not surprising because when Adams sings, the years roll away. Everyone in the audience could be back at the B&C Club, the stench of smoke and whiskey hanging in the air once again, and a beautiful woman in a clinging dress onstage seducing everyone. She's 97 now and moving gingerly, but steer her toward the right subjects and there's a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. Some things never change.
Alberta Adams died on Dec. 25, 2014 in Dearborn of congestive heart failure.