Dues of the blues

When people ask me how old I am, I say I’m 99 and one dark day."

To tell the truth, first lady of blues-belting Alberta Adams doesn’t really know how old she is. Could be a little more than what you’d think – could be a little less than what you’d swear to. Only God knows for sure, and so far God hasn’t made that big a deal about it. Alberta is Alberta going strong, and that should be good enough for anyone.

But seriously, doesn’t she know the actual number of years she’s been on this earth? Nope. To begin with, Detroit’s unquestioned and unchallenged queen of the blues has four birth certificates, and they don’t all agree. 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.

Sure, she’s got a good idea what ballpark she’s in. Age has a way of making house calls on certain joints just to let a body know that the toll of a long life must be paid eventually. Alberta’s life has not only been lived long, it’s been lived hard and full, sometimes with both feet on the gas. This is a woman who has refused to let Father Time slip out the back door before giving her everything she feels she deserves – and more. Somehow, she has managed to have these demands enforced while maintaining ownership of one of the sweetest smiles to be found anywhere. Alberta is proof that you don’t always have to be hard to be tough.

The blues.

So does it matter, then? Would Alberta’s blues be any more real if she knew the precise day, hour and minute that she made her first stage appearance, giving those powerful lungs of hers their very first workout? Not likely. If you’ve ever heard Alberta sing, then you know she was born to sing the blues regardless of what time she arrived. Some folks arrive in this life with a mission already in hand, and those folks are always on time.

"‘Till God call me, I’ll be doin’ my thing," says Adams.

Born with the Blues – that’s the name of Alberta’s latest CD, released this week. And it’s burnin’. For many blues artists, especially the younger ones, this particular title would be nothing short of presumptuous, and maybe even a little corny. But with Alberta? It’s a simple, honest statement of fact. Kind of like the blues. Simple, honest and straight to it.

"You tell ’em this woman can prove where she’s been! Lotta folks say, ‘Well, I’ve been here and I’ve been there. I’ve played with this person and that person.’ Well, I can prove where I’ve been," says Adams.

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.

"We used to call Louis Jordan ‘Daddy,’" she says with a broad smile.

There are so many other major names in the industry whose career paths have at some point intersected with hers during the more than 16 years she spent on the road that it’s hard to keep track. Suffice it to say that if they were big names on the blues circuit during the ’40s, ’50s and/or ’60s, chances are Alberta worked with them.

Considering today’s blues scene in Detroit, which Adams describes as "just a weekend thing," it’s hard to imagine the days when Detroit’s Paradise Alley was hopping and musicians could work seven days a week, several shows a day, and it wasn’t considered unusual. Alberta remembers a long-standing gig she had in 1952 at a Paradise Valley spot called Club B&C.

"We had chorus girls and everything. That was bigtime!"

Although the money doesn’t sound like much now, Alberta is quick to put things in perspective.

"Back then, for $20 you could get your clothes cleaned, pay your rent and still get something to eat."

Alberta cherishes her memory of such well-known clubs of the time as the Flame Show Bar, where she was introduced to Leonard Chess of the renowned Chess Records label. After watching her perform, Chess signed her to a one-record deal. Today, more than 30 years later, it finally looks like she’ll get some royalties from that deal.

The blues.

Anyway, there was also the Frolic Show Bar, the Twenty Grand Club, Club Zombie, Lee’s Sensation, Phelp’s Lounge, among others. But Alberta doesn’t want anyone to get the idea that the only good days for Detroit blues were in the past. Matter of fact, today’s crowds are more responsive than she remembers them being back in the day when talent like hers was taken a bit more for granted by the predominantly black audiences. These days the younger folks, particularly younger whites, seem to always get a charge out of her performance.

"Now the white people got these blues and gone," she says, looking a little surprised herself at how much the scene has changed from the days when whites – and even some blacks – looked from afar down their noses at blues as some form of "jungle music" that should never be performed in the company of proper folk. These days it’s the "proper folk" that you’re most likely to see falling all over themselves in pursuit of the blues, especially when it’s blues delivered by a veteran such as Alberta Adams.

Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby. Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.

"It’s all about the legends now (here in Detroit)," she says.

By ‘legends,’ Alberta means such local blues luminaries as Uncle Jesse White, Willie D. Warren, the Butler Twins, Johnnie Bassett, Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones, herself and perhaps a handful of others who, to quote a blues lyric, have paid the cost to be the boss.

"It’s God’s work, but it’s the blues to us. Go on, tell the truth. Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]

Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.