Ladies sing the blues

It’s a hot, wet July afternoon at Nancy Whiskey’s, and a rich and soulful voice is bouncing off the tin ceiling inside the century-old Corktown bar.

Heady blues-belter Lady T is offering up a gut-driven version of “Happy Birthday.” When she adds the “how old are you?” line, the one meant for kids, or to embarrass the aging, Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, Alberta Adams, gets playful. She’s taps a beat out on the laminated table. Then she shouts: “99.”

Lest Adams’ booming rasp — that voice weathered by ten thousand midnights and cocktail-hours in clubs — wasn’t loud enough the first time, she pipes the number again, only louder.


Lady T, Adams’ goddaughter, is the often-proclaimed heir to Adams’ decades-old “Queen” crown. Truth be told, T’s one among a few potential successors to the throne, a group that includes R&B-gospel boomer Thornetta Davis, and Kate Hart’s Detroit Women — which includes Lady T — a power-in-numbers concoction of blues, funk and country.

Any one of them is going to have to first get past Adams. She’s as scrappy as she is old, and refuses to give in to guessing games.

Why should she? Adams and her musical sisters define female blues in Detroit, from its sexuality to its politics, from its famine to its feasts. And it’s never about how old you are.

And you could never guess Adams’ age just by the sound of her voice; that huge resonating organ that when put to song can rattle your fillings, make your body hairs salute and turn your insides out.

Adams is not 99, though she might be close. With at least eight decades under her belt, Adams isn’t going to get old. It doesn’t work like that with her.

The soul-inflected shouter 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 birthdates. Adams says one document lists her date of birth in 1917, another says 1924. Spangler says she’s probably in her mid-80s. Ask Adams and she will tell you: “99 and one dark day.”

The one certainty, though, is her vocal power. Its command still frightens even her.

“It seems like the older I get, I’m improving,” Adams says. 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 strong.”

When Adams goes on about the strength of her voice, she could be speaking in metaphors. She could be talking about her race, her sex or her presence. She could be talking about the role of women within the blues, which first won public attention in 1920, when Mamie Smith’s phenomenally successful “Crazy Blues” led to the sudden boom of race records, which were marketed to blacks but mostly locked into white ownership.

Unlike many forms of popular American music, the blues queen (diva, these days) lineage has been scarcely recorded in history. But it can be traced to an initial group of such ’20s singers as Lovey Austin, Mamie Smith, Sippie Wallace and the phenomenal Bessie Smith, through to Memphis Minnie’s blues singing and guitar slinging through the Depression and war, and the trailblazing career of Billie Holiday.

But to say that Holiday came out of nowhere to vamp and revamp the blues in the 1930s is to deny the American black women who preceded her. Like Holiday, songwriters Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Alberta Hunter had used the blues for personal assertion, to protest sexual subordination, poverty and the racial abomination that lasted through the Great Migration, which would reveal a different but no less deadly Northern racism to black folk already accustomed to the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the South.

A road map of white Detroit’s brand of violence, oppression and exclusion targeting black migrants pouring into the booming Motor City is laid out by historian Kevin Boyle in his National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age. Focusing on the trial of Ossian Sweet, a black physician who moved his family to one of the city’s white neighborhoods, Boyle’s Detroit is heavily populated with Klansmen and otherwise nonviolent white homeowners who waged a race war against the black migrants. That repression is still a subtext of Detroit blues.

By the ’60s, the soul of black women blues singers had been embodied in white singers such as Janis Joplin, whose reason to sing the blues had more to do with suburban malaise than the generally recognized forms of oppression like poverty, violence and prejudice.

An even bigger blues voice emerged then in Detroit’s Aretha Franklin, whose mixture of blues and gospel signaled for women the end of the divide between the profane and the sacred. It was a divide that had forced Memphis Minnie (like others) in the ’30s and ’40s to use pseudonyms so she could get down in the alley and praise her God.

Adams admires contemporary upstarts like Shemekia Copeland for carrying on in the tradition of the true blueswoman, whose main purpose is to bring the thrust of American music back to its essence.

“Put all this stuff together, rock ’n’ roll, whatever, bring it down, it’s the blues,” Adams says. “And there’s something to it.”

It’s true — the blues has been electrified, psychedelicized, plagiarized, romanticized and analyzed so often that attempts to define it often cause garbled, overwrought and overintellectualized train wrecks.

To Adams, defining the blues is simple: If you’ve taken a breath, you’ve had the blues.

“I was an orphan on a doorstep so that is the blues,” Adams says. “Can’t pay your rent. That’s the blues. You don’t have no food. That ain’t nothin’ but the blues. In everybody’s house in this world, there’s some blues. Some know it, and some don’t. Really your whole life is the blues.”

Clacking chatter circulates above a large, round table at Nancy Whiskey’s. Seated is a who’s who of female blues singers from the Motor City — Adams, Lady T, Cee Cee Collins, Joce’lyn B and Cathy Davis. It’s a veritable musical caucus.

The faces grin, and there’s gratefulness in the air. It’s obvious the women appreciate one another’s company as the rap session’s topics shift between the trivial and the thoughtful.

When talk swings toward sloppy musicians, those who get too high and muddle up their shows, there’s huge laughter and understanding nods. They laugh, yes, but stumbling players threaten their livelihood.

“I came out of the kitchen to do this,” says the 44-year-old Lady T. She worked as a cook in a factory cafeteria and waited until her four kids were grown before she hit the stage nine years ago. “I tell ’em [musicians], ‘Don’t go doing that [getting high]. Don’t go taking food out of my babies’ mouths. Uh-uh. No.’”

Joce’lyn B — who’s well into her middle years, but won’t reveal her age, and is married with two children — gets downright saucy when describing her stage work. But her singing has profound meaning to her.

“When I perform, that’s my ultimate climax,” B says. “No man, no woman, nobody, can make me feel as good as it is when I perform. If I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t want to live. It’s my life. Music means everything to me.”

Collins says that performing should only be about joy.

It’s clear that these women adore their work, but they are businesswomen, carving out a living where one is rarely had. There are trade secrets they’ll swap, and some that they won’t, but they don’t leave Nancy’s without airing the nasty sides of singing the blues in Detroit, a city that’s all but forgotten a history littered with icons like John Lee Hooker.

Hooker guitarist and senior Detroiter Eddie Burns says that the Motor City was never a blues town in the same sense as Memphis or Chicago. Regardless, Detroit has produced a roster of awe-inspiring blues musicians revered and treasured by a global audience.

In assessing the city’s blues legacy, many lesser-known but richly talented female blues artists come to mind, including longtime Detroit resident Beulah “Sippie” Wallace, Juanita McCray and Adams herself.

Alberta Adams was first employed as a tap dancer in the ’40s by Club D&C on St. Antoine. Her singing break came when headliner Kitty Stevenson took ill one night. Adams’ impromptu two-song performance led to a five-year stint at the club, and she has never looked back.

Adams — whose up-and-down career was basically revived in 1994 when Detroit drummer and blues community entrepreneur R.J. Spangler took control of her affairs — doesn’t have much reason to look back, at least as far as her childhood’s concerned.

An aunt moved her to Detroit from Indianapolis after Adams’ mother abandoned her at the age of 3. She never saw her father. She spent her childhood years with two aunts, neither of whom particularly wanted her. (Her mother eventually moved to Detroit, and Adams cared for her until her death.)

At 10, Adams left her first Detroit home after complaining to her aunt about her uncle’s attempts to molest her. Her molestation protests were in vain. She didn’t fare much better with the second aunt, whose family was already too much.

“She had nine children,” Adams says. “I ate the crumbs, the juice of the brood. I had to do all the cleaning up. Wash all the dishes. Went to school with no stockings on. No food. No lunch. I couldn’t take much more of that.”

Adams took on adult responsibilities at a very young age.

“I got [to the age of] 14 and I asked my God to let me make it on my own if I could, and he did,” Adams says. “I got me a little apartment at 276 Alfred near Woodward — $15 a month. I stayed there, oh, about five or six years. During that time I was trying to get into show business.”

Accessorized to the hilt with ornate rings on nearly every finger, rhinestone-studded shades and crimson-stoned earrings, Adams glows with a show-biz style that no longer exists. The big, red-haired woman misses dearly the glitter and glamour that was the Detroit scene in the ’40s and ’50s, a time when “an orphan left on a doorstep” could be admired and employed by greats Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan and Dizzy Gillespie. Chess and Savoy Records? She’s been signed, sealed and delivered there too.

In 1962, Adams had a brush with Motown when Berry Gordy recruited her to cut some Norman Whitfield-penned R&B sides for Thelma. These have been unearthed and digitally reformatted by Spangler. The compact discs, which also include some new recordings of Alberta backed by R.J.’s Rhythm Rockers, will be given away Thursday, Aug. 18, when Adams celebrates her birthday in a more formal fashion at Hamtramck’s New Dodge Bar.

Adams, whose time is occupied much more these days by appearances at out-of-town blues festivals than with hometown engagements, has survived with the blues through the fat and the lean. And at this late stage in her career, she still gets kicks out of the wide-eyed fans who approach her.

“I had a guy come to me in the Poconos,” the singer says. “He said, ‘I just come from England, I never loved the blues, I never could understand it.’ He said, ‘When you sang your tunes, you’re telling life.’ I said, ‘That’s right, I’m telling life, like it is.’

“My goddaughter, same thing, she can tell you what it’s all about.”

“I’m not saying I’m a beautiful motherfucker, but I am damn sexy,” Lady T says, grinning.

Besides her potent pipes, T’s a beguiling mix of seductive gyrations and outright ghetto gumption. It’s not uncommon to see grown men blush at her shows.

Confident and unapologetic, the married mother of three and church choir member knows she’s got something with which to barter. T uses her sexuality, not in the canned way contemporary pop stars do. Hers is big, brash, honest and powerfully feminine, a liberating physical expression. She can grease up a barroom dance floor in the time it takes to sing “The Bohawk Grind.”

Turning what she terms “out in the alley” into a strength certainly isn’t new in blues, which long ago made getting nasty as much a woman’s right as a man’s. Lady T does it stylishly, with undercurrents of devil’s music menace. She says most men won’t look at her after she performs a Barbara Carr song like “Ball Me Like You Own Me.” They’re too afraid.

Earning this year’s Detroit Music Award for outstanding female R&B vocalist for her appearances with Kate Hart’s Detroit Women in R&B and the Robert Penn Band, T sees no conflict between her stage persona and her home and church life.

“Everything I sing about is not me,” T says. “But when I sing a particular song, I try putting myself in that character, like an actor. The Lord knows your heart, and that’s the way I make my living — getting out in the alley blues. The raunchy songs are for me.”

Dubbed “Lady Cobra of the Blues” by guitarist and bandleader Penn — who’s also responsible for the David Ruffin moniker, “The Heavyweight Champion of Soul” — T wears a prominent gold necklace anchored by a gold, decidedly feminine cobra. For T, the bauble is emblematic of the role cut out for her by her female — not her male — predecessors and cohorts.

“I think the blues is the blues, no matter who sings it,” T said. “But I found this to be true: There is a desire to hear a woman. They want to see a woman up there on stage singing about male and female relationships. We do voice this.”

The dark side of sexual relationships is a longtime theme of women’s blues. Bessie Smith’s “Spider Man Blues” is a tale of a true chauvinist worm whose domineering ways cause heartbreak and misery. Holiday’s “Billie’s Blues” equates male-female relationships with slavery.

Cathy “Diva” Davis occasionally performs a tune by the Queen of Chicago Blues — Koko Taylor’s “Don’t Put Your Hands on Me” — because it describes a gritty reality for many women.

“When I do it, I get compliments from so many women who are battered at home,” Davis says. “They say, ‘You just don’t know what that song meant to me. It’s just like somebody understands what I’m going through.’ I want women to peel back those layers. You know, the olden days — you should be seen and not heard — those days are over.”

The 51-year-old Davis has sung her way through various phases of R&B and pop. She now fronts two house bands at weekly open-mic jams at Nancy Whiskey’s and at Ferndale’s New Way Bar. She might be the hardest-working woman on the Detroit blues scene.

Davis left a job with the city of Detroit several years ago to devote her time to music and to care for her mother, who passed away earlier this year. Davis wants to make a mark as both a performer and a songwriter.

“I try to write uplifting songs,” Davis says. “I try not to write that sad, ‘Oh, you did me wrong and you took the dog and the house and the car.’ I have to get over myself. I’m your hip-shaking mama, OK?”

There are a few remaining barriers for female performers that Davis would like to see vanish, one of which is Hollywood’s tired, male-defined idea of the perfect female.

“If you look at Big Mama Thornton and some of these blues women back in the day, they were heavy, belting women,” Davis says. “It has changed today. You have to dance around naked. I go out and I mentally don’t let it bother me. I do the best job that I can do to make it enjoyable to my audience. If they enjoy it, fine. If not, I’m sorry.”

Davis says that people judge too quickly, that there are missed opportunities to gain understanding of women from women’s blues. Women, for one, don’t have a shelf life.

“There are things that a woman goes through that a man will never go through. A man, if he leaves a woman, can go on with his reputation and he’s still a man. A woman, if that man leaves her, is either one, she’s used, or two, she’s done something wrong, or three, she blames herself. That’s where a women’s blues will come from.”

Like Davis, who spent her youth gigging at once-thriving Detroit clubs such as the Twenty Grand with a pop-flavored group of female R&B singers called the Passions, Cee Cee Collins and Joce’lyn B took a more roundabout route in finding their voices as blues singers.

Joce’lyn B, otherwise known as the “Bitch of Da Blues,” sang locally in Top 40 bands before moving to New York in the ’80s to study at The Juilliard School. After graduating, she stayed for a dozen years to sing in Broadway productions of The Wiz, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God and Dream Girls before returning to Detroit in 1996. She reignited her blues muse guest singing “Stormy Monday” at a suburban nightclub the same year.

She says her inner blues were nurtured in childhood by a grandmother whose folkways contradicted those of her minister parents.

“The blues just come down to me,” B says. “My grandmamma taught me everything I know about the blues now. My granny used to say all the time, ‘If you didn’t have your cake for dinner, you can eat my pie.’ When I got older I learned what that meant.”

Cee Cee Collins, 44, says she grew up repelled by the blues, simply because it was in the vocabulary of the older folks in her family.

“My dad’s from Georgia and my mom’s from Mississippi, and they listened to Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway,” Collins says. “I was like, ‘I can’t listen to what my parents listened to.’”

The U.S. Marines vet and mother of one sang the pop and funk of her day, a journey that began at a high school party with a recital and led her through a three-year gig fronting a Supremes knock-off group in Spain.

Collins worked as a project analyst for Crain Communications and apparently had grown into the blues when the members of Detroit Underground lured her back onstage in 1997 at Billy’s Comet Bar.

“I just got up and sang with them one time, and we’ve been together ever since,” says Collins, who’s become a believer in the mysteries of her musical ancestors.

“The blues is a musical expression of something that is deep down and saying it in a way where the point is made,” she says. “As a listener, the point may be different for you from the point I get as a performer, but everybody gets the point and they relate to their own lives, and that’s what I really like about the blues.”

While blues musicians in Detroit appear to be as plentiful as ever, going by the lengthy roster of bands and the hungry players that pack area open mics, opportunities to make a living playing blues here are going the way of factory jobs, Davis says.

All the women lament the closing of the Soup Kitchen — Detroit’s longtime blues “home” — and last year’s closure of Greektown’s Music Menu, a club that offered many local blues acts. Hamtramck’s Attic Bar, which attempted to pick up the slack in the Soup Kitchen’s absence, continues to struggle. Although new owners of Cobo Joe’s have promised a commitment to blues, the only full-time blues club left standing is Corktown’s Nancy Whiskey’s.

There’s certainly nothing like the Club D&C described by Adams, where hometown gigs could stretch out over years.

“There’s a lack of quality places, and the quality places that there are, I think I’m just a little too raw for them,” Davis says. “As far as making a living, we’re eking a living.”

Collins agrees that Detroit blues artists have seen dire straits. A potential solution, she says, could come in city involvement in promoting Detroit’s blues artists and legends.

“We could do a whole lot better if we had more oomph behind us,” Collins says.

Suffering or not, the traditions, the accumulated wisdom and the seductive, proactive powers of these blues women have allowed them to survive in Detroit. Which, through its own unique circumstances and prejudices, has helped to produce some of the most liberating and spiritual clamor heard anywhere on the planet. It started with the blues, and the secret’s in the soul.

“The blues is spirituality because it speaks on the heart,” Lady T says. “Good times, tragedy, getting nasty, it just shows life as it really is. We have all of this in life.”

Adams, the Queen to you, couldn’t have said it better herself.

See Also:

Back in blue
Discographies of Alberta Adams, Lady T, Cee Cee Collins, Joce'lyn B and Cathy Davis.

Alberta Adams’ official birthday party is Thursday, Aug. 18, at the New Dodge Lounge (8850 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-874-5963).

Michael Murphy is a freelance writer living in Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]
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