Its a hot, wet July afternoon at Nancy Whiskeys, 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, Detroits Queen of the Blues, Alberta Adams, gets playful. Shes 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 wasnt 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, Ts one among a few potential successors to the throne, a group that includes R&B-gospel boomer Thornetta Davis, and Kate Harts 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. Shes 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 its 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 isnt going to get old. It doesnt work like that with her.
The soul-inflected shouter doesnt 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 shes 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, Im improving, Adams says. When I go into a club, Ill be sitting there looking right silly, right stupid. Hit the stage and its, Wait a minute, whered 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 Smiths 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 Minnies 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 Detroits 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 citys white neighborhoods, Boyles 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 Detroits 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, its the blues, Adams says. And theres something to it.
Its 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 youve taken a breath, youve had the blues.
I was an orphan on a doorstep so that is the blues, Adams says. Cant pay your rent. Thats the blues. You dont have no food. That aint nothin but the blues. In everybodys house in this world, theres some blues. Some know it, and some dont. Really your whole life is the blues.
Clacking chatter circulates above a large, round table at Nancy Whiskeys. Seated is a whos who of female blues singers from the Motor City Adams, Lady T, Cee Cee Collins, Jocelyn B and Cathy Davis. Its a veritable musical caucus.
The faces grin, and theres gratefulness in the air. Its obvious the women appreciate one anothers company as the rap sessions topics shift between the trivial and the thoughtful.
When talk swings toward sloppy musicians, those who get too high and muddle up their shows, theres 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], Dont go doing that [getting high]. Dont go taking food out of my babies mouths. Uh-uh. No.
Jocelyn B whos well into her middle years, but wont 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, thats my ultimate climax, B says. No man, no woman, nobody, can make me feel as good as it is when I perform. If I couldnt do it, I wouldnt want to live. Its my life. Music means everything to me.
Collins says that performing should only be about joy.
Its clear that these women adore their work, but they are businesswomen, carving out a living where one is rarely had. There are trade secrets theyll swap, and some that they wont, but they dont leave Nancys without airing the nasty sides of singing the blues in Detroit, a city thats 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 citys 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 doesnt have much reason to look back, at least as far as her childhoods 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 uncles attempts to molest her. Her molestation protests were in vain. She didnt 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 couldnt 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? Shes 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 Hamtramcks 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, youre telling life. I said, Thats right, Im telling life, like it is.
My goddaughter, same thing, she can tell you what its all about.
Im not saying Im a beautiful motherfucker, but I am damn sexy, Lady T says, grinning.
Besides her potent pipes, Ts a beguiling mix of seductive gyrations and outright ghetto gumption. Its not uncommon to see grown men blush at her shows.
Confident and unapologetic, the married mother of three and church choir member knows shes 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 isnt new in blues, which long ago made getting nasty as much a womans right as a mans. Lady T does it stylishly, with undercurrents of devils music menace. She says most men wont look at her after she performs a Barbara Carr song like Ball Me Like You Own Me. Theyre too afraid.
Earning this years Detroit Music Award for outstanding female R&B vocalist for her appearances with Kate Harts 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 thats 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 whos 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 womens blues. Bessie Smiths Spider Man Blues is a tale of a true chauvinist worm whose domineering ways cause heartbreak and misery. Holidays Billies Blues equates male-female relationships with slavery.
Cathy Diva Davis occasionally performs a tune by the Queen of Chicago Blues Koko Taylors Dont 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 dont know what that song meant to me. Its just like somebody understands what Im 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 Whiskeys and at Ferndales 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. Im 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 Hollywoods 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 dont 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, Im sorry.
Davis says that people judge too quickly, that there are missed opportunities to gain understanding of women from womens blues. Women, for one, dont 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 hes still a man. A woman, if that man leaves her, is either one, shes used, or two, shes done something wrong, or three, she blames herself. Thats where a womens 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 Jocelyn B took a more roundabout route in finding their voices as blues singers.
Jocelyn 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 didnt 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 dads from Georgia and my moms from Mississippi, and they listened to Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway, Collins says. I was like, I cant 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 Billys Comet Bar.
I just got up and sang with them one time, and weve been together ever since, says Collins, whos 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 thats 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 Detroits longtime blues home and last years closure of Greektowns Music Menu, a club that offered many local blues acts. Hamtramcks Attic Bar, which attempted to pick up the slack in the Soup Kitchens absence, continues to struggle. Although new owners of Cobo Joes have promised a commitment to blues, the only full-time blues club left standing is Corktowns Nancy Whiskeys.
Theres certainly nothing like the Club D&C described by Adams, where hometown gigs could stretch out over years.
Theres a lack of quality places, and the quality places that there are, I think Im just a little too raw for them, Davis says. As far as making a living, were 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 Detroits 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 secrets 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, couldnt have said it better herself.
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]