Alberta Adams, one of the last of the great post-World War II era blues singers, passed away on early Christmas morning in Detroit at the age of 97 after a long period of failing health.
“She was a unique and dynamic performer,” remembered RJ Spangler, a Detroit music impresario who helped resurrect Adams’ career during the the ’00s with his band the Rhythm Rockers and his Eastlawn Recorded label. “She found her own way to sing the blues. She was a one-of-a-kind artist.”
Mark Pasman, a longtime Detroit blues radio personality and musician who also played with Adams, added, “Even though we knew it was coming, it’s devastating. She was a phenom.”
Born Roberta Louise Osborne in Indianapolis, Adams moved to Detroit as a youth, where she was raised by an assortment of family members and, by age 14, was living on her own. “She told me that she had to do something, had to be somebody,” said Matt Lee of Drumbeaters, Adams’ onetime publicist. “That was the urgency to do something, because she had nothing when she was growing up.”
Adams began her career as a tap dancer in the clubs on city’s Hastings Street, but an impromptu two-song set at the B&C, filling in for an ailing Kitty Stevenson, led to a five-year contract as a singer, where she performed alongside fellow legends such as John Lee Hooker and Big Maceo. He was also hired by Duke Ellington to perform with his band on a cruise ship after he heard her sing in Detroit.
“She knew everybody,” Lee recalled. “She had a whole sense of decorum and a sense of being an entertainer. That was really important. And superstitions.” Lee said Adams would not allow anyone to hand her a pen to sign an autograph; she insisted the pen be on the table so she could pick it up. And Adams used to tell the story of Billie Holiday smacking her in the head for chewing gum in the dressing room, which was considered forbidden.
Adams, known for decades as Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, recorded with Chicago’s Chess Records during the 1950s and was a member of the Bluesettes, a vocal group that performed with Tiny Bradshaw and his big band. She also recorded for New Jersey-based Savoy Records and toured nationally, eventually beginning a long association with the late Detroit guitarist Johnnie Bassett and his band.
A late-career appearance on the 1997 compilation Blues Across America led to a deal with Cannonball Records, with which Adams released a pair of acclaimed albums — Born With the Blues in 1999 and Say Baby Say the following year. Adams later switched to Detroit music mogul RJ Spangler’s Eastlawn Records for two albums — I’m on the Move in 2004 and Detroit Is My Home in 2008 — and the 2006 EP Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, the latter of which won a Detroit Music Award for Outstanding Blues/R&B Recording. Adams also appeared as a guest on albums by the Motor City Horns and Spangler’s Planet D Nonet and was featured on The Definitive Detroit Blues and The Eternal Myth Revealed Vol. 1 compilations.
“She was somebody who understood her own instrument,” Pasman said. “She had a nice set of pipes, but she knew her strengths and she played to those — and was maybe one of the best storytellers between songs and during songs.”
“Alberta was, without question, the Queen of Detroit blues,” added Steve Allen of the Detroit Blues Society. “She always had a kind word or offered encouragement to up-and-comers. A true jewel in an ugly business. She leaves a giant space that may never quite be filled.”
Adams continued to make appearances until recent years. Nevertheless, Pasman noted, “She would make fun of her failing health. That woman could do more from a wheelchair than most able bodied people could.”
Adams is survived by a daughter, Barbra Jean Tinsley of Detroit, nine grandchildren and “countless” great-grandchildren. A son, James Drayton — who sang with the doo-wop group the Five Dollars — died several years ago.
Memorial details for Adams are pending.