Title: Ain't No Sunshine

Text by Larry Benicewicz

Adolphus Bell, Photocopyright by TIM DUFFY

“I guess I’ve left four women behind, both wives and girlfriends, over the years, slept in my car a lot, and depended on the kindness of strangers in order to perform the music I love. And that’s what always has been important to me,” said Adolphus Bell, the self proclaimed “world’s greatest one man band,” a slogan emblazoned on the sides of his trusty, well traveled station wagon. You’ve no doubt heard the label “road warrior” applied to many entertainers in this realm who execute an inordinate amount of gigs per year, perhaps a Reverend Billy C. Wirtz or Guitar Shorty come to mind, but Adophus Bell gives this cliché a new meaning. “Yeah, I’m like that Temptations song --- ‘Papa was a rolling stone; wherever he laid his hat was his home,’” he added with a laugh. And this tall, lean, and lanky (and surprisingly spry) musician has somehow managed to eke out an existence in this manner for over forty years despite some brushes with the law (more about that later) and many more instances of dire financial distress to the point of hocking his beloved Gibson 1960 model guitar two dozen times or more (and successfully retrieving it on each occasion).

“Pawnshop, that’s what I call it [the instrument]. And it seems to get a more bluesy tone each time it returns to me. I guess it’s because it’s seen another adventure where I’ve really paid my dues,” he said. Yes, more often than not, he’s been “broke and hungry” rather than having a hot meal and a roof over his head, but he has no complaints. In fact, he’s still most satisfied when not answering to anyone, being his own man, and, first and foremost, while playing the blues.

Whether he cares to admit it or not, Adolphus is quite a throwback, a living anachronism. Back in the 40s and 50s it wasn’t uncommon to see itinerant street musicians of the same ilk earning their daily bread by busking in public places, well chosen for their street traffic. Tips were even scarcer then; so sharing this little income with other members of an ensemble was out of the question. So, in order to survive, they improvised. And in fact, some became rather renowned for their ingenuity. Dr. Ross (1925-1993), born Charles Isaiah Ross in Tunica, MS, recorded some gems for Chess, Sun, and the Detroit-based Fortune label—“Cat Squirrel”—which was covered by Eric Clapton and Cream in the late 60s. Ross was a familiar figure in Flint and “Motown,” MI, from the 50s to the 70s as this self-contained unit—bass drum, harmonica rack, and guitar. Another bluesman, the great Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, was also such a solitary performer and employed a similar but slightly more complex rig called a “fotdella,” by which he could also supply a “bottom” or rudimentary bass to the mix. For many years Fuller would set up shop on the sidewalk of some well traveled boulevard in Oakland or San Francisco until his death in 1976. Does anyone remember Fuller’s immortal kazoo break on “San Francisco Bay Blues (Good Time Jazz #45100),” yet another number appropriated by Clapton on his 1992 Unplugged venture? When Adolphus Bell plays solo, his modus operandi most closely resembles that of Dr. Ross, with the addition of a high hat.

Amazingly enough, there is another such entertainer who plays locally, Robert Lighthouse, who can be seen each Wednesday night at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Lighthouse (born Robert Palinic in 1963) is Goteborg, Sweden’s most famous export since the recently late ex-heavyweight champion of the world, Ingemar Johansson, and has recorded two outstanding CDs for Wayne Kahn’s Right on Rhythm label, Drive-Thru Love and Deep Down in the Mud, and his latest is an independent project, Democracy Boulevard. Unlike Adolphus, though, Robert when stateside, for the most part stays indoors and doesn’t stray too far from home; whereas the former musician’s lifestyle can only be described as a series of picaresque exploits.

You’ve all encountered “blues stories,” the urban legends or tall tales spun by artists which grow more outlandish after each recounting—perhaps selling one’s soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to play in a higher league. Or maybe you’ve heard of the night the authorities detained Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck “Rice” Miller) and partner Robert Junior Lockwood as vagrants; only to have them escape after a tornado conveniently blew the jail down. And Hubert Sumlin, guitarist for the late Howlin’ Wolf, is notorious for colorfully embellishing his recollections. And he doesn’t need much encouragement to relate his fanciful escapades, particularly experienced during a tour behind the Iron Curtain. But, I have to say, that in the case of Adolphus Bell, it’s difficult to separate truth from fiction because his whole life reads like a blues story.

Adolphus Bell was born on June 5, 1944 in Birmingham, AL, two months after the death of his father, a coal miner. He spent his formative years in Luverne, a small town south of Montgomery, where he toiled on the peanut and cotton plantations as a farm laborer, an occupation which precluded any schooling past the age of twelve. The work was grueling but he found some solace in listening to the radio which by then was broadcasting rhythm and blues. “I’d take a break and pick up anything handy, like a broomstick or cotton stalk, and play along--my version of an air guitar--to B.B. King and Chuck Berry. They were my favorites,” said Adolphus. Indeed, you can hear echoes of the latter in Adolphus’s picking style - his instrument has a ringing quality as well as the rock and roll pioneer’s characteristic country twang.

In 1962 his mother, who had remarried and sought better opportunities for her children and herself, relocated the family to Pittsburgh, PA. Adolphus quickly found employment as a dish washer in a restaurant and not long thereafter crossed paths with nearby Pittsburgh native, George Benson. Benson, one year older than Adolphus, was already well established having played professionally since age eight and having recorded for RCA (subsidiary Groove label) at the tender age of eleven. By seventeen, he was fronting his own rock and roll band using a guitar fashioned by his stepfather. The versatile Benson, weaned on the records of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Parker, soon developed into quite an accomplished jazz artist as well; so much so, that upon Adolphus’s arrival in Iron City, he had already become a key component in organist Brother Jack McDuff’s road outfit. In short order, the two struck up a close friendship. By that time, Adolphus had purchased a guitar and duo began exchanging ideas at each other’s residence. In time, Adolphus, after much practice, began handling the bass chores in Benson’s band, the All Stars, which incorporated a lot of blues into its repertoire.

About 1965, he felt confident enough to form his own group, also a blues and R&B aggregate, Adolphus Bell & the Upstarts, a popular draw in venues of that era---the High Hat, Working Man’s Club, and the Casablanca. But by the late 60s, he, questioning the attitude of the sidemen, decided to dissolve the group. “After all this lateness and apathy, it was getting to the point that the only one I could count on was me. You got to take things seriously and you got to dedicate your life to it [music]. So, that’s how I began my own solo career,” he said. And thereafter he was driving about town with the aforementioned transportation advertising the “One-Man Band Show: Live Blues.” Although he began by scouting out the most advantageous locations outdoors, he was soon attracting the attention of local club owners, who saw him as an inexpensive alternative to hiring a whole group. But his first long-standing gig was a rather surreal experience. “I accepted this job maybe six months or so performing Wednesdays through Saturdays. I remember that the place was full of hookers and that the boss was a shady type, like a gangster,” he added. But after the death of his mother, “the glue that kept the family together,” in 1970, he saw little reason to hang around town.

Along with his two sisters, he finally landed in Flint, MI, and soon took up where he left off in Pittsburgh. When he wasn’t plying his trade in the market places, he was entertaining in schools, jails, and senior centers. He was aware of his competition in those parts, Dr. Ross, but with the auto industry flourishing during that period, there was evidently enough work to go around. Using Flint as a home base (for nearly ten years), he’d often head out to different regions of the country spreading the blues gospel. In 1974, he was arrested in a park in Atlanta, GA. “I guess these cops got jealous that I was making all that money---I had two bucketfuls of cash—that they arrested me on several charges, including panhandling, playing without a permit, and a felony, inciting a riot. The judge set my bond at $10,000. And I had to go to jail,” he said. According to Adolphus, he became quite a cause celebre, especially after his undignified incarceration appeared on the nightly news. As a result of this exposure, citizens “both white and black” protested his treatment by petitioning the then Mayor Jackson to release Adolphus, and he eventually acquiesced to their pleas for justice.

Adolphus BELL
Photocopyright by TIM DUFFY
Toward the end of the 70s, Adolphus decided to try his luck out west and first wanted to conquer Los Angeles. Naturally gravitating toward the pedestrian promenade of the Sunset Strip, he figured that generous “gratuities” would soon be forthcoming. But, to his chagrin, he also was intercepted by the police who politely but firmly gave him the bum’s rush after he could not produce a permit. Returning from that same junket, he stopped in Las Vegas, NV, wherein he discovered that the town was now booming and casinos were hiring, not necessarily musical acts, but entry level positions such as custodians, valets, and porters. So, he parked his car and put his musical career on hold for several months. “I worked in the Sands, Desert Inn, and Caesar’s Palace. I met Joe Louis, a greeter there [at the latter hotel] and Sammy Davis Jr. One night [actor] Telly Savalas was on a roll and he flipped me two one hundred dollar chips from his winnings,” said Adolphus with a wistful sigh. Although he was still practicing back at the hotel, he missed performing and that meant hitting the road.

On his way back, Adolphus fondly remembers stops in Monroe, LA, Vicksburg, and Clarksdale, the latter two towns in Mississippi, “where people still appreciated what I was doing.” Eventually, he settled for a year in Gadsden, AL, a sprawling population center of about 30,000 inhabitants in the state’s northeast corner. Longtime local harmonica legend, Jerry McCain, recalled seeing him play regularly inside Gregorson’s (spelling?), a long defunct supermarket. “I’d tease him about stealing my harp licks. But he was a good bluesman without a doubt,” said McCain.

Toward the end of the 80s and the first half of the 90s, Adolphus’s headquarters became Atlanta, GA, one hundred miles due east of Gadsden. “Despite the incident in the park, Atlanta has always been good to me,” he confessed. In fact, for about six years, he had a long stint of a gig inside the Underground, a huge six-block-long subterranean shopping mall and entertainment complex in downtown Atlanta (at 50 Lower Alabama St near the intersection of Prior and Peachtree). With its clubs, souvenir shops, restaurants, it was and still is a tourist Mecca for that city. And for six years he was more or less a fixture there eventually earning enough money daily to actually have a mailing address, the Suburban Lodge, a classy chain motel on Northside Drive. “Times were good back then leading up to the Olympics [hosted by Atlanta in 1996]. But after they were over, things kind of dried up there, visitor-wise, so I had to move on,” said Adolphus. And he came full circle, so to speak, settling in Birmingham, the place of his birth.

Not long after his departure from Atlanta, Tim Duffy, the president of Music Maker Relief  Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping indigent bluesmen, spotted Adolphus’s personalized station wagon while driving back home to Hillsborough, NC, from Louisville, KY. As time wore on, Duffy’s curiosity was even more piqued, especially when he heard more and more reports of a one man band appearing throughout the South. If he were, indeed, making a living in this manner, he’d certainly be a candidate to be subsidized by his charitable institution. But Duffy for the longest time didn’t know how to reach him.

However, in 2004, friend and fellow musician, Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck, a stellar slide player from Mississippi who hung out at the Northside Tavern, a venerable, traditionally oriented blues den in Atlanta, finally supplied Duffy with Adolphus’s number. The Northside as well as Eric King’s Blind Willie’s were sites of occasional gigs by Adolphus during his Atlanta stays.

Photocopyright by TIM DUFFY

Photocopyright by TIM DUFFY

Photocopyright by TIM DUFFY
Tim Duffy was even more impressed after finally reaching Adolphus in Birmingham and hearing not only his story but philosophy about music. In short, he fit the Music Maker mold to a tee - Adolphus was getting up in years, espoused rough hewn, down home, authentic blues music, and, most importantly, could have used a helping hand financially. Almost immediately, Tim sought to rectify the latter condition by using his influence to place a relative unknown like Adolphus on the slate of the 2004 King Biscuit Festival in Helena, AK. And needless to say, he was a hit. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of Music Maker tours that have taken him to Europe several times and even Australia in the company of Captain Luke, the recently late Macavine Hayes, and Pura Fe’. In 2007, he was already a headliner in Washington D.C.’s prestigious Congressional Blues Festival and proved his versatility by leading his own band.

Also in 2004, Adolphus Bell issued his first CD, in fact, his first recording ever. Effusive with his praise, he gives credit where credit is due. “Until Tim and Music Maker came along, I was never given the respect or courtesy that I felt I deserved. That’s why I held out,” he confessed. And, according to Adolphus, another such album is in the offing.

The eponymous CD recorded both in Huntsville, AL, and in Tim Duffy’s studio in Hillsborough, NC, is a fine representation of his show, which is a mixed bag, catering to all tastes in blues and R&B. There’s Barrett Strong’s “Money,” Sam Cooke’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Shineshine,” and Marvin & Johnny’s do whop classic, “Cherry Pie.” Among these “covers” are gut bucket blues creations by Adolphus and are autobiographical in nature, detailing either his personal history like “The One Man Band” or women problems in particular, like “Child Support Blues” or “Passport Blues.” Although his method of playing is quite different, when singing, he reminds me of John Lee Hooker’s lyrical style, a free form narrative approach which often pays little heed to rhyme; while his harmonica delivery recalls that of Bob Dylan’s—sparse, simple, and impeccably timed. As a listener, you shouldn’t expect perfection in this package—he’s off-key at times, stumbles on a solo here and there, and misses a note or two along the way. But the main thing is that the feeling is there and no amount of slickness or technical proficiency can ever compensate for the lack of it. After all, he’s existed all his life as a street musician, not as a session hand.

So, when Adolphus Bell comes your way, ensconced in some park or installed on a busy corner, put a little money in his hat. Because if you do, you’ll be contributing to perpetuating the welfare of an American original, in fact, a national treasure. When he’s gone, he’s gone. That will be the end of the line. For he’s, indeed, the last of the Mohicans.

------- Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society
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