Adolphus Bell is a bluesman known for his “one man band.” “I got my guitar and I was playing and both my feet was going with the music. And it was like something hit me: go put some drums on them feet! I went down to a pawn shop and got me a bass drum and a high hat and came back up to that room. I started playing and the first song I played it scared me it sounded so good.”
Adolphus passed away in October 2013.
How We Helped:
Music Maker Relief Foundation has helped Adolphus secure a passport, a new car, an apartment, a phone, and dentures. Additionally, it has provided Adolphus with an amplifier, produced his CD, and compiled a press kit for him. Music Maker assisted Adolphus in setting up tours and performances throughout Argentina, Australia, Europe and the US, including performances at the Lincoln Center in New York and the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia.
Back in the 1960s, Pittsburgh, PA was a prosperous steel town with a wild night scene. You could go out to a club and hear jazz and blues just about every night of the week. One of the groups working the circuit was Adolphus Bell and the Upstarts. “I had five pieces – trombone, trumpet, drums, bass and me on the guitar and singing. My band opened a show for Bobby Blue Bland,” Adolphus recalls. “Money was circulating.”
The problem with a 5-man band is that you have to be sure that all five guys show up. Adolphus was getting discouraged, but, just before she died, his Mom planted some important words in his head. “Don’t give up because your band don’t do right,” she told him. “If you have to play your guitar play by yourself.”
“I was sitting in my room one day after she passed on,” Adolphus explains, “I got my guitar and I was playing and both my feet was going with the music. And it was like something hit me: go put some drums on them feet! I went down to a pawn shop and got me a bass drum and a high hat and came back up to that room. I started playing and the first song I played it scared me it sounded so good.”
Adolphus stayed in that room for a week and when he came out a new kind of one-man band had been born. No more penny whistles and snare drums, this was a full-throated blues sound. Adolphus played the clubs in Pittsburgh, moved his “band” to Atlanta, and set up to hit the road. “I played the numbers and hit the lottery for about five hundred bucks.” Adolphus remembers, “and I bought me a old cheap station wagon for about two fifty. I loaded my equipment and my clothes and each town I got to I was the talk of the town.”
When he wasn’t on the road Adolphus played in the Atlanta Underground – just down the platform from Mudcat (Danny Dudeck) and Music Maker’s artist Beverly Guitar Watkins. Adolphus was such a hit that his pay in tips could be seven or eight hundred a week. He also got involved in the Civil Rights movement, using his one-man band to draw out the crowd. When the police arrested Adolphus for playing without a permit, word got out in the press. The judge tossed the case out of the court room and the mayor issued orders to the police to stay at least 500 feet from any of Adolphus Bell’s shows. The 500 foot marker gives you just some idea of the size of the crowds he can pull.
As the years went by, the old station wagon became a van and Adolphus Bell traveled the south. He was on the highway in 2004 when Music Maker Relief Foundation’s Tim Duffy saw the van heading in the opposite direction. He couldn’t jump the highway to catch with the van, but Duffy asked around until Mudcat said he had tracked down a phone number. Duffy dialed that number and invited Adolphus to come down to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. “I couldn’t believe it,” Adolphus says. “I hadn’t even signed up with him and he fronted me half the money before I even got there. Now I’ve been to Turkey, Australia, Switzerland, France, Argentina, Costa Rica. . . I don’t care how many people try to stop you. The good Lord’s got something for you, then you’re going to get it. That’s the way I feel. That’s what happened.”
-Written by Susan Simone