Alice Hoskins / Sweet Alice's Unfinished Blues Band

Cincinnati's "Queen of the Blues"
by Diane Sward Rapaport

Alice's big, bawdy voice swings right to the hearts of her listeners: "I like up-tempo, high-energy songs that make everyone, including myself, happy," she says.

Unlike many career performers, Sweet Alice never harbored any dreams of being on a stage, although she loved hearing gospel music in church and blues in bars. She didn't start singing until she was in her mid-thirties. Up to then, she raised five children and worked as a cook in public schools and nursing homes.

Perhaps the discovery that she could sing and make a new career for herself so late in life is what gives her singing and writing an unmistakably joyous and unpretentious dimension.

Sweet Alice released Different Shades of Blue, her first cassette, in 1991. Comin' Home to the Blues, her first CD, was released in 1994. Her latest CD, Wrapped Up in the Blues, was released in 1999.

Ads for the CDs in Living Blues magazine brought her to the attention of European promoters and they invited her to sing in Paris, France, and Torino, Italy. Airplay by DJs in Cincinnati helped land her guest appearances at the Carollton, Kentucky Blues Festival, the Louisville, Kentucky Blues Festival and performances at prestigious blues clubs, such as Rosa's Club in Chicago, Illinois and The Blues Ship in Tampa, Florida. She has been the opening act for such great blues artists as Bobby Blue Bland, Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Clarence Carter. In 1997 and 1998, Alice won "Best Blues Vocalist" in Cincinnati, Ohio. The award is tabulated from the votes of local news writers, magazine publishers and others involved with the press and the media.

Rapaport: How did you discover you could sing?

Sweet Alice: I got into church gospel choir. I didn't have to sing loud, because I was just part of dozens of other singers. I started imitating one of my choir leaders--trying to sing and move like she did. Then, some of the older people started encouraging me: "Go home girl and sing. You can sing, Alice. You can sing." Then one night, our choir was supposed to sing at a gospel fest. There were a lot of heavy hitters. Only six of us showed up. Our pianist didn't make it and neither did the lead voices in our choir. I was terribly scared and thought we were going to flunk. When the time came for one of us to be a leader, the other choir members pushed me out. It wasn't even planned for me to be in that position. I knew only two songs and so I sang I Got Jesus and He's Enough. The pianist hit the note and it was just like I was right there. That moment was my spiritual awakening as a singer. It was like an out-of-body experience. One Alice Hoskins was standing behind me and listening, and one Alice Hoskins was really singing. It was scary. I never felt that experience before. I was like in a trance. Afterwards, the house came down.

Rapaport: What was your first gig outside the church?

Sweet Alice: I loved going to blues bars since I was in my teens. One night, some of the other patrons got me up to sing. "Sing a gospel song, Alice." So I did and the house went real quiet and when I finished, the house came down, just like the first time I sang solo in church. But afterwards, the proprietor said to me, "Don't you ever sing in my bar again." I didn't know what to say. I was real upset and couldn't figure out what I did that was bad. About three weeks later, the proprietor called, "I didn't mean that you couldn't sing in my bar; what I meant, was sing, but don't sing the gospel. I want to sell people alcohol. Listening to you made me feel guilty. I don't want you to make people feel guilty in my bar and want to go home."

A few weeks later, I was in that same bar and Big Ed, one of the singers in the blues band, called me up on stage to sing Stoop Down Baby. He said, "Alice, you're always singing in the background down there; you're always askin' me to sing it. Why don't you come up and sing it yourself?" So I went on up there. Big Ed would say the verse and then I would sing it. The audience loved it.

A few weeks later, a bass player I knew came over, and said, "Alice, you know how to work a crowd. We'll pay you $75 to do three songs at our next gig." The next thing I know, him and the guitar player started rehearsing in my basement. They encouraged me. And one day, I got up my courage, went to the bar we liked hanging in, and marched up to the proprietor. "I think I can hold this crowd for you after your lead band leaves. Why don't you let my band try. If we don't hold the crowd you don't have to pay us. If we do, you pay us." We got us a sax player that we knew, I cooked up a lot of chicken wings, and called all my brothers and sisters to come. And the crowd went wild. Afterwards, the proprietor said, "I got an opening on the Friday matinee."

Rapaport: How did you come to make your first cassette?

Sweet Alice: My guitar player said, "Alice, we need to put you on tape." I put out the money to record it (about $1500), and then we took it to a guy who said he could manufacture and release it. He did the manufacturing, but then he didn't do nothin' else. We had to buy tapes from him at $2.25 and sell them at gigs. That was when I started taking 10% from every tape sale and gig and putting it away in a savings account for my next recording.

Rapaport: What did you learn from that experience?

Sweet Alice: I learned two things. First, the person who cared most about getting the music out there was me. If I didn't get out there and sell cassettes, no one else would. Second, I had to include some cover tunes on my next recording. If people didn't see something they recognized, they wouldn't buy it. The second CD contained six originals and six covers. The third contains 8 originals and 3 covers.

Rapaport: Was it different playing in Europe than Ohio?

Sweet Alice: In Europe, people come out for the entertainment. The first time I got up to sing, I thought to myself, how am I gonna get to these people? Are they going to hang out after they finish eating dinner? But right from the start, I got total attention. They really went for me. And afterwards I got to talk with people from all over the world. The promoters treated me like a star. They got me live interviews on radio stations. They got a TV crew to follow me around to parks, and eateries and shopping centers as a documentary about an American blues singer's new experiences. And I was reeling because I was in Paris. I thought I had died and went to heaven. Everyone treated me like I was somebody. They appreciated the music. They liked the raunchy stuff and the more I did that, the more they wanted it. The promoter would say, "Shake ass all over the place." And I wasn't no skinny 20 year old with one of them perfect looks. I was 49 and what you would call a big mama.

In Italy, I did blues concerts in one night club, one old opera house and the rest in village churches. Every night, they were packed. The word spread really fast. People would come up to me in the street and say, "You the blues lady." I was overwhelmed. When I came back home, I could hardly get a gig.

Rapaport: Do you find it hard to be a businesswoman and singer?

Sweet Alice: I knew I had organizational and people skills back when I was President of USHER Board in the Baptist Church. I was 19 years old and the rest of the board was 45. I learned how to deal with a lot of different people, how to size them up individually and figure out what to say and not to say. And that helped me when I started having to motivate my band to rehearse and go out and talk to proprietors to give us gigs. Still, I'm learning every day.

I set down regulations and rules for the band. My job was to do all the bookings and keep them in enough jobs to make a living. I kept tellin' them, "If you don't rehearse and you can't do the gig the way folks want, we don't get hired." You have to know how to talk to them. It's not like you can hold up a two-by-four to get them to rehearse and get to gigs on time.

I set up personal rules too and try to abide by them. One was that I never mix in socializing with my band members. We can laugh and talk and play during rehearsals and gigs, but afterwards, when the guys want to party, I don't join in. I don't have personal relationships with anybody I work with. I figure if you get personal and then you want them to do something, they have something over your head. I don't want to do anything to dishonor myself or my band. I try to keep things on the up and up.

Rapaport: Now that you've been singing for 15 years, do you dream of being a star?

Sweet Alice: It's just a different life, a different career. Because I started so late, I wasn't really looking for fame and fortune. I did it because I liked it. Anything that happened was always more than I expected. It wasn't a career I grew up and wanted. It kind of haphazardly happened. And once it got going, I didn't want anything to defeat me. So I said to myself, "I'll do my best and satisfy myself. If I make big money, I'll be happy. And If I don't, I won't be destroyed. I'll do my best and let my work stand for me." I refuse to compromise my singing standard, but as for my career, I'm not going to cut anybody's throat to get somewhere. Backstabbin' isn't going to do me any good. My religious training told me things always happen for a reason. Right now I'm just enjoying this new phase of my life. It's enough to find out that something that brings you so much joy can also make you a living.

Rapaport: How did you find out about QCA and why do you like working with them to manufacture your CDs?

Sweet Alice: I like working with local businesses, because if anything goes wrong or I have a question, they're right there. They were very cooperative and helpful to me.

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