Taking It on the Road

updated 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MAYBE IT WAS A MIDDLE-AGED CRAZY thing to do. The three women, graying and 40-something, had left their jobs, homes and families in Virginia to hit the open road. Thelma & Louise Plus One? Not exactly.

Calling themselves Saffire—the Uppity Blues Women, they spent almost two years touring in an aging van with bald tires. The intrepid trio—piano player Ann Rabson, guitarist Gaye Todd Adegbalola and bassist Earlene Lewis—shared single rooms with roaches, divided $100 concert fees three ways and put 140,000 miles on the van. That sounds like hell on wheels, but no, insists Rabson, 46, "It was heaven. I still wake up in the morning and say, I don't have to go to the office.' I haven't worn stockings in years."

Since the first trek in 1988, Rabson, Adegbalola, 47, and Lewis, 46, have parlayed their Bessie Smith-bawdy brand of blues into a critically praised album and a welcome step up in income. The self-tilled debut LP, on Chicago's venerable Alligator label, arrived in March 1990 bearing contagiously bouncy, boogie-woogie rhythms and lyrics with enough feminist brass to stock a knuckle factory. ("Gather 'round me sisters, I'll tell you all the news/ You don't have to stick to one man to drive away your empty bed blues.") The album became the label's second-biggest seller of the year, a result for which "we were totally unprepared," admits Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer. Hut Flash, their second LP, released last spring, continued the theme (sample title: "Two in the Bush Is Better Than One in the Hand") and is selling briskly.

As a group the Uppities form a kind of rainbow coalition. The thrice-married Rabson is a Midwestbred Jew. Mother of a 25-year-old daughter, she is a former computer programmer who has lived in Fredericksburg since 1971. Adegbalola, an African-American, is a divorced mother of one and a former bacteriologist who was named Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1982. Part Cherokee, Lewis is the daughter of Oklahoma migrant farm workers. She moved to Virginia with her husband, an engineer, in 1973 and worked as a secretary and real estate agent. What all three shared were the blues.

Rabson's affection for the music began at age 5, when she heard blues-man Big Bill Broonzy singing on the radio. "Did you see The Wizard of Oz, when it changed from black-and-white to color?" she asks. "That's the way it was for me. It spoke directly to me." She got to know Adegbalola while playing "dives" around Fredericksburg in the mid-'70s.

"I followed Ann around for three years, begging for guitar lessons," says the latter (whose adopted name means "reclaiming one's royalty" in Yoruba). A longtime fan of Bessie Smith, empress of the blues in the '20s, Adegbalola says she "fell in love with Ann's repertoire. She was doing gobs of Bessie."

In 1984 Adegbalola asked Rabson to accompany her to a gig at a local Holiday Inn lounge. When Lewis, an experienced bassist and acquaintance of Rabson's, joined the pair during a rehearsal, a trio was horn.

By 1988, Rabson had quit her job to try a solo career. That same year an overworked Adegbalola collapsed from exhaustion one day and was carried out of school on a stretcher. "It was time for me to back off from teaching," she says. At the same time, Lewis too had agreed to give the pro tour a try.

While George Newman, Rabson's carpenter husband of 10 years, and Scott Lewis, Earlene's husband of 25, tended the home front, the women packed their van and headed out onto the club and college circuit. They shared single motel rooms to save money while traveling, and at least one of them had to sleep on the floor. "That got old real quick," admits Adegbalola. "If it weren't for group counseling, we wouldn't be together now. The three of us are old, and we're set in our ways." After four or five counseling sessions, "the one thing we got was that we had to have separate rooms. It was not a luxury. It was a necessity—learning to separate the music from the person."

Now, with nearly 200 dates a year, the three have dumped the old van for a new Dodge (with UPPITY3 vanity plates). Still, packing their own equipment is wearing thin, so "our next step," Adegbalola says cheerily, "will be to get a roadie—someone who can also do massages."

MARILYN BALAMACI in Fredericksburg

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