The crowd murmur couldn’t drown out the crashing rain on a recent stormy Thursday night at Warmdaddy’s. People milled about under the rose-colored lights, browsing and weaving through the bar, occasionally glancing at the burgeoning talent that kept the stage warm for the main event, Lady Alma.
Hugs and “Oh-my-God-where-have-you-been” gasps permeated the air at this album release party. Smiles spread at memories of glory years at Black Lily, the legendary female-focused music review that catapulted Philly’s strand of neo-soul into the national spotlight. A stage where Lady Alma once reigned.
“What ever happened to Alma? Haven’t seen her much,” a woman asked, swirling her drink. “She’s taking care of her mom, doing that kind of thing,” her companion said. “She’s not out as much.” She nodded, and then shifted her conversation to other friends and acquaintances past.
It was 9:30 p.m., and polite applause ushered off another artist leaving the mic. Eyes stayed fixed on the wings. Awaiting her arrival, her homecoming. Awaiting something they know will be special.
For nearly two decades, Alma “Lady Alma” Horton has given the Philly music scene its soul chord, with a timbre whose notes resonate deeper than a Percy Heath bass riff, powerful enough to even overrun thunder. She has stood as a standard bearer that kicked house grooves into high gear, infused new rhythms into R&B and rivaled the angels in her gospel renditions, performed across the globe.
And that’s just her singing. Her arsenal brims with composition, piano and arrangement skills, too.
Despite that talent and a wicked sense of humor, she doesn’t grace many magazine covers, billboards or music video playlists. To a degree, it’s by design, having made the decision to put her family’s needs above pursuing the standard measures of stardom. It’s a stance that’s put her career on a zigzag course, but her followers have always been a fierce band of believers, whether in Philadelphia or Bangkok. Eventually, they say, the rest of the world will catch up and catch on to the magic that is Lady Alma.
King Britt, the globetrotting DJ and producer, first “discovered” Horton in the ‘90s on Silk City’s dance floor, where he heard her out-singing the record he was spinning. He knew she had to be part of his Sylk 130 collective, performing on 1998’s acclaimed When the Funk Hits the Fan, which went on to gold-certified sales. A re-release of that work and an accompanying tour are set for 2013. But Horton has stayed busy, providing guest vocals on tracks by English outfit 4Hero, Fanatix, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Silhouette Brown and Philly’s own soul duo Kindred the Family Soul.
“Any listener cannot deny pure, unfiltered vocals, and that’s first and foremost. That’s what you get when you hear Alma: pure energy,” says Britt. “She is right up there with Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin when it comes to making each audience member feel like she is singing only to them. There is never any ego.”
Horton tucked hers away a long time ago, and almost sealed it permanently when she stood in a hospital room two years ago, staring at a flatline glowing across her mother’s EKG screen. “I promised God, ‘If you give her back to me, I’ll always be here when she needs me,’” Horton says, staring at the memory. She blinked her eyes, grew quiet and quivered.
Carla Horton did return to her only child that day, and her daughter has returned that miracle with daily devotions. Juggling appointments with doctors and specialists. Prepping her meds and meals. Bantering and laughing. And always checking her blood sugar. All that couldn’t possibly repay her mother for all the times she ensured her baby girl had the latest finery and music lessons while the long-time supervisor at Philadelphia’s Dept. of Public Welfare trudged to work with cardboard in her shoes. “If anything now, all I desire is to make a little more so I can take care of her, to give back to her, for the investment she made in this talent,” Horton says.
That means making money around a new kind of schedule. Giving vocal lessons. Leading a band, A Black Tie Affair, complete with running rehearsals and performing gigs. Selling her CDs hand-to-hand.
But a phone call can make her drop everything for the woman whose voice she inherited, who first dubbed her “Lady” as a reminder of all that she is and could be. Horton has canceled gigs and turned around a car mid-journey to race back to her mom’s side, sitting in a room crammed with a full-sized bed, oversized dresser, microwave, tiny TV, oxygen tank, ice cooler and an array of seasonings and medicines on the second floor of a family home in Kensington.
She has resisted dire diagnoses from doctors, relying on her faith. But even that has wavered for Horton at times, and life’s pressures have pushed her close to the edge. Yet, the music always brought her back. The microphone tattoo plugged into her forearm serves as a visual reminder, a virtual IV. She’s converted her battles with depression into lyrics and healing, a secular ministry that compliments her longstanding church life at Agape Love Ministries in Southwest Philadelphia.
“I just feel an extreme amount of respect for her,” says Aja Graydon Dantzler, the wife half of Kindred. “Over the years, her identity as an artist has become more and more solidified, creatively, where she’s coming from. She just really has a lot of energy about her. But she’s still Philly. She still keeps it really, really real.”
On this Thursday night in Warmdaddy’s, the crowd crackled when Horton took the stage. She struck an opening tune from her new album, Lady Alma Live, stoking the audience. She beamed as she floated into the crowd to introduce her special guest: Carla Horton, who hadn’t been able to go see her daughter perform live for almost a decade. She beamed back.
“This night is special here,” Horton said, “because my mom is here.”
Then she proceeded to bring the house down.
We’re taking you on a whirlwind tour of Philly’s sonic citizens—in the clubs, on the road, off the map and over the top.