When Oleta Adams was 4, she was terrified of singing in front of people in her Baptist church choir in Seattle. "I would stand outside [the church] and they would send people to tell me to come in," recalls Ms. Adams, who sang in the church where her father was a minister.
"One day, someone said to me, 'God's going to take away your voice.' It wasn't a nice thing to say to a little girl! Then I went back inside and sang because I thought it would come true."
The R&B and pop singer, who got her start performing in clubs and upscale hotels, has received three Grammy nominations over her music career and has toured with some of the biggest-selling names in pop music - Tears for Fears, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, and Luther Vandross. Her new album, "All the Love" (Pioneer), contains beautiful love ballads - and not just about romance, but family, too.
For instance, the soulful "Learning to Love You More" concerns her relationship with her sister, who was in an accident more than a decade ago - right when Oleta's career was on the rise.
"She was on drugs and was hit by a car," Adams says. "She and I didn't get along, but I went to see her. It was during my big 'break.' But I flew home from Europe because she needed someone to fight for her.
"The song is about family love, learning to love your sister, because you didn't get along at first. What matters is learning how to love her."
Adams wrote the title track, "All the Love," for her husband, John Cushon, who plays drums on the album. She dated Cushon for 12 years before marrying him. "I had no intention of getting married," she says. "But our lives grew spiritually. I wanted the words to be poetic and spiritual and a fun way to say, 'I love you so very much and I'm not going to be afraid.' It's about not putting up a wall anymore ... learning to love without reserve."
In the spare-sounding "Before I Go to Sleep," Adams writes: "I say a prayer that God will keep/ the two that He has joined together."
"I feel honestly that couples, anybody who gets married, need to pray," she says. "The song itself contains goals that you're hoping to reach as a couple, a certain level of maturity."
Tears for Fears discovered Adams more than a decade ago at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Kan., where she had started performing professionally. The British band asked Adams to join them on their 1989 "Seeds of Love" tour. She was also featured prominently on the band's album and video. "Tears for Fears are such intellectuals," Adams says. "Sometimes, when the fans were screaming in concert, [Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal] would tell the audience to stop screaming so they could hear the lyrics."
While touring with Tears for Fears, Adams would open the show, playing the piano and singing. "It was so weird, because I would start singing and people would start screaming, and I would be wondering what they were screaming about. Someone later said to me, 'Stupid girl, they're screaming for you!' "
Mr. Orzabal produced Adams's 1990 debut album, "Circle of One." Her other recordings include the adult contemporary-pop "Evolution" and "Movin' On," and the gospel-flavored "Come Walk With Me."
The youngest of three girls and two boys, Adams was raised by her father and great uncle in Seattle until she was 6. From there, they moved to Yakima, Wash. At age 11, she was a piano prodigy and already directing four choirs at her junior high school.
"It was great growing up in Yakima, because I was able to shine in that city," she says. "It was small enough (population 60,000) where more people could appreciate my music."
After high school, voice coach Lee Farrell helped launch her career, and Adams started performing gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz, and pop music in piano bars and upscale lounges in Kansas City, Kan.
It wasn't easy, she remembers. But she had a mentor who taught her what it takes to make it as a woman in the business.
"I learned how to do my own charts and hand them to the musicians," Adams says. "I learned that I could only count on myself."
Today, Oleta no longer sings at bars and clubs. But she occasionally sings at her church in Kansas City. And, later this month, she will travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of a two-week missionary program for her church.
Between flying to Los Angeles for a one-night performance or singing in a big band, jazz band, or blues band the next, she certainly doesn't like to stick with one genre.
She even aspires to sing on Broadway some day.
"If I had to sing one style," Adams says, "it would be like eating the same food everyday."