Adams was born the daughter of a preacher and was raised listening to gospel music. In her youth her family moved to Yakima, Washington, which is sometimes shown as her place of birth. She got her musical start in the church.
Before gaining her opportunity to perform, Adams faced a great deal of rejection. In the 1970s, she moved to Los Angeles, California where she recorded a demo tape. However, many music executives were exclusively interested in disco music rather than Adams' preferred style.
With the advice of her singing coach, Lee Farrell, Adams moved to Kansas City where she did a variety of local gigs. Adams started her career in the early 1980s with two self-financed albums which had limited success.
In 1985, Adams was discovered by Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, founders of the English band Tears for Fears, while she was performing in a hotel bar in Kansas City, Missouri whilst they were on a US tour. Two years later, they contacted her to invite her to join their band as a singer and pianist on their next album, The Seeds of Love.
In 1989, the album was released and the single "Woman in Chains", sung as a duet by Adams and Orzabal and with Phil Collins on drums, became her first hit. Adams embarked on a world tour with Tears For Fears in 1990, performing by herself as the supporting artist at the start of each show, and remaining onstage throughout the Tears For Fears set where she would provide piano and vocals.
Following her work with Tears For Fears, Adams was offered a recording contract by their label, Fontana Records, and restarted her solo career in 1990, assisted by Orzabal, who co-produced her new album, Circle of One. The album received much critical acclaim, and (after a slow start) eventually peaked at #1 in the UK in 1991 after she scored her biggest hit to date with her Grammy nominated cover of Brenda Russell's "Get Here". The song reached the UK and US top 5 and became popular during the 1991 Gulf War conflict as families of deployed troops in the region embraced the tune as a theme song. 1991 also saw Adams sign to independent music publisher Fairwood Music (UK) Ltd. and contribute to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album, Two Rooms, on which appeared her version of John's 1974 hit "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me". Adams' version became another top 40 hit in the UK.
Her next album, Evolution (1993), was also a commercial success, making the UK top 10. It also featured her self-penned adult contemporary single "Window of Hope". Her 1995 release, Moving On, saw Adams move more in the direction of R&B, and she also reunited with Roland Orzabal for the duet "Me and my Big Ideas" on the Tears For Fears album Raoul and the Kings of Spain the same year. Two years later she released the Christian themed album Come Walk with Me.
In 1998, she toured as a guest vocalist on Phil Collins's Big Band Jazz Tour.
In 2001, Adams released her sixth album, All The Love, a return to an R&B/Adult contemporary sound. The album was re-released in 2004 in Germany with a different title I Can't Live a Day without You.
In 2004, Adams reunited with Tears for Fears once again as she made a surprise guest appearance onstage at their Kansas City concert, performing "Woman in Chains".
On October 3, 2006, Adams released her first Christmas album, entitled Christmas Time with Oleta.
On April 21, 2009, Adams released her eighth album entitled Let's Stay Here.
On February 10, 2017, Adams released her ninth album, her first album in eight years, entitled Third Set.
In 1994, Adams married drummer John Cushon at a United Methodist church in Kansas City, where they both taught Sunday School. They met in 1980 while working on a demo tape for Adams. Adams stated that she never had a passion to get married but on January 17, 1994 she and Cushon were involved in the Los Angeles earthquake. Adams referred to this as a sign from God that she was ready to get married.Studio albums
1983: Going on Record
1990: Circle of One
1995: Moving On
1997: Come Walk with Me
2001: All the Love
2006: Christmas Time with Oleta
2009: Let's Stay Here
2017: Third Set
1996: The Very Best of Oleta Adams
2004: The Ultimate Collection