She became part of the jazz age, and gave Bessie Smith one of her signature tunes. She sang for Al Capone and Dwight D. Eisenhower. She toured the world, sang in the first London run of Show Boat, and recorded with the likes of Louis Armstong and Duke Ellington. Then she disappeared from music and worked as a nurse, for twenty years tending to patients who had no idea who she’d been. Finally, she staged a stunning comeback, forever leaving her mark as an octogenarian singer of jazz and blues, performing for trendy crowds and cutting four new albums before her death, which fell just shy of her 90th birthday.
Alberta Hunter spent her childhood in a Memphis neighbourhood. Her father abandoned his family when his daughter was young; her mother became the breadwinner, working two jobs. Hunter performed in church choirs, initially at her mother’s place of worship, but she preferred the livelier songs of her aunt’s more evangelical church, and began performing there. Years later, she would remember that she always wanted to be a singer.
She left home and moved to Chicago while very young to join the world of jazz. Accounts, provided decades after the fact, conflict. She may have been sixteen or as young as eleven when she left; she may have run away or she may have moved with a family friend. We know that by 1911, she had established herself as a performer at Dago Frank’s, a club and brothel frequented by criminals. By 1913, when a murder led to the permanent closing of the establishment, she had established herself enough to sing somewhat more respectable clubs, and move her mother to wild, windy city.
By 1915 she was singing, among other places, at the Panama Café, which served a trendy, white clientele. Despite the change in audience, this place, too, closed after it became the site of a killing. She then became a headliner at the prestigious Dreamland, which featured King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. She left Chicago after someone shot her piano player during a performance.
She married in 1919; many believe the relationship remained unconsummated. Her husband left two months later, and they eventually divorced. The short-lived marriage may have been an attempt to stop rumours that she was a lesbian. In fact, her long-term relationship with another woman, Lottie Taylor, was an open secret.
In New York, Hunter sang at clubs and began recording, first for Black Swan and later, Paramount. She wrote many of her own songs, and one of her first successes, "Downhearted Blues," proved a bigger hit when Bessie Smith recorded it. Decades later, Hunter would brag that she was still collecting royalties on the song, because of Smith’s rendition.
In 1923, she recorded songs with the Original Memphis Five, making her the first Black American singer to record with a White band. She also contributed to the Red Onion Jazz Babies sessions that featured (among others) Louis Armstrong.
Hunter recorded extensively throughout the decade, and worked with such luminaries as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. Her contract with Paramount forbade her to record with other labels, but she did so anyway, using pseudonyms such as Albert Prime, Anna Jones, Josephine Beatty (the name of her by-then deceased half-sister), and May Alix (confusingly, the name of another singer active at the time).
She left for Europe in 1927, and found new success in Paris. She also took on the role of Queenie in the first London production of Show Boat. During the 1930s she toured extensively, playing venues throughout Europe, and in Asia and the Middle East. She also continued to record jazz and blues, but also mainstream Depression-era pop. The Jazz Age was over, and her personal popularity declined over the course the decade. She found a new career by joining the USO, and she sang for the American troops in World War II and the Korean War, at one point performing for General Eisenhower. She continued to record with smaller labels.
In 1954 her mother died, and Hunter stopped singing for some time.
She wanted to be useful, however, so she lied about her age and went to college, where she studied to become a practical nurse. She worked in that field from 1956 to 1977, apparently never mentioning her past career to her colleagues and patients. She did, however, return to the studio in 1961, contributing to Songs We Taught Your Mother and The Living Legends.
She may be remembered most for her surprise 1977 comeback. Hunter performed her own material, and old jazz and blues standards, to packed crowds at the Cookery in Greenwich Village. She recorded four albums during this time, which show her in surprisingly good form. Many fans prefer the rougher voice and the worldly personality she had acquired over the years. Listening to Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery, it’s hard not to laugh at her mildly bawdy banter with the crowd, or her winking praise of tough guys in "Two-Fisted, Double-Jointed, Rough and Ready Man." It's also difficult not to feel the years of experience behind the voice.
She continued to perform until her death in 1984. In 1997, she became the subject of a highly successful musical review: Cookin’ at the Cookery: the Music and Times of Alberta Hunter. Marion J. Caffey wrote the work to be performed by two women, who play Alberta at various ages and an assortment of other characters.
Alberta Hunter has an impressive discography that includes many singles. Her available album work and compilations only have been listed here:
Jazz Masters: Alberta Hunter
Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery
Tell the Difference
Beale Street Blues: 1921-1940
Alternate Takes: 1921-1940
My Castle’s Rockin’
Look for the Silver Lining
The Legendary Alberta Hunter
The Glory of Alberta Hunter
Remember My Name
Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders
Chicago: The Living Legends
Songs We Taught Your Mother
Classic Alberta Hunter: The Thirties
Complete Recorded Works: 1927-1946
Complete Recorded Works: 1924-1927
Complete Recorded Works: 1923-1924
Complete Recorded Works: 1921-1923
Young Alberta Hunter: The Twenties
Young Alberta Hunter: the 20s and 30s.
Scott Alexander. "Alberta Hunter." The Red Hot Jazz Archive. http://www.redhotjazz.com/hunter.html
David H. Evans. "Nursing the Blues: the Remarkable Alberta Hunter." Henderson State University’s Academic Forum online. http://old.hsu.edu/faculty/afo/19/evans.htm
Alberta Hunter. Interview. Dick Cavett. African-American Music Collection: the Interviews. http://www.umich.edu/~afroammu/standifer/hunter.html
Uncle David Lewis. "Alberta Hunter." All Music Guide.. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll