Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hunter, Alberta

Singer Alberta Hunter’s career spanned the 20th century, and with it the changing fortunes of blues and jazz. She started in the bawdy houses of Chicago's South Side in 1912, then moved on to studio sessions with Thomas "Fats" Waller and Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong. She was a star of the London theater, then retired from music to work as a nurse. She returned triumphantly to the stage after a twenty-year hiatus in 1977 to become the original “octojazzarian.”

Alberta Hunter

Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1895, as an adolescent Hunter ran away to Chicago. Like blues singer Sippie Wallace, Hunter started singing in brothels, then moved on to "legitimate" club appearances.

In Chicago, Hunter found success with both black and white audiences, and struck up a friendship with the multitalented pianist and bandleader Lil Hardin Armstrong. But Chicago, then a haven for organized cime, could be a dangerous place, and Hunter chose to move to New York after her piano player was killed on stage during a performance by a stray bullet.

In New York, she met Harry Pace, an entrepreneur and former business partner of W.C. Handy, and was among the first performers, along with Ethel Waters, to record on Pace’s Black Swan label in the early 1920s. Black Swan, based in Harlem, is thought to be the first record company owned, run, and marketed to African-Americans. Hunter’s sides for Black Swan were later transferred to the Paramount label and reissued as part of the Paramount 12000 Race Series. A song Hunter wrote during this period, “Downhearted Blues,” became a hit for Bessie Smith in 1922.

Under the pseudonym Josephine Beatty, Hunter recorded “Early Every Morn” in 1924 with Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong as well as Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. By 1930, Hunter had recorded more than 80 sides on labels such as Black Swan, Paramount, Puritan, Harmograph, and Silvertone.

Hunter left the U.S. in the late 1920s for what turned out to be an extended stay in Europe which took her through the years of the Great Depression, bringing her to audiences across the Continent. She settled for most of that time in London, where she became a favorite performer of King Edward VII and the Duke of Windsor. In 1928 and 1929, she starred with Paul Robeson in the Jerome Kern musical Showboat at the London Palladium.

When Hunter returned to the U.S. in 1935, she had a hard time getting a record deal with a major labels, as although she still had some drawing power, her career and name recognition had weakened. She toured with the USO during the 1940s, then in 1956 she dropped out of show business to become a practical nurse at Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York.

Apart from a brief and notable respite to record the album “Songs We Taught Your Mother” on the Bluesville label with Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey in 1961, she continued to work as a nurse until retiring in 1977 at the age of 82, though her employer thought she was much younger.

Claiming that she “never felt better,” Hunter resumed her singing career after retiring from nursing, this time with a more distinctive jazz sound. Restaurateur Barney Josephson invited her to perform at The Cookery in Greenwich Village, which became her steady gig. Buoyed by her success there, she recorded four albums for Columbia over the next five years.

The album “Amtrak Blues,” produced by John Hammond in 1978, was phenomenally popular and features one of her signature double-entendre songs, Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf’s irresistible "My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More." It’s a treat to hear Hunter singing about the things her man does, from “greasing my griddle” to “trimming the rough edges off my lawn.”

But it’s not just on blues songs that Alberta breaks loose from their old genre settings. The same thing happens to pop standards, like Irving Berlin’s shopworn “Always.” On Amtrak Blues, Hunter treats "Always" as an up tune instead of a waltz, with phrasing that feels just right for her late-career persona. The accents on “not” and “fair” in “Things may NOT be FAIR always” could easily elicit an “amen” from her audience, and the equal emphasis on each word in the next line, "BUT YOU'LL FIND ME THERE always" brings the point home. Hunter has fun in all kinds of ways on this track, interjecting conversational asides and enjoining trumpeter Doc Cheatham to “talk to me, play it.” We have to believe her when she sings, as she does in another track from this album, “I’m having a good time living my life today.”

Alberta Hunter’s gritty voice, broad smile, and sense of mischief brought her new fame with a younger audience which lasted until her death in 1984 in Roosevelt, New York. Hunter’s career has been documented in the film “My Castle’s Rockin’” (1992) and in a popular and critically acclaimed off-Broadway production, “Cookin' at the Cookery: The Life and Times of Alberta Hunter,” which continues to be performed in revival productions across the U.S.

Select Discography

Complete Recorded Works, volumes 1 through 4 (Monument Records).

This series covering the years from 1921 to 1946 includes Hunter's early recordings on such labels as Black Swan, Paramount, Puritan, Harmograph, and Silvertone, sometimes under pseudonyms like Josephine Beatty, and recordings from the 1940s on “fly-by-night indies” like Regal and Jukebox.

The Legendary Alberta Hunter: ’34 London Sessions. (Reissued on DRG, 1981)

Features straight pop ballads with the Jack Jackson dance orchestra.

Songs We Taught Your Mother (issued August 16, 1961 on Bluesville/Original Blues Classics)

Also features Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey.

Remember My Name (Columbia, 1977)

Amtrak Blues (Columbia, 1978)

The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia, 1981)

Look for the Silver Lining (Columbia, 1982)

Contributor: Sue Russell