Hunter, Alberta 1895–1984
Alberta Hunter 1895–1984
Alberta Hunter was an early blues singer who had a tremendous influence on the blues and jazz music of the times. Her musical career spanned almost the entire twentieth century. Even at a young age, her singing influenced such greats as Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker. She sang and wrote classic blues and helped bridge the gap to cabaret pop music. In her lifetime she had three distinct successful careers, starting the second one at an age when people normally start retirement. After spending twenty years as a nurse, Hunter made an astonishing comeback in 1977 at the age of 82. Her work and her contributions to blues singing remained popular and her albums still sold in the twenty-first century, years after her death. In his full length biography of Hunter, Frank C. Taylor said “From a background of poverty, discrimination, and little formal education, she propelled herself in the 1910s and 1920s to the top of the entertainment world, performing at Chicago’s Dreamland Café, on Broadway, at the Drury Lane in London, and in sophisticated cabarets from Cairo to Copenhagen.”
It has been said that to write and sing the blues, you need to live the blues. Alberta Hunter was born on April 1, 1895, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Charles E. Hunter, was a sleeping-car porter on a railroad. He abandoned the family soon after Hunter was born. Her mother, Laura Peterson Hunter, worked as a maid in a brothel just to support her family. Hunter had one sister, La Tosca, who was two years older. Mrs. Hunter was ashamed of her job and the fact that her husband had left. She told the girls he had died and never discussed her job, her feelings, sex, or relationships with men with them. Hunter was very ill prepared when she was later sexually abused by both a boyfriend of their landlady and her school principal. These traumas and what she probably observed in the brothel were the start of her issues with men and her becoming a lesbian in later life and gave her a background that the blues could pour out of.
Hunter spent her early years between her strict disciplinarian mother, who taught her to be self reliant and respect herself, and her grandmother, Nancy Peterson, who saw in the young Hunter the potential and the wanderlust. Her early music education came from her exposure to the blues bands of Beale Street. When W.C. Handy came to Memphis with his blues band in 1905, Hunter would race down to hear the band play. Her mother remarried when Hunter was eleven and had another child, Josephine. Hunter, always a serious child, got less attention at home and started having more problems with boys and men outside of her home. At sixteen, she ran away with a family friend to Chicago where another friend got her a job peeling potatoes in a boarding house for $6 a week. Her ambition was to make big money ($10 a week) singing. Of her blues career, Hunter is quoted in the Calliope on-line article as having said “The blues? Why, the blues are a part of me … When we sing blues, we’re singing out our hearts, we’re singing out our feelings. When I sing … what I’m doing is letting my soul out.”
At a Glance…
Bom on April 1, 1895, in Memphis, TN; died on October 17, 1984, in New York, NY; daughter of Charles E. Hunter and Laura Peterson Hunter; married Willard Townsend, 1919 (divorced).
Career: Blues singer, 1911-57, 1977-84; nurse, 1957-77.
Awards: Asiatic Pacific Campaign Ribbon for Outstanding Service; City of Memphis Award for her immense contributions to the blues; Handy Award as Traditional Female Artist of the Year.
Through perseverance, Hunter finally persuaded the owners of Dago Frank’s to allow her to sing to their customers. Dago Frank’s was one of Chicago’s wilder whorehouses at the time. There she was much influenced by the women who protected her and separated her from the pimps and the customers. She started singing with a repertoire of two songs which she had taught herself after she convinced the owners to give her the job. Ever a loving daughter, she sent part of her money back to her mother each week. She worked there until 1913 when the house closed. She then moved to a job at a club called Hugh Hoskin’s, where she was introduced to a clientele of some of Chicago’s leading black pick-pockets and confidence men. By this time, her mother had separated from her husband and came to live with Hunter in Chicago. The two developed a firm “Don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship, not discussing Hunter’s growing lesbianism or her mother’s marital problems.
From there, Hunter’s career advanced, with her getting jobs in several black clubs. In 1915 she was hired by the Panama Café, one of Chicago’s top spots with a largely white clientele. She became immensely popular, even to the point that some composers paid her to introduce their songs. Among the most interesting were when W.C. Handy asking her to plug “Saint Louis Blues,” and she was one of the first to sing “Sweet Georgia Brown” for Maceo Walker. When the Panama Café closed because of a shooting in 1917, Hunter moved around a bit and then was hired by the Dreamland Ballroom. She spent five years there singing with Joseph “King” Oliver and his band. Her salary started at $17.50 a week, rising to $35. She also got tip money which could reach four or five hundred dollars on a good night. Interestingly, with her background, she could manage to get more than her share of the tips, which were supposed to be shared equally among the musicians. She would do such things as stuff money down the front of her dress or specially flirt with a particular customer. Once when the lights went out and a man was shot in a club she was working, she was caught with her hand in the tip jar when the lights came back on. She never lost the lessons she learned early.
As Hunter continued her career, she sang in as many clubs as possible, often after hours or during her free time. She met and worked with some of the most talented musicians in the world. In a world of excesses, however, she stayed on the outside because of her reserved nature and the fact that she didn’t drink, smoke, or take drugs. She made it a point to restrict the lyrics in her songs—she capitalized on the suggestive and strictly avoided the explicit.
In Cincinnati in 1919 she met Willard Townsend, a handsome young waiter in one of the clubs she was working. They crossed over to Kentucky one night and got married, at least in part to stop the rumors about her lesbianism. The marriage was a disaster from the start. They returned to Chicago where they lived together for only two months. Hunter kicked him out and returned to her career, divorcing him four years later.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Hunter’s career took off. She traveled a lot between Chicago and New York, meeting and performing with greats such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechel, Fats Waller, Sophie Tucker, and Bessie Smith. She had wonderful style. She only appeared in the latest fashions and had a sparkling personality when she performed. In New York, she recorded first for the Black Swan label, switching to Paramount in 1922. She wrote most of the songs she recorded for Paramount, performing some of her best material, including “Down Hearted Blues,” “You Shall Reap What You Sow,” and “Chirping The Blues.” At this time she also started landing roles on and off Broadway. In 1922, she starred with Ethel Waters in Dumb Luck, which closed out of town stranding the cast until Hunter found the money to get them home. In April of 1923 after a conflict with her current friend’s boyfriend, she moved to New York. Four days later, she opened in Eddie Hunter’s How Come? at the Apollo Theatre. One of her songs, “Down Hearted Blues,” became a hit recording when Bessie Smith sang it. Ironically, as was often true for black composers of the time, Hunter received very little money from the hit. However, this review gained her much deserved recognition in New York and helped establish her career as a cabaret singer. In 1924 she was in Washington at the Howard Theatre, performing in Eddie Hunter’s Strut-tin’ Time. Besides singing and writing music, Hunter could also dance and is credited with teaching the Charleston to the white folks of West Virginia. She may actually have invented the black bottom, another dance craze of the 1920s.
She was an active and industrious performer, often singing at several clubs or shows at the same time. She did several recordings under different names, recording for the Biltmore label as Alberta Prime, the Gennett label as Josephine Beatty, and the OKeh, Victor, and Columbia labels as Alberta Hunter.
In the 1920s Hunter performed in vaudeville on the Keith circuit. Vaudeville of this time was not very kind to black performers, expecting them to perform stereotypical roles in overalls and tattered dresses. By the late 1920s, Hunter felt she had done as much as she could in the New York scene and set sail with her companion, Lottie Tyler, for Europe. Here she was met with open arms. She knew enough of the right people that she was invited to fashionable parties and she openly enjoyed the lack of prejudice against blacks in the Europe of that time. She started working in France, first in a Paris club and then later on the Riviera. She was a great success. When her work permit for England came through in early 1928, she moved to London where she performed in a myriad of clubs. In May she opened in the part of Queenie in Show Boat also starring Paul Robeson. A great success, the show ran for 350 performances.
In May of 1929 she returned to the states, and although she had achieved star status in Europe, still had problems with her career at home. She worked both in Chicago and New York at various clubs, did some more vaudeville and opened in a few plays—none of which were very popular. In 1930 Hunter moved her mother into her apartment in Harlem where she was to stay until she died, cooking and keeping house for her daughter. She spent a lot of the 1930s traveling back and forth to Europe and Asia, performing in England and France as well as the Middle East and Russia. She did several command performances before royalty and was very popular. She returned home reluctantly when the State department brought home all American citizens because of the pending war.
During World War II, she joined the USO and entertained troops all over Europe, India, China, and other countries. The highlight of the tour was a performance on June 11 for General Eisenhower and Soviet Marshall Zhukov to celebrate victory in Europe. She continued her work with the USO, touring war torn Europe and later performing in the Korean War zone. She was one of 40 recipients of the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Ribbon for “Outstanding Service” for her extensive work with the troops.
Back in New York in the early 1950s, Hunter again started performing at clubs and in plays, but her career was waning. She joined a church and started doing volunteer work at the Joint Diseases Hospital in Harlem and was named Volunteer of the Year in 1956. She was devastated by the death of her mother in 1954. She realized that she needed to do something else with her life and at the age of 62 when most people are retiring, she studied to pass her elementary school equivalency exam, subtracted 12 years from her age, and received her practical nurses license in August of 1957. During the 20 years she worked as a nurse, she maintained only casual relationships with her prior life, recording only a few songs and taping interviews for the Smithsonian Institute. Hunter was an excellent nurse and well liked by her patients. She probably would not have retired if she had not been forced into it by the hospital who thought she had reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. She was actually 82.
In 1977 she was invited by Barney Josephson, the owner of New York’s popular jazz club the Cookery, to sing as long as she still had all of her teeth so that she wouldn’t whistle into the microphone. She was an instant success. The National Review said in her obituary “friends persuaded her to perform again in a Manhattan restaurant, the Cookery, and she did so to terrific reviews. Pretty soon you couldn’t get into the place with a drill bit. She was spunky, and smooth …” She was back in her glory with audiences in the palm of her hand and a better attitude about female black singers. She was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall and for President Jimmy Carter at the White House. During this time, she also recorded two new albums which included some of her favorite songs, Amtrak Blues in 1980 and Look for the Silver Lining in 1983. She made many appearances on television and sang at the Kennedy Center Lifetime Award program honoring, among others, Marian Anderson.
By 1980 health problems started to plague Hunter. She broke several bones at different times and had a pacemaker installed during one hospital stay. She continued performing almost to the end. She was performing in Denver in the summer of 1984 when she finally decided that she could not continue and returned to her apartment in New York. She died on October 17, 1984. She received awards from the city of Memphis “for her immense contribution to the development of an important art form, the blues,” and the Handy Award as Traditional Female Blues Artist of the Year. Her music and contributions to the blues and jazz movements in America will be long remembered.
Young Alberta Hunter: The Twenties, Stash.
Classic Alberta Hunter: The Thirties, Stash.
The Legendary Alberta Hunter: The London Sessions—1934, DRG.
Songs We Taught Your Mother, Prestige/Bluesville.
Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders, Riverside.
Remember My Name (original sound track recording), Juke Box.
Amtrak Blues, Columbia.
The Glory of Alberta Hunter, Columbia.
Look for the Silver Lining, Columbia.
Bring Back the Joys, Black Swan, 1921.
After All These Tears, Paramount, 1922.
Chirping The Blues, Paramount, 1922.
Down Hearted Blues, Paramount, 1922.
Bleeding Heart Blues, Paramount, 1923.
Old Fashioned Love, Paramount, 1924.
Wasn’t It Nice, OKeh, 1926.
Beale Street Blues, Victor, 1927.
Gimmie All the Love You Got, Columbia, 1929.
Second Hand Man, ARC, 1935.
You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark, ARC, 1935.
Boogie Woogie Swing, Bluebird, 1940.
Alberta Hunter: Jazz at the Smithsonian (video), Sony Corporation, 1982.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who: a Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers, Arlington House, New Rochelle, NY, 1979.
Harrison, Daphne, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1988.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin Books, New York, 1993.
Taylor, Frank C., with Gerald Cook, Alberta Hunter, A Celebration in Blues, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1987.
National Review, November 30, 1984, p. 18.
USA Today, September 1993, p. 97.
“Alberta Hunter,” Red Hot Jazz, www.redhotjazz.com/hunter.html (September 26, 2003).
“The Classic Blues and the Women Who Sang Them,” Calliope Film Resources, www.calliope.org/blues/blues1.html (September 26, 2003).
—Patricia A. Donaldson
Jazz singer Alberta Hunter, like many other early jazz musicians, had a turbulent childhood. Her father left the family soon after she was born, and he died a few years later. Poverty and hard times plagued much of Hunter’s childhood in Memphis, Tennessee. Despite her upbringing, she went on to become one of the most famous jazz and blues performers of her time. Then, shocked by her mother’s death in 1954, Hunter retired from the limelight and worked as a nurse for 20 years. In an unlikely turn of events, she reentered the music business at the age of 82, gaining as much fame as she had in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
Hunter’s family moved frequently after her father abandoned them, and Alberta experienced turmoil during those years. She suffered the emotional ramifications brought on by her mother’s ill-fated remarriage and coped with sexual abuse from a school principal and a landlady’s boyfriend. While these events seemed to have an effect on her personality, they never stifled her will to survive and become a success. When she was only eight years old she escaped her stormy home life, sneaking off to Chicago with a former teacher.
Hunter recounted her journey in Down Beat: “My teacher, Mrs. Florida Cummings, had a train pass to Chicago, a child’s pass. She asked me if I’d like to go to Chicago on the train and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to go.’ So she said, ‘Run home and ask your mother and if she says you can go, you can go.’ But I never did ask my mother, I just … hid between two houses until it was time to leave. My mother thought I was staying over at my friend’s house or something.”
In a fortuitous turn of events, Hunter’s streetcar dropped her off right in front of the apartment building of the only person she knew in Chicago, a friend of her mother’s named Helen Winston. She helped Hunter find a job peeling potatoes for six dollars a week and board, and the youngster always sent a good portion of her paycheck back to her mother. Walking the streets of Chicago after work, Hunter would peer into the windows of the clubs and “sporting houses” in the area, occasionally wandering in, only to be promptly thrown out. She was particularly attracted to a brothel known as Dago Frank’s. One day she went in and began singing one of the only songs she knew, “Where the River Shannon Flows,” and the inept piano player tried to accompany her. They threw her out again, but soon after she was offered a job there that paid ten dollars a week.
The prostitutes at Dago Frank’s immediately took Hunter under their wing, encouraging her and coercing their
For the Record…
Born April 1, 1895, in Memphis, TN; died October 17, 1984, in New York; daughter of Charles E. (a sleeping-car porter) and Laura Peterson Hunter; married Willard Saxby Townsend, January 19, 1919 (divorced March 23, 1923).
Jazz singer, composer, and actress, 1914-84. Sang in nightclubs and cabarets in Chicago, IL, 1914-21; moved to New York City, 1921; recorded albums under pseudonyms May Alize and Josephine Beafly; performed in Europe, 1927-37; appeared in film Radio Parade; toured with United Service Organization (USO), 1952-53; worked in Chicago during the 1950s; retired from performing and became a nurse, 1954; recorded infrequently, including albums with Lovie Austin, 1961, and Jimmy Archey, 1962; retired from nursing and worked as a singer full time, 1977-84; performed at the Cookery in New York City.
clients to tip Hunter while waiting for services. Hunter commented: “People don’t realize—prostitutes are good people. Prostitutes are the best people. People don’t know what makes pimps and prostitutes what they are—it’s circumstances. Circumstances lead to that way of life.… Prostitutes taught me to be a good girl … they made me be a good girl.”
Hunter’s voice was steadily improving; she soon graduated from Dago Frank’s and began to sing at some of the nightclubs in the area—Hugh Hoskins’s and the Panama Cafe—both a far cry from a run-down brothel. She even earned enough money to move her mother up from Memphis to Chicago. Gaining popularity, she was featured at the Dreamland Cafe and performed with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band, featuring Louis Armstrong; jazz greats Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker were among Hunter’s audience. Also during her stint at the Dreamland, Hunter began composing and cut the album Downhearted Blues, which was a million seller in 1921. A few years later, newcomer Bessie Smith released her version of the album, and it achieved the same success.
Feeling the urge to move on again in the early 1920s, Hunter went to New York City. In 1923 she landed parts in two shows, How Come and Change Your Luck. When wanderlust hit the performer again, she went to London, singing at the London Pavillion to the likes of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Soon after, she starred with Paul Robeson in Showboat. “[Robeson’s] voice,” Hunter remarked in Time, “sounded like a bell in the distance, it had such resonance.”
Following her appearance in Showboat, Hunter went to Paris, replacing Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris. Denmark, Turkey, and Egypt marked Hunter’s travel itinerary before she settled again in England, becoming a favorite of the Prince of Wales—the future King Edward VII and Duke of Windsor. Eventually returning to New York, Hunter worked in radio, and in 1939 she won a part in Mamba’s Daughters.
The United Service Organization (USO) attracted Hunter in the 1940s, and she remained there through the Korean War. “They built a whole unit around me,” Hunter noted in Down Beat. “I sang blues songs and some popular songs. I sang for General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower and General [Douglas] MacArthur.” In the 1950s she returned to Chicago and New York, where she performed until her mother died in 1954. “My poor mother was the most important thing in my life,” Hunter said. “She died on January 17, 1954 and that was the day I swore to give up singing and become a nurse. I went right to the YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] and enrolled in their nursing program. I was accepted, by the goodness of God. I became a registered nurse and went to work at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island.”
Hunter told the hospital that she was 50 when she went to work there; she was actually 62. She worked there for the next 20 years, recording a few songs on the side, but basically showed no other interest in the music business. The hospital forced her to retire in 1977, believing she was at the mandatory retirement age of 70. In fact, she was 82.
At a party one day following her retirement from nursing, Hunter ran into Charlie Bourgeois, a publicist for the Newport Jazz Festival. He suggested she telephone Barney Josephson, who owned a club in Greenwich Village and would give her a job. Hunter declined, claiming to have enough money to live on. Bourgeois got her number and passed it on to Josephson. The club owner called Hunter immediately, begging her to come work for him. After some polite demurring, Hunter agreed.
The singer staged an amazing comeback, and Josephson’s Cookery club suddenly became the scene of sold-out shows. Although seemingly frail, Hunter’s sets were spirited and rollicking. She soon garnered a recording contract with Columbia and was commanding $10,000 a night for outside events. She was living proof of the line she had written herself in “Workin’ Man”: “There’s plenty of good tunes, honey, left in an old violin.” Hunter got a chance to travel to Brazil and was invited to sing at the White House, becoming a favorite of former President Jimmy Carter.
In the early 1980s, Hunter coped with health problems and was in and out of hospitals. After a while, she refused to take her medications and succombed to her illness in her Roosevelt Island apartment in 1984. Summing up the impact Hunter had on the music world, club owner Barney Josephson declared, “If I’m ever remembered for anything I have ever done in this business, I want you to remember me as the man who brought Alberta Hunter back to singing again.”
Downhearted Blues, Paramount, 1922.
Jazzin’ Baby Blues, Paramount, 1922.
Stingaree Blues, Paramount, 1923.
Young Alberta Hunter: The Twenties, Stash.
Classic Alberta Hunter: The Thirties, Stash.
The Legendary Alberta Hunter: The London Sessions —1934, DRG.
(With Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey) Songs We Taught Your Mother, Prestige Bluesville.
Alberta Hunter With Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders, Riverside, 1961.
Remember My Name (original soundtrack recording), Juke Box.
Amtrak Blues, Columbia.
The Glory of Alberta Hunter.
Look for the Silver Lining.
Alberta Hunter: Jazz at the Smithsonian (video), Sony, 1982.
Taylor, Frank C. and Gerald Cook, Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues, McGraw-Hill, 1987.
Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Down Beat, January 1980.
Ms., March 1987.
Time, December 13, 1982; October 29, 1984.
One of the seminal blues and cabaret singers, Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) gained international fame in the first half of the 20th century as a recording artist and nightclub and stage performer. Many of her recordings are considered classics and her accompanists were some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era. Hunter actually had two careers as a singer; during the 20-year interlude that separated them, this strong-willed and independent-minded woman worked as a nurse in New York City.
Hunter was born on April 1, 1895, in Memphis, Tennessee, and named for the doctor who delivered her. Her father, a railroad porter, abandoned the family while she was a young girl, though for years Hunter repeated the story that he had died while she was a child. Her mother eventually remarried, but Hunter did not get along with her new family and ran away from home. The exact date when this occurred has been lost, but most accounts say she was either 11 or 12 years old.
Early Success in Chicago
Hunter went to Chicago where she found work in a boarding house—her pay included room, board, and $6 a week. Captivated by Chicago's nightlife, she began sneaking into clubs. Her professional debut came in 1911 when she sang in a club in Chicago's Southside called Dago Frank's, a shady place that was a hangout for underworld characters. Hunter remained there for two years and left only after the club was closed down. Her mother joined her in Chicago soon after.
Hunter's first big connection in the music business came when she started singing in another Southside nightclub, the Elite Café. There she met ragtime pianist and songwriter Tony Jackson. Among the songs Jackson wrote was "Pretty Baby," which Hunter helped popularize. Over the next few years Hunter sang in a string of Southside Chicago nightclubs including the Panama Café, which catered to whites; the De Luxe Café; and, beginning in 1917, the fabled Dreamland Café where she established herself as one of Chicago's top blues singers. At the Dreamland she became friends with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, which featured Joe "King" Oliver on cornet and a young Louis Armstrong on second cornet. Hunter was especially friendly with Lil Hardin, Oliver's pianist and Louis Armstrong's first wife. Three years younger than Hunter, Hardin was also from Memphis. The Dreamland Café also drew an elite white and African American clientele; it was where Hunter first met Paul Robeson, with whom years later she would star in Showboat in London. Other patrons included Al Jolson and Bix Beiderbecke. On her off days and after hours Hunter worked as what was then known as a "drop-in girl," making the rounds of other nightclubs.
By 1919 Hunter was a celebrity in Chicago and began paying more attention to her image, including the rumor that she was a lesbian. In that era few performers were openly homosexual (especially blues singers, who flaunted heterosexuality) and Hunter was no exception. In January she sang at a club in Cincinnati where one of the young waiters caught her eye, an army veteran named Willard Saxby Townsend. Hunter and Townsend were married in Covington, Kentucky, on January 27, 1919, but by all accounts their marriage was never consummated. Two months after they returned to Chicago Townsend filed for divorce, which was granted in March 1923. By then Hunter was living in New York with the love of her life Lottie Tyler, niece of the African American vaudeville comedian, Bert Williams.
In the early 1920s Hunter was the queen of the Dreamland Café and indeed of the Chicago blues scene. Back then Chicago was the place to be as far as jazz and blues musicians were concerned. As Hunter herself said of the era as quoted by Frank C. Taylor and Gerald Cook in Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues: "If you had worked in Chicago and had been recognized there, you were somebody, baby. New York didn't count then."
Whether it counted or not, Hunter was soon traveling to New York to record for a label called Black Swan records. Her earliest recordings, in May 1921, were "He's a Darned Good Man to Have Around" backed by "How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long," "Bring Back the Joys," and "Some Day Sweetheart." On all of these, Fletcher Henderson accompanied her on piano (though the identities of the other musicians have been lost). During the next two years Hunter traveled back and forth between her performing base in Chicago and her recording base in New York. In July 1922 she recorded a slew of songs for the Paramount label, including the now-classic "Down Hearted Blues," which Hunter cowrote with pianist Lovie Austin, "Daddy Blues," and accompanied by Eubie Blake on piano, "Jazzin' Baby Blues." The next year Bessie Smith recorded "Down Hearted Blues" for Columbia Records and it became that label's first hit. Hunter, however, received very little in royalty payments—and only from Paramount. In February 1923 Hunter broke ground when she became the first African American singer to be back by an all-white band—the Original Memphis Five. Among the three songs they recorded that month was "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do." In all Hunter recorded 14 songs in the month of February 1923 alone (the other songs were backed by Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra), all for Paramount Records. With so much recording activity, not to mention Broadway, the lure of New York became stronger and stronger for Hunter and she finally moved there in April 1923.
She was not without a job for long. On April 18 she joined the cast of the musical How Come? and was an immediate (and literal) "showstopper." Her singing and glamour (Hunter always appeared onstage in beautiful dresses) captured the sophisticated Broadway audience. Unfortunately most critics found little else to praise in How Come? and the show closed after five weeks. Meanwhile Hunter continued recording for Paramount. In May and June 1923 she cut "Stingeree Blues" and "You Can't Do What My Last Man Did," with piano accompaniment on both songs by Fats Waller.
In 1924 Hunter, feeling slighted by Paramount, recorded five songs on the Gennett label using the name Josephine Beatty. This was a technical violation of her contract with Paramount, and as a result she lost her contract at the end of the year. The five Gennett songs became minor cult classics as Hunter was backed up by the Red Onion Jazz Babies, featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet. The following year she began recording with Okeh Records and stayed with them through 1926; she also decided to hit the vaudeville circuit. Upon returning to New York from her vaudeville tour Hunter bought an apartment on West 138th Street, which placed her both professionally and personally in the midst of the famed Harlem Renaissance.
At the end of 1926 Hunter recorded three songs for a Chicago record company, Vocalion, but they were never released. In 1927 she left Okeh to record for Victor. Among the seven Victor recordings she made that year was "Beale Street Blues," with Fats Waller on pipe organ.
Paris and London
New York was home, but Hunter was a traveling woman by nature, and in August 1927 she and Tyler embarked for Paris, where Josephine Baker was already a star. It was an opportunity to escape American racism and become recognized for her talent that Hunter could not pass up. As quoted in Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues she said, "The Negro [sic] artists went to Europe because we were recognized and given a chance. In Europe they had your name up in lights. People in the United States would not give us that chance."
In Paris Hunter's name was indeed up in lights, and she moved in the expatriate high cultural circles of the era. She also published letters in the Amsterdam News, New York's most prominent African American newspaper, detailing her Parisian life, serving more or less as a correspondent. However Paris was also where she broke up with Tyler, though they remained good friends afterward. In January 1928, without Tyler who had returned to the United States, Hunter left Paris for London.
Her first professional appearance in London, two days after she arrived, was at the London Pavilion located at Picadilly Circus. Her biggest triumph of her European "tour" came in May 1928 when she performed the role of Queenie in the London stage version of Showboat, which also featured Paul Robeson. The musical closed after three months, but Hunter remained in London until March 1929. After a brief return to Paris to open the Paris Cotton Club she returned to the United States in May 1929. Back in the U.S. she cut two more songs, this time for Columbia Records. These were her only recordings until 1934 when she recorded 12 songs in London that were released on the HMV (His Master's Voice) label.
If she had thought her unqualified success in Paris and London would be enough to open doors in the United States she was mistaken. Other than some vaudeville work, a role in a musical called Change Your Luck, and a revue titled This Way Out (in which she appeared only for a week and was never paid), Hunter found work hard to come by. There were a few bookings in Harlem's Alhambra Theatre. By 1933 things had got so bad for her—the Great Depression having exacerbated the already hard-to-come-by bookings—that she decided to return to Paris. This time her success was a bit qualified—the economic depression was keeping people away from the nightclubs. In the spring of 1934 she went to Copenhagen, Denmark, where the reception given her by the public was even warmer than that of the French.
In July 1934 Hunter was back in London, and she effortlessly picked up where she had left off five years earlier. She toured the British and Scottish music hall circuit and recorded 12 songs including "I Travel Alone," written by Noel Coward. Originally recorded for HMV, they were later released as an LP, The Legendary Alberta Hunter: The London Sessions-1934. She also appeared in the first British film shot in color, Radio Parade of 1935. In January 1935 her British work permit was not renewed and after a brief return to Paris, Hunter returned to the United States. In 1937 following another sojourn abroad, which took her not only to Europe but Egypt as well, Hunter began singing on NBC radio. Her contract expired in early 1938, whereupon she returned to Europe. With war becoming more of a likelihood, Hunter returned to New York in the fall of 1938 and resumed her radio singing. When war did break out and Paris fell to the Nazis African American entertainers returned to New York, making competition for jobs that much stiffer. Adding to this was the next generation of singers led by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Lena Horne.
By then Hunter's recording career had cooled off somewhat. In 1935 she recorded four songs for the American Record Company, which the company never released. In 1939 she recorded six songs for Decca, including another version of "Down Hearted Blues." In 1940 she recorded four songs for Bluebird, accompanied by Eddie Heywood Jr. on piano. These were her last recordings until after the war.
During the World War II, Hunter entertained troops as a member of the United Service Organizations (USO). She did various tours in the Pacific (where she experienced an air raid) and European theaters, entertaining General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery, and Marshal Zhukov. She continued entertaining troops during peacetime and later toured again with the USO during the Korean War (1950-1953). During the postwar years she also continued performing in clubs and shows.
Hunter resumed her recording career in 1946 with two small companies: Juke Box, for whom she recorded two songs, and Stash, recording just one song. In 1950 she recorded on Regal and in 1952 she cut two songs for Wheeler and four songs for Prestige/Bluesville, but her career was obviously slowing down. Never the Broadway star she had hoped to become when she moved to New York, she appeared in a number of revues and plays into the mid-1950s, but work was sporadic and when one play in particular, Debut, closed after four days on Broadway she decided to call it a career. Or rather, she decided to change careers.
On August 14, 1956, Alberta Hunter graduated from the Harlem YWCA nursing school and became a licensed practical nurse. She had lied about her age to get into the school, declaring that she was twelve years younger than she was, thus coming full circle from her earliest Chicago days when she had pretended to be older to sneak into clubs. She worked as a nurse for more than twenty years and retired in 1977 at what officials thought was the mandatory retirement age of 70; she was 82 years old. The only nod Hunter gave to her performing career during her years as a nurse was in 1961 when one of her old accompanists and songwriting partner, Lovie Austin, talked her into recording an LP for the Riverside label tiled, Alberta Hunter with Lovie Ausin's Blues Seranaders. The songs included "Down Hearted Blues," "Moanin' Low," "Streets Paved with Gold," and "St. Louis Blues."
After retiring as a nurse Hunter effortlessly resumed her career as a New York cabaret singer and recording artist. This second career made her a bigger star than she had previously been. In 1977 she was performing at the Cookery in New York's Greenwich Village. By the end of the year she had a recording contract with Columbia Records and had recorded the LP Remember My Name, the soundtrack of the film of the same name. Hunter played Carnegie Hall on June 27, 1978, and also gave command performance for the Carter White House. In 1979 she recorded the album Amtrak Blues. She followed this up in 1981 with The Glory of Alberta Hunter and in 1983 completed Look for the Silver Lining . Alberta Hunter died on October 17, 1984, in New York City.
Taylor, Frank C. and Gerald Cook, Alberta: A Celebration in Blues, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987.
New York Times, October 19, 1984.
"Alberta Hunter," http://www.redhotjazz.com/Hunter.html (January 27, 2003). □
HUNTER, Alberta (b. 1 April 1895; d. 17 October 1984), singer, composer, actor, nurse.
One of the most accomplished blues artists of the twentieth century, Alberta Hunter was born into destitute poverty in Memphis at the end of the nineteenth century. Her father, Charles E. Hunter, was a railway porter who abandoned the family soon after her birth. Her strict, reserved mother, Laura (Peterson) Hunter, worked as a maid in a brothel, while her grandmother, Nancy Peterson, took primary responsibility for caring for Alberta and her older sister and younger stepsister. Subjected to sexual abuse as an adolescent by both the white boyfriend of her family's landlady and a black school principal, Hunter also suffered at the hands of a violent stepfather and a social circle that nicknamed her "Pig" for her untidiness and alleged unattractiveness. Strong-minded and fiercely determined to forge her own life, Hunter, at the age of sixteen, ran away to Chicago. After working as a house cleaner and kitchen aide, she began singing in raunchy nightclubs in 1912. She was encouraged and supported by women in the audience as well as by prostitutes working the clubs.
In the 1910s Hunter built a successful career as a blues singer in Chicago, helping to popularize songs by such composers as Maceo Walker ("Sweet Georgia Brown") and W. C. Handy ("Saint Louis Blues") as well as many songs that she composed herself (such as "I've Got a Mind to Ramble, ""Down Hearted Blues," and "I've Had Enough"). In the 1920s she began to sing in New York and to branch out into acting. She starred in shows in Chicago, New York (on Broadway and in Harlem), Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In 1927 she sang in France and England and landed a role as Queenie in the 1928–1929 London production of Show Boat, starring Paul Robeson. Hunter sang throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. When her singing career began to slow down in the 1950s, she improvised by devoting herself to volunteer work in a Harlem hospital (she was named Volunteer of the Year in 1956), passing elementary school equivalency examinations (she had never finished elementary school), and persuading the YWCA to accept her into its nursing program. To reach her goals, she secretly shaved twelve years off of her age. After twenty years of devoted nursing, Hunter was forced to retire in 1977 because the hospital administration thought she was seventy years old. She was actually eighty-two.
Not ready for retirement, Hunter relaunched her musical career in October 1977 by opening to rave reviews at The Cookery, a new New York nightclub operated by Barney Josephson. She skyrocketed to a star status beyond anything she had previously achieved, appearing on nationally televised talk shows and radio, and in magazines, and newspapers. She opened the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in June 1978; sang at the Kennedy Center; received the Handy Award as Traditional Female Blues Artist of the Year in 1979; and traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. She was particularly pleased when President Jimmy Carter asked her to sing in the White House. She sustained an international singing career until her death in 1984 at the age of eighty-nine.
Love for women was central to Hunter's personal life. (In 1919 Hunter married William Saxby Townsend, but she kicked him out of her home after two months.) She supported her mother, who lived with her in Chicago for a time in 1915 and moved into her Harlem apartment permanently in 1930, until her mother's death in 1954. Although Hunter's stage persona ranged from wryly suggestive and sexually playful to riotously explicit, off-stage she was intensely reserved and refused to smoke, drink, use drugs, or tolerate rough language. She secretly sustained long-lasting lesbian relationships with Carrie Mae Ward in Chicago and later with Lottie Tyler in New York. Evidence suggests she engaged in brief romances with other women as well.
Hunter took care of her voice, got plenty of rest, traveled around the world when she felt like it, and kept a low profile except when performing. She had a reputation for being tight with money and taking care of business. She did not break rules carelessly; she was a disciplined worker and a strong-willed rebel who did things the way she believed they ought to be done. The blues that Alberta Hunter composed and performed helped propel the singer and her audience toward feminist self-affirmation, agency, movement, and change.
Carby, Hazel. "It Jus Be's Dat Way Sometimes: The Sexual Politics of Women's Blues." Radical America 20 (1986): 9–22.
Taylor, Frank C., and Gerald Cook. Alberta Hunter: A Celebration in Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
Winter, Kari J. "On Blues, Autobiography, and Performative Utterance: The Jouissance of Alberta Hunter." In Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women's Writing, edited by Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Tharp. New York: SUNY Press, 1998.
Kari J. Winter
see alsomusic: popular.