I never really got the Blues, though I have certainly gotten the blues. Maybe that’s why, until recently, I had never heard of Alberta Hunter and why her recordings and I are now inseparable. If Bessie Smith’s blues are a wail to the world, Alberta’s are a conversational tête à tête. She wrote and sang throughout her life but refused to be classified as a singer of any particular genre. “Just call me a singer of songs,” she insisted.
Last summer, a pianist friend handed me Amtrak Blues, an album Alberta recorded in 1978, at age eight-three. “You’ll get this,” he assured me. When I put it on, a frank, earthy voice radiated from the stereo speakers, and I started wondering who this lady could be. I found photos of a moon-eyed Chicago saloon singer with gold hoop earrings, a Parisian flapper in a filmy evening dress, a nurse in whites, a USO entertainer in khakis, and a sibylline old lady.
There was, as it turned out, a variegated life behind such variety. “I’ve been more places by accident than most people have been on purpose,” Alberta once quipped. A singer, actress, composer, and journalist, she was a kind of musical Marco Polo whose talents were as diverse as the many places her career carried her.
Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 1, 1895. Her father was a sleeping-car porter, a prestigious job for a black man at the time. He attended the most respectable black church in Memphis with his family—that is, until he took up with another woman. Alberta’s mother told her three daughters that their father had died of pneumonia, and she worked as a maid in a bordello to support them. But there was nothing improper in the way Alberta and her sisters were raised; their mother and grandmother took them firmly in hand (especially the feisty Alberta), keeping them far away from Beale Street, the burgeoning home of the blues. Little could Alberta’s family have suspected that W. C. Handy, who wrote “Memphis Blues” in 1912 (the first blues composition to be published), would ask Alberta to introduce the “St. Louis Blues” in Chicago only two years later.
How Alberta found her way there is a bit of a mystery and probably a self-fabricated one at that. At age sixteen, a teacher offered her a spare ticket to the Windy City, which she promptly accepted, leaving without a word to her mother. Alberta later explained that she arrived in Chicago not knowing a soul, except the daughter of a friend of her mother’s named Ellen Winston who lived somewhere in town. Apparently, Alberta stepped off the streetcar and asked the first person she met if she knew a Ms. Winston. Providence must have been on her side, for the passerby was Ellen Winston’s neighbor, who gave Alberta her first job, peeling potatoes.
The job wasn’t enough for ambitious Alberta. Neither domesticity nor romance was her cup of tea. (Though she was briefly married and had long-term relationships with women, she mostly seemed happy to be on her own. “Oh, Lord. God is good,” she declared when a beau left her for another woman. “They got their marriage, and I got the fame!”)
After her work was finished, Alberta would creep out of the boardinghouse where she lived and into the ragtime saloons of Chicago’s South Side. She became the darling of the prostitutes and pimps who worked there and was especially fond of a pickpocket called Tack Annie, who Alberta said was so ugly she looked “like a horse with a hat on.”
Determined to be a singer, Alberta convinced the owner of a small saloon to give her a job, followed by another at the well-known Panama Café. While Florence Mills crooned downstairs, Alberta sang the blues upstairs. One evening, the lights went out and a man was shot dead on the floor. Alberta, not to be outdone by Tack Annie, was found with her hand in the tip jar when the lights came on again.
Alberta had talent as well as drive and made her way to the most glittering of Chicago’s many nightspots, the Dreamland Ballroom. “That was where God put his arms around me,” she said. Before long, she was the Dreamland’s star performer, backed by King Oliver’s band and a trumpeter from New Orleans named Louis Armstrong. Alberta was also becoming a well-known recording artist, accompanied by the likes of Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. She even wrote her own songs, including “Down Hearted Blues,” which became a hit for Bessie Smith in the twenties.
Soon Alberta was eyeing what she considered the zenith of every entertainer’s journey: Broadway. She arrived in New York in 1923, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Though passed over by the producers of Shuffle Along, the first major black musical revue, Alberta was soon cast in How Come?, chosen over Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. The show flopped, but Alberta’s singing was a hit; the Baltimore Afro-American ran a photo of her with the caption “New Broadway Star.” Her triumph led to a tour on the prestigious Keith vaudeville circuit, where she is said to have debuted the Black Bottom, the dance craze which succeeded the Charleston and surpassed it in suggestiveness.
Touring provided constant reminders of racism in America, racism that even a star could not escape. Vermin-infested boardinghouses, segregated train cars, and even cancelled contracts were a grim reality. Alberta began to hear of the respect accorded to black performers in Europe and soon made plans to get there herself. “Of course I prefer Europe,” she later told a journalist. “What Negro with sense doesn’t?”
Alberta set sail for Paris in 1927. She played up and down the Rue Pigalle at Chez Florence, Fred Payne’s Bar, and other Montmartre boîtes which featured American jazz, eventually becoming a headliner at the Casino de Paris. Throughout, Alberta wrote letters to The Chicago Defender and other newspapers that catered to blacks, telling performers of the extraordinary opportunities on the Continent. In later years, she also had her own column in the Baltimore Afro-American called “Albert Hunter’s Little Notebook,” which she always ended with the words “Cheerio, Alberta.”
Following her triumph in Paris, Alberta was asked to play Queenie opposite Paul Robeson in the London production of Show Boat. The show ran for three hundred and fifty performances and established Alberta as an international star, one who sang in seven languages and toured throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Near East with her own nightclub act.
In 1938, with war looming over Europe, Alberta grudgingly returned to New York, where her mother had come to join her. Soon, however, she was asked to lead the first all-black division of the United Service Organizations. Alberta shepherded a group of musicians—whom she simply called “Chilluns”—throughout India and the remotest Burmese jungles, wherever U.S. troops were most in need of a lift. Though the irony of bolstering a nation which had denied her countless opportunities was not lost on her, the work was a fundamental step forward for African Americans—not to mention a continuation of her peripatetic lifestyle. “I’m going to be with Uncle Sam till he takes this uniform off me,” Alberta told the Amsterdam News in 1945. “I’ve never been so satisfied and had so much protection in my life. If you’re with the USA, everything jumps.”
But Alberta was to exchange one uniform for another after the war. In 1954, her beloved mother died, and she declared she was giving up show business. Telling a teacher at a YWCA school that she was forty-nine (she was actually a youthful sixty-one), Alberta enrolled in a training program for Licensed Practical Nurses. For the next twenty years, she worked at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, without telling anyone her age or anything about her previous life. Frank C. Taylor, who published a detailed biography of Alberta in 1987, shed light on these “silent years.” He wrote of a colleague at the hospital who later connected Alberta’s two callings: “She was as good a nurse as she was an entertainer. Maybe there’s some parallel there, in that to do both well, you have to make people feel good.” She practiced until she was forced to retire at age seventy—though she was actually eighty-two.
Shortly after Alberta left the hospital, Bobby Short, king of New York’s Café Carlyle, invited her to a party for cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, where the saloon crowd Alberta had avoided for the last few decades would be assembled. Many did not know know Alberta was still alive. Taylor recounts that songwriter Alec Wilder, who did not recognize her, began talking to her about music. “I’ve written a few songs, too,” she told him, and launched into a chorus of “Down Hearted Blues.” The people at the party were flabbergasted—not only at her existence, but also at her voice, which was as clear and strong as ever.
That party sparked an engagement at the Cookery, a Greenwich Village club where Alberta played to sold-out crowds for the next nine years, until her death in 1986. She sang the old blues numbers of Chicago, the risqué airs of Paris cabarets, the songs she wrote herself. The choruses, which she often repeated, became like psalms in a preacher’s sermon. “Lay it on me this time!” she would call to Gerald Cook, her pianist and friend.
As I watched recordings of those Cookery evenings, I wondered what exactly I got, just as my friend had said I would. Beneath that endearing, jaunty singer was an uncompromising maverick, a woman whose singing feels both timeless and contemporary, an individualist antidote to today’s mostly manufactured music. We have as much reason as ever now to sing the blues—and hardly anyone, like Alberta, to lend a voice.
Patrick Monahan is a freelance writer and native New Yorker.