Today's artist began her singing career in a bordello in the 1910s, she became a star in the US and in Europe in the 20s and the 30s, became a nurse in the 50s and worked in the hospital till 1977, when the hospital made her retire at the age of 82. No, wait, there's more: at the age of 82 (I repeat that for emphasis) she had a comeback, cutting records, singing in clubs to capacity audiences, appearing on TV shows and movies, touring the world - she even sang at the White House. Her career continued till her death at age 89. Ladies and gentlemen, here's bionic woman Alberta Hunter.
Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1895. She had a difficult childhood. Her father left when she was a child, and to support the family her mother worked as a servant in a brothel in Memphis, although she married again in 1906. Hunter was not happy with her new family and left for Chigago around the age of 11, in the hopes of becoming a paid singer; she had heard that it paid 10 dollars an hour. Instead of finding a job as a singer she had to earn money by working at a boardinghouse that paid six dollars a week as well as room and board.
She got her professional start in 1911 at a Southside club called Dago Frank's, a tough bordello frequented by pimps and criminals. She stayed there until 1913, when the place was closed after a murder in the club. She then moved on to a small night club and managed to save enough money to bring her mother north to Chicago and support her for the rest of her life. By 1914 she was receiving lessons from a prominent jazz pianist, Tony Jackson (remember him?), who helped her to expand her repertoire and compose her own songs.
One of her first notable experiences as an artist was at the Panama Club, a white-owned club with a white-only clientele that had a chain residing in Chicago, New York and other large cities. Hunter's first act was in an upstairs room, far from the main event; thus, she began developing as an artist in front of a cabaret crowd. "The crowd wouldn't stay downstairs. They'd go upstairs to hear us sing the blues. That's where I would stand and make up verses and sing as I go along." Many claim her appeal was based on her gift for improvising lyrics to satisfy the audience she was in front of. She also learned a few tricks: "I would sing softly", she said, "and if the people at the next table would want to hear what I was doing, they'd have to call me over and give me a tip." Her big break was when she got booked at Dreamland Cafe, singing with King Oliver and his band.
She first toured Europe in 1917, performing in Paris and London. The Europeans treated her as an artist, showing her respect and even reverence, which made a great impression on her. Because she succeeded in the more refined European cabaret scene, Hunter concealed and refused to speak about her lesbianism, according to Bonnie Zimmerman’s encyclopedia “Lesbian Histories and Cultures.” Hunter’s biographer Frank C. Taylor wrote that the vocalist, who also lived with her long-term girlfriend, Lottie Tyler, would cringe every time a lesbian performer, like her friend Ethel Waters, would have a lover’s spat in public.
Having been molested as a child, Hunter was largely disdainful of men, particularly those who would control and manipulate her. To quote her: "None of them going to treat me bad, honey, I'm too strict for that." As she became better known, rumors began to circulate regarding her sexuality. To quell these rumors, in 1919 she married Willard Saxby Townsend, a former soldier, who later became a labor leader for baggage handlers. Alberta never consummated the union, using the excuse that she didn't want to have sex in the same house where her mother lived. They separated within months and officially divorced in 1923. Soon after, she met the above-mentioned Lottie Tyler, the niece of well known comedian Bert Williams. Their relationship lasted until Ms. Tyler's death, many years later.
In 1921 Alberta moved to New York and launched her recording career with the Black Swan label with Fletcher Henderson's Novelty Orchestra, but she switched to Paramount in 1922 where Fletcher Henderson continued to accompany her on the piano. Quite possibly her first single, here's Bring Back The Joys:
Also from 1921, here's He's A Darn Good Man (To Have Hanging Around):
Her first single for Paramount was Don't Pan Me in 1922:
It was then that she co-wrote and recorded Downhearted Blues. It was a hit for her, but a year later it became the breakout huge hit for Bessie Smith. We've heard Bessie's version, now here's the original:
Here's an excellent presentation of the song, from 1981:
Alberta was really serious about her music. She said: "Blues means what milk does to a baby. Blues is what the spirit is to the minister. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt, our souls have been disturbed."
In 1923 she became the first African-American singer to be backed up by a White band. The biggest hit to come out of this collaboration was Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do:
Also in 1923, she released Chirping The Blues, written all by herself:
In 1924 she sang on the famous Clarence Williams produced Red Onion Jazz Babies sessions that brought Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet together for the first time on record:
Also in 1924, she recorded Old Fashioned Love. I couldn't find that vesion on youtube, but I've found the new version that she sang in 1978, in her first comeback album. It's a mighty fine version too:
From 1926, here's I Don't Want It At All:
From 1927, here's Beale Street Blues, together with Fats Waller:
From 1929, here's My Particular Man:
In 1927, Hunter toured Europe. She performed in England and on the Continent as part of "Showboat" with Paul Robeson, and various other traveling musical revues. She was a hit in Paris, and continued to perform in Europe throughout the 1930s as well as the Middle East and Russia. During World War II, Alberta was part of the USO and entertained the troops throughout Asia, the South Pacific Islands and Europe. After the war she returned to America to care for her ailing mother, but continued singing until she quit music in 1957 after her mother died. She enrolled in a practical nursing course and for the next twenty years she worked in a New York City hospital. In the early 1960s she recorded a few albums and then surprisingly took to the stage again in 1977 at age 82 and continued to perform up until the time of her death in 1984.
Here are some tracks from her comeback album, Amtrak Blues (1978). First, here's The Darktown Strutters' Ball:
Here's My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More:
Here's Nobody Knows When You're Down And Out from a live performance in 1981 (she was 86 at the time):
Hunter's life was documented in Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin' (1988 TV movie), a documentary written by Chris Albertson and narrated by pianist Billy Taylor, and in Cookin' at the Cookery, a biographical musical by Marion J. Caffey that has toured the United States in recent years with Ernestine Jackson as Hunter.
Hunter was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015. Hunter's comeback album, Amtrak Blues, was honored by the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009. Not bad at all for a poor black gay woman who began her career singing in a bordello. We salute you, Ms. Hunter!