Alberta Hunter was a pioneering African-American popular singer whose path crosses the streams of jazz, blues and pop music. While she made important contributions to all of these stylistic genres, she is claimed exclusively by no single mode of endeavor. Hunter recorded in six decades of the twentieth century, and enjoyed a career in music that outlasted most human lives.
Hunter was born in Memphis, and depending on which account you read, she either ran away from home or her family relocated to Chicago when she was 12-years-old. Her career began in the bawdy houses on the south side of Chicago, probably in 1911 or 1912, although she claimed 1909. Early on she married, but ultimately discovered she preferred women to men. In Chicago Hunter worked with legendary pianist Tony Jackson, was good friends with King Oliver's pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, and even sang in white clubs. But working in these violent, rough-and-tumble nighteries was dangerous business, and not long after an incident where Hunter's piano accompanist was killed by a stray bullet, she decided to try her talent in New York.
Not long after she arrived, Hunter made contact with the Harry Pace and his Black Swan Records concern. Hunter's initial records for Black Swan, made in May 1921, were the first blues vocals recorded by the company. Later, after Paramount acquired Black Swan, these sides were co-mingled with Hunter's newer Paramount recordings; her work from both labels dominated the early couplings in the Paramount 12000 Race series. Her recordings were also pressed up for labels like Puritan, Harmograph, and Silvertone under pseudonyms such as Josephine Beatty, Alberta Prime, Anna Jones, and even May Alix, the name of another (incidentally inferior) real live singer!
Although some listeners accustomed to her voice on her post-1977 recordings have little or no use for these early waxes, Hunter contributed positively to some very important sessions. These include a 1923 Paramount date where she was accompanied by a white group, the Original Memphis Five, said to be the first session of its kind; the famous Red Onion Jazz Babies session for Gennett-Champion's New York studio with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet that produced "Cake Walking Babies from Home" and the vocal version of "Texas Moaner Blues"; many sessions backed by Fletcher Henderson's earliest orchestra, and some others where she was supported by Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Lovie Austin, and Tommy Ladnier. Altogether, Hunter made more than 80 sides before 1930, most of them being made before 1925. A (rumored) rejected 1926 date for Vocalion teamed her with King Oliver, Lil Armstrong, and Johnny Dodds, but nothing concrete about this session has ever surfaced, and certainly no recordings of it.
During the '20s, Hunter also established herself as a songwriter of some significance; her song "Downhearted Blues" was covered by Bessie Smith on her first recording for Columbia -- it was a huge hit for Smith. Hunter was able to break easily into the black vaudeville circuit and by 1927 she was off to Europe for an extended stay which would keep her out of the U.S. for most of the depression. In London in 1934, Hunter made an extensive series of recordings with an orchestra led by Jack Jackson, some of these being straight-up pop records with no pretension of being blues or jazz. Returning to the U.S. in 1935, Hunter still found an audience waiting for her, but record dates were getting harder to come by. She made sessions with ARC, Bluebird, and Decca, but these generated no hits, and some weren't even released. Hunter ultimately wound up working for fly-by-night indies such as Regal and Juke Box in the '40s. Unfazed, Hunter worked the USO circuit during World War II and still had considerable drawing power in terms of personal appearances. There are those who insist that her recordings are nothing but a weak imitation of the real thing, and that it was Alberta Hunter the "live" performer that kept her fan base active during these years.
Hunter dropped out of show business for two decades starting in 1956 in favor of working as a licensed practical nurse at a hospital in the New York City area. She broke from this routine only once, in 1961, in order to make a justly celebrated album for Bluesville which reunited her with her old friends Lovie Austin and Lil Hardin Armstrong. None of her patients or co-workers at the hospital had any idea who she was or what a famous name she had been, and Hunter preferred it that way.
When Hunter retired from nursing in 1977, she was 81 and ready to go back on the road. By this time her voice was gritty, down and dirty, and her fans loved her for it. She made four albums for Columbia between 1977 and her death in 1984, including the extraordinary Amtrak Blues, and for many younger listeners these are the records by which Alberta Hunter is defined. Oddly, these same fans have little patience for her sweet and precious singing in the '20s, and relatively few outside of England would have much tolerance for her '30s work with Jack Jackson. Nonetheless, all of Hunter's recordings are interesting and wonderful in their own way.
Alberta Hunter was one of the earliest African-American singers, along with Sippie Wallace, to make the transition from the lowly brothels and sporting houses into the international spotlight. That she defies easy categorization attests to the astonishing fact that she was on the scene a little before the genres themselves were defined. Her longevity as a popular artist is equaled by only a few others, and she was successful in adapting her style to changes in popular taste, as well as along the lines of her own personal experiences. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis