Alberta Hunter, A Pioneer Even If She Hadn’t Been An Early Blues Diva
Alberta Hunter sang the Blues having two careers with great success, and in between she was a pioneer of African-American work rights. Either credit should qualify her as someone very special indeed.
American Blues singer, songwriter and nurse, Alberta Hunter, may have been born April 1, 1895. The reason we’re not sure is that Hunter lied about both her birth date and her education to get into nursing school in the mid-1950s. We also aren’t sure whether she ran away from home or if it was her family’s move that took her to Chicago in the early 1900s.
Alberta says her career started in bawdy house on Chicago’s raucous South Side in 1909. Others say it was more like 1911 or 1912. That rough and tumble world of the South Side had its darker aspects and after her piano player was killed by a stray bullet, Hunter decided New York might be a safer bet. Alberta linked up with Black Swan Records in New York and became their first artist to record the Blues in 1921.
Fans of her post 1977 return to music - at age 81 - don’t seem to care much for her early work. She must be seen as a pioneer, if for no other reason, than for her 1923 recording session with an all white group. It was believed to be the first such collaboration ever in the U.S.
Another session with the formidable teaming of Louis Armstrong and Sydney Bechet must surely rate as a landmark. As do her many efforts for Fletcher Henderson that saw her being backed by more than a few legends like Eubie Blake and Fats Waller.
Hunter is rumored to have done a 1926 session with King Oliver, Lil Armstrong and Johnny Dodds. If so, let’s hope they someday find that recording.
Whatever the reality, we know that Alberta Hunter recorded in more than 80 important sessions before the end of 1930. Additionally, she was a well established and respected songwriter by then.
So why the denigration?
No doubt because of the sensation that Hunter became late in life. After her mother dies in the 1950s, Alberta made a total turnaround. As mentioned, she lied about her age and education to go to nursing school, setting off on a career that culminated in her becoming one of the first African-American heads of nursing at a major hospital.
After retiring from nursing in 1977 at age 81 she returned to the Blues and became the Queen of sassy and risqué ‘elder’ Blues. Her age allowed her to walk a sexual innuendo tightrope that might have been unacceptable in a younger woman. Although the second era of her career was short lived, only seven sadly short years, it was a true delight. Her aged voice took on a timbre that did make her much young voice seem a bit soft and sweet for the Blues.
We are privileged to have the several recordings that she did during her later days and all of them are well worth picking up.