“Now ladies and gentlemen especially you youngsters, the next generation, listen to what I got to say, this is the voice of experience children. This is a tough road, and every second you lose is lost, you never get it back, listen the words of this song, children…time”. That is Alberta Hunter speaking from the stage of The Cookery in the fall of 1977 when she made re-entry into the music world with a six week run at the venue. The song that Alberta intros is “Time Waits For No One”. Well, that is true, but with ‘Downhearted Blues’, the recent Rock Beat Records release that captures the dates at The Cookery, we find that or this lady, time stands still.
Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee on April 1, 1895. Through the course of her two part career Alberta countered many obstacles, number one being that April 1 date when she took a breath and cried to the world that no fools had been born to the Hunter family on that particular day. Alberta Hunter was one of a number of artists who were leaders in the 1920’s classic Blues scene. She entertained US troops for two wars, retired from the music life and made a triumphant return in the late 70’s. She left this life on October 17, 1984 at the age of 89. Alberta Hunter crossed over as a genuine star, the sound of applause and wolf whistle cheers following her spirit as it left the earthly building.
Her first studio recordings dates took place in May of 1921 for Black Swan Records, one of the first black-owned labels headed by Harry Pace and W.C. Handy. Alberta conquered Chicago and moved to New York City in 1923, joining a Broadway cast while continuing to record as a solo artist. When the glory days of the classic Blues began to sunset, Alberta headed over to France in 1927, where the jazz/blues bug was infecting folks at a rapid rate. She co-starred with Paul Robeson in 1928 on the London stage in Showboat and remained at the top of European blues game into the early 1930’s. Returning to home soil, Alberta hosted a radio program in New York in the late 1930’s and joined Ethel Waters when the duo shared a 1939 Broadway stage in Mamba’s Daughters. She served the United States war effort by entertaining the troops in World War II throughout Europe, China, Burma, India and the South Pacific and re-upped for show service when the United States entered the Korean War. Lack of interest in her work, a Broadway show that flopped and her mother’s 1954 death were hurdles in Alberta’s life. No matter how bright the star, or how many people are around, those speed bumps on the road of life cause us to think about our path. Following medical training, Alberta Hunter graduated as a nurse in 1957 and began a new career at New York’s Goldwater Memorial Hospital at age 62, though the age she gave administrators was 50. Alberta kept her recording and performing on the down low so that no one at the hospital would know her age. She was forced to retire by hospital regulations in 1974 (age 86 if your calculator isn’t handy) and in 1977 did her sound check at The Cookery, with eighteen gems from the dates captured on the recent release “Downhearted Blues”.
As many of the album’s tracks will show, Alberta was a confident speaker and fine stand-up comic. ‘Downhearted Blues’ as a track on the album is prefaced with Alberta’s words, “now a song I wrote in 1923, before most of you were born. I recorded it for Columbia, oh no. for Paramount and many records were sold. Then came along the world’s greatest blues singer… that awful Bessie Smith. She was asked to record for Columbia and she selected this particular song for her first recording. The title of the song is the “Downhearted Blues” and I’m still collecting royalties….got me some that time”. Alberta Hunter was born for the stage. She captivated and demanded attention, whether in worldwide theater venues, walking the boards on Broadway, a make-shift wooden riser in the midst of battle or leaning over a hospital to deliver care, she was a star. In ‘Downhearted Blues’ she continues the path she began as an entertainer in 1921. Jazz and blues are the foundation from which the live show is built on the album. Standards such as “I Got Rhythm”, “The Dark Town Strutters Ball”, “You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark”, “When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)” and “Georgia On My Mind” are in the set list alongside Alberta’s standard bearers “My Castle’s Rockin’”, “Two-Fisted Double-Jointed Rough and Ready Man”, “Never Knew My Kisses”, “I'm Havin' a Good Time” and “The Love I Have For You”. When their vehicle of choice is Alberta Hunter, all songs ride free. She is a natural, the kind of performer that has you lining up and joining the converted. ‘Downhearted Blues’ is a live album and encourages participation. Clap along, sing if you are so moved and try not to stretch that smile too wide. Danny McCloskey