Alberta Hunter

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Alberta Hunter
Alberta Hunter in 1979
Hunter in 1979
Background information
Birth name Alberta Hunter
Also known as May Alix
Josephine Beatty
Born (1895-04-01)April 1, 1895
Memphis, Tennessee U.S.
Origin Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
Died October 17, 1984(1984-10-17) (aged 89)
Roosevelt Island, New York, U.S.
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Singer
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1914–84
Labels Black Swan
Associated acts Bessie Smith
Ethel Waters
Billie Holiday

Alberta Hunter (April 1, 1895 – October 17, 1984)[1][2] was an internationally known[3] American blues singer and songwriter who had a successful career from early 1920s to the late 1950s, was a contemporary of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, and then decided to stop from performing to work as a nurse.[4] In 1977, after 20 years working as a nurse and having to retire, Hunter made a successful comeback and resumed her popular singing career in her 80s until the time of her death.[5]

Early life[edit]

Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee,[2][6] to Laura Peterson, who worked as a maid in a Memphis brothel, and Charles Hunter, a Pullman porter.[3] Hunter said she never knew her father. She attended Grant Elementary school, off Auction Street, which she called Auction School, in Memphis.[7]

Hunter came from a difficult background. Her father left when she was a child and to support the family Hunter’s mother worked as a servant in a whorehouse in Memphis, although she married again in 1906. Hunter was not happy with her new family and left for Chicago, Illinois, 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. Hunter's mother left Memphis and moved in with her soon afterwards.[8]


Early years: 1910s–1940s[edit]

She was still in her early teens when she settled in Chicago.[9] She began her career singing at Dago Frank's, a whorehouse. She then sang at Hugh Hoskin's saloon, eventually singing in many local Chicago bars. Her big break was when she got booked at Dreamland Cafe, singing with King Oliver and his band.[10]

She peeled potatoes by day and hounded club owners by night, determined to land a singing job. Her persistence paid off, and Hunter began a climb through some of the city's lowest dives to a headlining job at its most prestigious venue for black entertainers, the Dreamland ballroom. She had a five-year association with the Dreamland, beginning in 1917, and her salary rose to $35 a week.[11]

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.[11]

Her career as singer and songwriter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, and she appeared in clubs and on stage in musicals in both New York and London. The songs she wrote include the critically acclaimed "Downhearted Blues" (1922).[12]

She recorded several records with Perry Bradford from 1922 to 1927.

Hunter recorded prolifically during the 1920s, starting with sessions for Black Swan in 1921,[13] Paramount in 1922–1924, Gennett in 1924, OKeh in 1925–26, Victor in 1927 and Columbia in 1929.

Hunter wrote "Downhearted Blues" with Lovie Austin and recorded the track for Ink Williams at Paramount Records. Hunter received only $368 in royalties. Williams had secretly sold the recording rights to Columbia Records in a deal where all royalties were paid to Williams. The song became a big hit for Columbia, with Bessie Smith as the vocalist. Hunter learned what Williams had done and stopped recording for him.[10][11]

In 1928, Hunter played "Queenie" opposite Paul Robeson in the first London production of Show Boat at Drury Lane. She subsequently performed in nightclubs throughout Europe and appeared for the 1934 winter season with Jack Jackson's society orchestra at London's Dorchester Hotel. One of her recordings with Jackson is "Miss Otis Regrets".[14]

While at the Dorchester, she made several HMV recordings with the orchestra and appeared in Radio Parade of 1935 (1934),[14] the first British theatrical film to feature the short-lived Dufaycolor, but only Hunter's segment was in color. She spent the late 1930s fulfilling engagements on both sides of the Atlantic and the early 1940s performing at home.

Hunter eventually moved to New York City. She performed with Bricktop and recorded with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. She continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic, and as the head of the U.S.O.'s first black show, until her mother's death.

In 1944, she took a U.S.O. troupe to Casablanca and continued entertaining troops in both theatres of war for the duration of World War II and into the early postwar period.[14] In the 1950s, she led U.S.O. troupes in Korea, but her mother's death in 1957 led her to her seek a radical career change.

Retirement: late 1950s–1970s[edit]

Hunter said that when her mother died in 1957, because they had been partners and were so close, the appeal of performing ended for her.[15] She reduced her age, "invented" a high school diploma, and enrolled in nursing school, embarking on a career in healthcare, working for 20 years at Roosevelt Island's Goldwater Memorial Hospital.

Goldwater Memorial Hospital made Hunter retire because they believed she was 70 years old. Hunter—who was actually 82 years old—decided to return to singing. She had already made a brief return by appearing on two albums in the early 1960s, but now she was a regular engagement at a Greenwich Village club, becoming an attraction there until her death in October 1984.

Comeback: 1970s–1980s[edit]

Hunter was still working at New York's Goldwater Memorial Hospital in 1961 when record producer Chris Albertson asked her to break an 11-year absence from the recording studio. The result was her participation (four songs) on a Prestige Bluesville Records album, entitled Songs We Taught Your Mother. The following month, Albertson recorded her again, this time for the Riverside Records label, reuniting her with Lil Armstrong and Lovie Austin, both of whom she had performed with in the 1920s. Hunter enjoyed these outings, but had no plans to return to singing. She was prepared to devote the rest of her life to nursing, but the hospital retired her in 1977, when they believed her to have reached retirement age (she was aged over 80).

In the summer of 1976, Hunter attended a party for long-time friend Mabel Mercer that Bobby Short was hosting. Music public relations guru Charles Bourgeois asked Hunter to sing and connected Hunter with legendary Cafe Society club-owner, Barney Josephson.[5][16] Josephson offered Hunter a limited engagement at his Greenwich Village club, The Cookery. She accepted and a two-week gig proved was a huge success, turning into a six-year engagement and a career resurgence.[5]

Impressed with the attention paid her by the press, John Hammond signed Hunter to Columbia Records. He had not previously shown interest in Hunter, but he had been a close associate of Barney Josephson decades earlier, when the latter ran the Café Society Uptown and Downtown clubs. Her Columbia albums, The Glory of Alberta Hunter, Amtrak Blues (where she sang the jazz classic "The Darktown Strutters' Ball"), and Look For the Silver Lining, did not do as well as expected, but sales were nevertheless healthy. There were also numerous television appearances, including on To Tell The Truth (in which panelist Kitty Carlisle had to recuse herself, the two having known each other in Hunter's heyday). There was also a walk-on role in Remember My Name, a 1978 film produced by film director Robert Altman, for which he commissioned her to write and to perform the soundtrack music.[12]

As capacity audiences continued to fill The Cookery nightly, concert offers came from Brazil to Berlin, and there was an invitation for her to sing at the White House. At first, she turned it down, because, she explained, "they wanted me there on my day off," but the White House amended its schedule to suit the veteran artist. During that time, there was also a visit from former First Lady turned book editor Jackie Onassis, who wanted to sign her up for an autobiography but was unhappy with the co-author assigned to the project. The book was eventually done for another publisher, with the help of writer Frank Taylor.

The comeback lasted six years, and Hunter toured in Europe and South America, made more television appearances, and enjoyed her renewed recording career as well as the fact that record catalogs now once again contained her old recordings, going back to her 1921 debut on the Black Swan label.

Personal life[edit]

In 1919, Hunter married Willard Saxby Townsend, a former soldier[17] who later became a labor leader for baggage handlers via the International Brotherhood of Red Caps, was short-lived.[5][18][19] They separated within months, as Hunter did not want to quit her career—and officially divorced in 1923.[20]

Hunter was a lesbian, though she kept her sexuality relatively private.[20] In August 1927, she sailed for France, accompanied by Lottie Tyler, the niece of well known comedian Bert Williams. Hunter and Tyler had met in Chicago a few years earlier. Their relationship lasted until Ms. Tyler's death, many years later.[21]

Hunter is buried in the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum located in Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York (Elmwood section; plot 1411), the location of many celebrity burials.[22][23]

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.[24] Hunter's comeback album, Amtrak Blues, was honored by the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009.[25]


Early work: 1921–46[edit]

Collaborations: 1961[edit]

  • 1961: Chicago: The Living Legends. Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin's Blues Serenaders. (Riverside) Recorded September 1, 1961 in Chicago, IL.
  • 1961: Songs We Taught Your Mother: Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, Victoria Spivey. (Bluesville/Original Blues Classics) Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder on August 16, 1961 in Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Comeback: 1978–83[edit]

  • 1978: Remember My Name - the Original Soundtrack Recording to the Robert Altman film, Remember My Name. (Columbia) OCLC 894368622
  • 1980: Amtrak Blues (Columbia) OCLC 191945612
  • 1981: Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery (Varèse Sarabande) - Concert from documentary on Hunter called Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin. Recorded on December 1981 at The Cookery, New York. OCLC 74155365
  • 1982: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia)
  • 1983: Look for the Silver Lining (Columbia)


  • Santee, Clark, Delia Gravel Santee, Willis Conover, Alberta Hunter, and Gary Allen. Alberta Hunter Jazz at the Smithsonian. United States: Shanachie Entertaintment, 2005. Live performance at Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium on November 29, 1981. ISBN 978-1-561-27270-9 OCLC 58996219
  • Goldman, Stuart A., Chris Albertson, Billy Taylor, Alberta Hunter, Jack Churchill, Robert M. Cohen, and Mary Alfier. Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin'. New York, NY: View Video, 2001. 1988 performance documentary.[26] ISBN 978-0-803-02331-4 OCLC 49503904

Works and publications[edit]


Articles, chapters[edit]

  • Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. "Alberta Hunter." Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. New York: C.N. Potter, 1981, p. 245. ISBN 978-0-517-54371-9 OCLC 6981498
  • Harrison, Daphne Duval. "She's Got a Mind to Ramble: Alberta Hunter", in Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 199–218. ISBN 978-0-813-51280-8 OCLC 464014882
  • Carby, Hazel V. "Black Women's Blues, Motown and Rock and Roll", Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America. London: Verso, 1999, pp. 40–41. ISBN 978-1-859-84884-5 OCLC 42035800
  • Scott, Michelle R. "Alberta Hunter (1895-1984): She Had the World in a Jug, with the Stopper in Her Hand", in Sarah Wilkerson Freeman, Beverly Greene Bond, and Laura Helper-Ferris. Tennessee Women Their Lives and Times. Athens; London: University of Georgia Press, 2010, p. 93. ISBN 978-0-820-32948-2 OCLC 5559550344
  • Ewing, K. T. "What Kind of Woman? Alberta Hunter and Expressions of Black Female Sexuality in the Twentieth Century", in Trimiko Melancon and Joanne M Braxton. Black Female Sexualities. New Brunswick, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 100–112. ISBN 978-0-813-57174-4 OCLC 878111531


  1. ^ "Alberta Hunter - United States Social Security Death Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved 30 May 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Lewis, Uncle Dave (17 October 1984). "Alberta Hunter - Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved June 13, 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Wilson, John S. (October 19, 1984). "Alberta Hunter, 89, Cabaret Star, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Alberta Hunter". Notable Nurses. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d Balliett, Whitney (October 31, 1977). "Let It Be Classy". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  6. ^ "Alberta Hunter - United States Census, 1910". FamilySearch. Retrieved 30 May 2015. 
  7. ^ Goldman, Stuart A; Albertson, Chris; Taylor, Billy; Hunter, Alberta; Churchill, Jack; Cohen, Robert M; Alfier, Mary (2001). Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin' (Deluxe ed.). New York, NY: View Video. ISBN 978-0-803-02331-4. OCLC 49503904. Retrieved July 11, 2015. 
  8. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (October 21, 2014). "Alberta Hunter, American singer". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Alberta Hunter (1895-1984)". The Red Hot Jazz Archive: A History of Jazz Before 1930. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Larkin, Colin (2004). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz (revised and updated ed.). London: Virgin in association with Muze UK Ltd. p. 431. ISBN 978-1-852-27183-1. OCLC 859068143. 
  11. ^ a b c Barlow, William (1989). Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 134–35. ISBN 978-0-877-22583-6. OCLC 17981033. 
  12. ^ a b "After 20 Years of Silence, Alberta Hunter Sings 'Remember My Name'—and Memphis Gives Her the Key to the City". People (Vol. 10, No. 20). November 13, 1978. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  13. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 12. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. 
  14. ^ a b c Russell, Tony (1996). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. pp. 120–21. ISBN 978-1-858-68255-6. OCLC 222232351. 
  15. ^ Treaster, Joseph B. (September 1978). "Belting Out the Blues at 83". Quest/78. pp. 23–28. 
  16. ^ "Remembering Charles Bourgeois: An Arbiter of Good Taste in Music, Cuisine, Fashion and People: Long-time Festival Public Relations Director". Harlem One Stop News. February 18, 2014. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  17. ^ "Willard Saxby Townsend - United States World War I Draft Registration Cards". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 8, 2015. 
  18. ^ "History". Despres, Schwartz and Geoghegan. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  19. ^ "Williard Townsend". National Railroad Hall of Fame. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  20. ^ a b Melancon, Trimiko; Braxton, Joanne M (2015). Black Female Sexualities. New Brunswick, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-813-57174-4. OCLC 878111531. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  21. ^ Marks, Carole; Edkins, Diana (1999). The Power of Pride: Stylemakers and Rulebreakers of the Harlem Renaissance (1st ed.). New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 978-0-609-60096-2. OCLC 39875089. 
  22. ^ "Alberta Hunter (1895 - 1984)". Find A Grave. Retrieved June 13, 2014. 
  23. ^ "Celebrities & Notables Interred at Ferncliff". Ferncliff Cemetery. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  24. ^ "2011 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees - Performers: Alberta Hunter". Blues Hall of Fame. 2011. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  25. ^ "2009 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees - Classic of Blues Recording - Album: Amtrak Blues (Columbia, 1978) - Alberta Hunter". Blues Hall of Fame. 2009. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  26. ^ "Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin'". View Video. Retrieved June 13, 2014. 

External links[edit]