Born April 1, 1895, in Memphis, TN; died October 17, 1984, in New York; daughter of Charles E. (a sleeping-car porter) and Laura Peterson Hunter; married Willard Saxby Townsend, January 19, 1919 (divorced March 23, 1923).

Jazz singer Alberta Hunter, like many other early jazz musicians, had a turbulent childhood. Her father left the family soon after she was born, and he died a few years later. Poverty and hard times plagued much of Hunter's childhood in Memphis, Tennessee. Despite her upbringing, she went on to become one of the most famous jazz and blues performers of her time. Then, shocked by her mother's death in 1954, Hunter retired from the limelight and worked as a nurse for 20 years. In an unlikely turn of events, she reentered the music business at the age of 82, gaining as much fame as she had in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

Hunter's family moved frequently after her father abandoned them, and Alberta experienced turmoil during those years. She suffered the emotional ramifications brought on by her mother's ill-fated remarriage and coped with sexual abuse from a school principal and a landlady's boyfriend. While these events seemed to have an effect on her personality, they never stifled her will to survive and become a success. When she was only eight years old she escaped her stormy home life, sneaking off to Chicago with a former teacher.

Hunter recounted her journey in Down Beat: "My teacher, Mrs. Florida Cummings, had a train pass to Chicago, a child's pass. She asked me if I'd like to go to Chicago on the train and I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to go.' So she said, 'Run home and ask your mother and if she says you can go, you can go.' But I never did ask my mother, I just ... hid between two houses until it was time to leave. My mother thought I was staying over at my friend's house or something."

In a fortuitous turn of events, Hunter's streetcar dropped her off right in front of the apartment building of the only person she knew in Chicago, a friend of her mother's named Helen Winston. She helped Hunter find a job peeling potatoes for six dollars a week and board, and the youngster always sent a good portion of her paycheck back to her mother. Walking the streets of Chicago after work, Hunter would peer into the windows of the clubs and "sporting houses" in the area, occasionally wandering in, only to be promptly thrown out. She was particularly attracted to a brothel known as Dago Frank's. One day she went in and began singing one of the only songs she knew, "Where the River Shannon Flows," and the inept piano player tried to accompany her. They threw her out again, but soon after she was offered a job there that paid ten dollars a week.

The prostitutes at Dago Frank's immediately took Hunter under their wing, encouraging her and coercing their clients to tip Hunter while waiting for services. Hunter commented: "People don't realize--prostitutes are good people. Prostitutes are the best people. People don't know what makes pimps and prostitutes what they are--it's circumstances. Circumstances lead to that way of life.... Prostitutes taught me to be a good girl ... they made me be a good girl."

Hunter's voice was steadily improving; she soon graduated from Dago Frank's and began to sing at some of the nightclubs in the area--Hugh Hoskins's and the Panama Cafe--both a far cry from a run-down brothel. She even earned enough money to move her mother up from Memphis to Chicago. Gaining popularity, she was featured at the Dreamland Cafe and performed with King Oliver's Creole Jazz band, featuring Louis Armstrong; jazz greats Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker were among Hunter's audience. Also during her stint at the Dreamland, Hunter began composing and cut the album Downhearted Blues, which was a million seller in 1921. A few years later, newcomer Bessie Smith released her version of the album, and it achieved the same success.

Feeling the urge to move on again in the early 1920s, Hunter went to New York City. In 1923 she landed parts in two shows, How Come and Change Your Luck. When wanderlust hit the performer again, she went to London, singing at the London Pavillion to the likes of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Soon after, she starred with Paul Robeson in Showboat. "[Robeson's] voice," Hunter remarked in Time, "sounded like a bell in the distance, it had such resonance."

Following her appearance in Showboat, Hunter went to Paris, replacing Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris. Denmark, Turkey, and Egypt marked Hunter's travel itinerary before she settled again in England, becoming a favorite of the Prince of Wales--the future King Edward VII and Duke of Windsor. Eventually returning to New York, Hunter worked in radio, and in 1939 she won a part in Mamba's Daughters.

The United Service Organization (USO) attracted Hunter in the 1940s, and she remained there through the Korean War. "They built a whole unit around me," Hunter noted in Down Beat. "I sang blues songs and some popular songs. I sang for General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower and General [Douglas] MacArthur." In the 1950s she returned to Chicago and New York, where she performed until her mother died in 1954. "My poor mother was the most important thing in my life," Hunter said. "She died on January 17, 1954 and that was the day I swore to give up singing and become a nurse. I went right to the YWCA [Young Women's Christian Association] and enrolled in their nursing program. I was accepted, by the goodness of God. I became a registered nurse and went to work at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island."

Hunter told the hospital that she was 50 when she went to work there; she was actually 62. She worked there for the next 20 years, recording a few songs on the side, but basically showed no other interest in the music business. The hospital forced her to retire in 1977, believing she was at the mandatory retirement age of 70. In fact, she was 82.

At a party one day following her retirement from nursing, Hunter ran into Charlie Bourgeois, a publicist for the Newport Jazz Festival. He suggested she telephone Barney Josephson, who owned a club in Greenwich Village and would give her a job. Hunter declined, claiming to have enough money to live on. Bourgeois got her number and passed it on to Josephson. The club owner called Hunter immediately, begging her to come work for him. After some polite demurring, Hunter agreed.

The singer staged an amazing comeback, and Jo-sephson's Cookery club suddenly became the scene of sold-out shows. Although seemingly frail, Hunter's sets were spirited and rollicking. She soon garnered a recording contract with Columbia and was commanding $10,000 a night for outside events. She was living proof of the line she had written herself in "Workin' Man": "There's plenty of good tunes, honey, left in an old violin." Hunter got a chance to travel to Brazil and was invited to sing at the White House, becoming a favorite of former President Jimmy Carter.

In the early 1980s, Hunter coped with health problems and was in and out of hospitals. After a while, she refused to take her medications and succumbed to her illness in her Roosevelt Island apartment in 1984. Summing up the impact Hunter had on the music world, club owner Barney Josephson declared, "If I'm ever remembered for anything I have ever done in this business, I want you to remember me as the man who brought Alberta Hunter back to singing again."

by Nancy Rampson

Alberta Hunter's Career

Jazz singer, composer, and actress, 1914-84. Sang in nightclubs and cabarets in Chicago, IL, 1914-21; moved to New York City, 1921; recorded albums under pseudonyms May Alize and Josephine Beafly; performed in Europe, 1927-37; appeared in film Radio Parade; toured with United Service Organization (USO), 1952-53; worked in Chicago during the 1950s; retired from performing and became a nurse, 1954; recorded infrequently, including albums with Lovie Austin, 1961, and Jimmy Archey, 1962; retired from nursing and worked as a singer full time, 1977-84; performed at the Cookery in New York City.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 7 years ago

This woman has stunck in my mind for years... I was 13 even younger when I first heard her songs I am now 45 She is amazing... If there would be anyone I could of met it would of been her... I love her songs... You sure live in my heart and soul Miss Alberta Hunter...

over 7 years ago

Wonderful! Turns out she was even more amazing than I thought.