THE RECORD, REMEMBER MY NAME -- Columbia, JS 35553. THE CONCERT, SUNDAY AT 8 -- Baird Auditorium, Museum of National History Sold out.
Did you think that everything over 80 years old in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History was an exhibit? Well, what's showing in Baird Auditorium Sunday is no artifact. Alberta Hunter is one of the most remarkable stories in music, and not just because she's in concert at 83. Alberta Hunter is remarkable because she's good.
Born in Memphis on April 1, 1895, the blues singer currently has a new album, a new tour and a new lease on her performing career. This is her second comeback.
At 11, she started singing. At 59, she left show business; her mother was dying and needed her help. Two years later, in 1957, she became a practical nurse. She worked at the Goldwater Hospital in New York for 20 years. Two years ago, she was forced to retire: old age.
Shortly afterwards, she played at a private party for Mabel Mercer (whom she'd worked with in the London produciton of "Showboat" -- the same production that featured Paul Robeson). She was rediscovered. Charlie Bourgeois, a Newport Jazz Festival official, put her in touch with Barney Josephson, who runs the Greenwich Village club, The Cookery. Josephson listened, liked what he heard and signed her up.
Hunter now has an indefinite engagement at The Cookery and occasionally makes out-of-town forays like Sunday's Baird Auditorium concert, which coincides with the release of a new album. It sold out long ago.
The album, "Remember My Name," is the soundtrack to the upcoming film produced by Robert Altman, one of the most progressive artists in film. But he's no more contemporary than Hunter. She has a traditional blues style, but manages to keep a freshness to her sound that transcends time. At a ripe old age, she has written and recorded ten songs, two of them brand-new and the rest remakes of some of her best material.
You may find that the songs on "Remember My Name" remind you of blues artists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, as well as the legndary recordings of Bessie Smith.
In fact, she was Smith's contemporary, and wrote one of Smith's greatest tunes, "Downhearted Blues." She got one of her big breaks when she successfully replaced Smith on Broadway in "How Come?"
Hunter is old enough to be B.B. King's mother. Come to think of it, she's old enough to be Muddy Waters' mother.
Yet the music on "Remember My Name" is strong,sincere blues -- not at all dated or sentimental, and certainy not the doodlings of a star past her prime.
Hunter is ingratiatingly tough on "I Begged and Begged You" and knowingly threatening on "Some Sweet Day," which sounds like a bluesier version of Sophie Tucker's trademark "Some of these Days." When Hunter talks about her lover on "Workin' Man," also known as "I g/ot Myself a Working' Man," she means business; she turns a younger woman's boasting into a suitable vehicle for her own self-as-surance.
"The Love I Have For You" is a bit of a departure. It's one of the new compositions (the other is the title cut) and a straight ballad. Despite the presence here of slight lag that's absent in the rest of the album, this track proves that there's no torch singer like an old torch singer.
The album's highlights are the updated renditions of "Downhearted Blues" and the classic "My Castle's Rockin'." Both blend elements of gospel, blues, and standards into a compelling brew.
Throughout the album, Hunter benefits from the assembled musicians -- most are stars in their own right. The most familiar are trombonist Vic Dickenson, trumpeter "Doc" Cheatham and former Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay. The mutings of Dickenson and Cheatham temper each cut with a soft outline and Kay's drumming is studied and precise. The rest of the ensemble is equally strong, especially Gerald Cook, whose piano is subtle is its noticeably
The record's only problem is its noticeably lame recording quality. It sounds as if producer John Hammond (no unknown himself) couldn't decide whether to use the full capabilities of today's studios or to give the music a thin, " authentic," old-blues sound. The result is an in-between mix that may fit in the movie, but gives the record a wispier quality than most blues recordings. Still, the problem is far from fatal, and only slightly diminishes the final product.
"Remember My Name" is an important album, not only because it reintroduces Alberta Hunter to a mass audience but because it proves that real talent knows no age limitaiton.
The same woman who sang with King Oliver and Sidney Bechet, and who knew Louis Armstrong when he was just a kid on the rise, amy now return to her rightful place among music's top performers.From now on, it shouldn't be hard to remember her name.