Singing the blues is all right, according to Alberta Hunter, but if she had a choice she would rather be a nurse.
That option was taken away from her a while back by the management of Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York City. "They let me go when they thought I was 70," says Hunter, "but I was really 82. Whenever they asked me my age, I would just say 21-plus."
In her retirement, Hunter has been wowing audiences at Barney Josephson's Cookery Club in New York and on occasional tours -- including Sunday night's Washington appearances at the Kennedy Center and in the Smithsonian's Jazz Heritage Series. Now 83, she has returned to a career that began when she was legally too young to sing in nightclubs.
Not that singing (a repertoire that includes a lot more than the blues) is a bad second choice. For 15 months now, Alberta Hunter and audience have been encountering one another with a sort of mutual amazement. Her face is seen frequently on television and magazine covers; her music is heard not only live but in the sound track of Robert Altman's film, "Remember My Name," and in a Columbia album of the same title.
The soprano voice that sang opposite Paul Robeson in the London premiere of "Showboat" has drifted down closer to the tenor range, but when she launches into "Down Hearted Blues" she sings it with an earthy gusto and an authoritative tone that might make you think she wrote the song -- as, in fact, she did. "I'm still getting royalties for this song," she told Sunday night's audience at the Smithsonian.
Alberta Hunter was born on the legendary Beale Street, in Memphis, in 1895. There is some disagreement about exactly when she began her career by running away from Memphis up the river to Chicago, but it was around the time that jazz as an art form was making the same trip, early in this century.Some jazz reference works say that she left home when she was 11 years old. Hunter claims she was 8, and the confusion may be partly because she had to lie about her age to get her first singing job at a place called Dago Frank's, "a white bar where a lot of prostitutes hung out; later I worked at Hugh Hoskins', a black bar that was favored by con men."
She left Memphis because she had heard that women in Chicago were being paid $10 per week for singing and she wanted to earn money to help her hard-pressed mother. Looking back on that young girl from the mature perspective of 72 (or perhaps 75) years later, Alberta Hunter sees her as very naive and very lucky.
"I didn't really know where I was going, but I had a teacher who was going to Chicago and had an extra railroad pass. She told me I would have to have my mother's permission to come along, so I went and hid for a while and came back and told her my mother said I could go.
I had one friend in Chicago, and when I got there, I asked a woman on the street if she knew a girl named Ellen Winston, and she said no, but she knew one named Helen Winston and it turned out to be the same girl. When I went up to see her, she asked me, 'Pig, what you doin' here?' -- they used to call me 'Pig,' because I was quite messy at that age."
In spite of her prestigious birthplace, Hunter did not begin as a blues singer and had trouble beginning as a singer at all. Her friend did manageto get her a job -- but it was peeling potatoes in a boarding house for $6 per week. She would go around to bars that had singers, but besides being too young she had a limited repertoire ("At the beginning, I only knew two songs: 'Where the River Shannon Flows' and 'The Whole Night Long'") and jazz was still virgin territory. "At one of the clubs where I finally got a job," she remembers, "the manager brought up a young trumpet player from New Orleans -- named Louis Armstrong. I learned a lot from him."
Meanwhile, out of the first $6 she earned, she says, "I sent $2 down to my mother in Memphis. Later, when I had enough money, I got her a ticket to come up to Chicago, but she didn't like Chicago at all -- turned around and went right back to Memphis."
Mother and daughter were reunited when Alberta Hunter finally moved to New York in 1920. "I left Chicago on a Saturday and opened on Broadway the next Wednesday in a show called 'How Come,'" Hunter recalls. "That was at the Apollo on Broadway when they had a big musical theater there. My mother came and settled in New York with me."
In the 1920s in New York, she performed and recorded with such artists as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington. She also began composing -- notably "Down Hearted Blues," which became a runaway best seller when Bessie Smith recorded it -- and also began to tour in Europe. During the '30s she lived in Europe for several years -- like many other black American artists who were made to feel more at home in a foreign country than in the land of Jim Crow. Traces of her long residence in France can still be heard in the idiomatic, Piaf-like style she uses for a song like "Je vous invite."
Rightly proud of her variety of styles and the many languages in which she sings, Hunter is also quick to correct people's "limited ideas" about the music with which she is most often identified: the blues.
"I never had the blues about a man in my life," she claims. "I was a very strong-hearted woman. You know, you can get the blues about things -- if your rent is due and you don't have the money, you get the blues about that."
With or without blues, one man she remembers fondly is Willard Saxby Townsend, who was briefly her husband.
When she heard that he had applied for a job as a waiter in a club where she was singing, Hunter left him "because I wanted him to amount to something on his own -- and he did; he got two college degrees and later he organized a transport workers' union in New York."
She admits cheerfully that one reason she began working in Europe was to get away from him: "One day, before he knew it, I was off to London; I used to be very good at running away. But he was a very fine gentleman; we remained the best of friends until he died a few years ago."
Back in New York in the late '30s, she worked steadily on Broadway and had a radio show. She went "everywhere, including a lot of secret places" for the USO during World War II, and sang on tour and in New York until her abrupt retirement in 1956. During the last two years before that retirement, she had been getting ready for a new career.
"My mother died," she recalls, "on January 17, 1954, and I didn't feel like singing any more. She was buried on January 20, and the same day I applied for nursing school. Then I worked for 20 years at the Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island; it was very satisfying work, and I would still be doing it if they let me. I didn't quit; I was fired."
She returned to singing in October 1977 after attending a party given by one old friend, Bobby Short, for another old friend, Mabel Mercer. "At the party, I saw Charlie Bourgeois, who runs the Newport Jazz Festival, and he told me I should get back into show business, but I didn't want to try. You walk up to a man and you tell him, I' have a singer for your club,' and the first thing he will ask is, 'What does she look like?' How can you tell him you have a singer who is 82 years old? Well, Charlie called Barney Josephson and he booked me into his club without even holding an audition."
Josephson was right on target. Alberta Hunter looks like what she is, a nice little old lady (perhaps a few decades younger than her chronological age), but she has a magnetic stage presence and a voice that makes it easy to imagine the beautiful young woman who played at the Cafe de Paris as Josephine Baker's successor half a century ago. And when she begins shaping the words, with the kind of phrasing that nobody seems to learn any more, you begin to recall the days when popular song was an art as well as an entertainment.
When she performed at the Smithsonian Sunday night -- for a sold-out subscription audience with a high proportion of jazz connoisseurs, the applause was frequent and loud -- including a well-earned standing ovation at the end. But her face had a special smile and the applause a special ring when she sang the punch line of "Working Man Blues": "There are plenty of good tunes, honey, left in an old violin."