As Alberta Hunter moves slowly to the microphone, the bones in her frail frame are almost audible. Yet the minute pianist Gerald Cook comps a chord, Hunter bellows with abandon: "Come on up some night/ my castle's rockin'/You can blow your top/'cause everything's free/ Top floor, third door to the left/ that's where you'll always find me/ Stuff is there/and the chick's fairly romp with glee."
In one moment, this suddenly animated vision seems to have shed 50 years and turned, well . . . sexy! Alberta Hunter may be the last of the great blues singers who came out of the '20s and '30s, and she may have disappeared for 20 years, only to make one of the most incredible comebacks in music history, but the crowd at New York's Cookery doesn't have time to consider the history: they're watching pure energy weighing in at slightly more than 100 pounds.
"I had 15 cents when I left home, children," she sings.
The tiny woman puts one hand on her hip, arches her eyebrows into horizontal parentheses under her tight gray braids, and pauses to survey the crowd. One proud sigh and Hunter throws out her punch line like a gauntlet. "But I covered the waterfront, children. I'm 86 years old and I don't have a care in the world."
As Hunter kicks off the exuberant blues of "A good man is hard to find . . . you always get the other kind," the word "old" almost seems to shrink from the table cards identifying her as "The Grand Old Lady of the Blues." A grand lady she certainly is, which Washingtonians will discover when Hunter performs tomorrow afternoon as part of the Smithsonian's Tenth Anniversary Jazz Series.
If Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner had written her story, it could be passed off as one of their more inventive efforts. At one time, British television wanted to dramatize her life in a series (to star Cicely Tyson or Ruby Dee), but opted instead for a documentary approach which might have gone something like this:
Open on a Memphis train station, 1910: a scared 15-year-old runaway, clutching a child's pass, sits on a train heading for Chicago. "Girls there were making $10 a week. My mother had sent me to the store to get a loaf of bread. The bread was 10 cents. I kept the change," Hunter recalls. "I had never heard any music, never paid any attention to it. I just went out there to try and make $10 and I didn't care what kind of work."
Hunter, daughter of a scrubwoman, lands a job as a cook in a "sporting bar" known as Dago Frank's, where her first music teachers are machines. "I used to hear the player pianos playing and I'd stop in the hall and listen. And that's how I learned." Eventually, Dago Frank gives her a chance to sing for the prostitutes and gamblers who frequent his establishment -- at a pay cut to $5 a week.
Dissolve to the stage of Chicago's fabled Dreamland Cafe, early '20s: Hunter is in the midst of a five-year residency, sharing the stage with the legendary King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. "That was when jazz was great. Bill Bolton, who later became Joe Louis' dietician, heard about a young man in New Orleans who could play trumpet and so he brought up Louis Armstrong to play second trumpet to Joe Oliver. Freddie Keppard was across the street; he never did get credit but he was marvelous. Freddie always used to play so soft because he didn't want anybody to steal his style."
Hunter writes her own blues songs and fends off other singers -- including Sophie Tucker, who tries to emulate her distinctive style and religiously attends her shows. In 1922, she becomes one of the first singers to face the ominous recording horn when she makes "Downhearted Blues" for the tiny Paramount label. Columbia Records tries to woo her away, she recalls, but "I didn't pay any attention. I didn't know the difference." The next year, her "Downhearted Blues" appears as the first Columbia offering from an unknown blues singer. It makes a star out of "that awful Bessie Smith," as Hunter lovingly calls her. "Hey, I'm still collecting the royalties!" She also writes such blues classics as "Rough and Ready Man," "Having a Good Time" and "Working Man." Her repertoire always includes popular tunes of the day and attracts some of the first crossover audiences in America.
Fade to London, 1929: Noble Sissle convinces Hunter to perform at a benefit for British flood victims. In the audience, obviously surprised and impressed, are Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and Flo Ziegfeld. "They found out where I was staying and called and asked me to come down to Drury Lane the next day. I sang again for them and a couple of days later they called me -- they wanted someone to play opposite Paul Robeson in 'Showboat.' " Hunter, who had worked in two New York shows, beats out a white actress who would have played the role in blackface. "But Mr. Hammerstein said he wanted the real thing."
Clips of the next two decades: Hunter replacing Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris and inheriting her role as the toast of European cafe society; a long residency at London's Dorchester Hotel, where she becomes a favorite of Prince Edward; headlining the first black USO unit, which gives command performance for Gen. Eisenhower and becomes the first USO unit to reach China, Burma and India. Hunter spends 12 years with the USO, from before World War II to after Korea.
Slow fade to 1954: Deeply affected by her mother's death after a long illness, Hunter abandons the music world and studies to become a registered nurse. "I don't know how I did it, 'cause I couldn't stand to be near a hospital. But I wanted to be around to help humanity." Hunter tells the hospital administration a little fib about her age, claiming to be 50 when she's over 62; she works in anonymity for 20 years and retires in 1977 at the mandatory limit of 70. "Of course, I had 12 years on 'em," she laughs. "They were the most surprised people in the world when they found out I had been a celebrity."
After 20 years of silence, Hunter attends a birthday party for cabaret singer Bobby Short. A fan there remembers her, gets her phone number and gives it to Barney Josephson, whose Cookery in Greenwich Village has been home to venerable jazz and blues performers like Helen Humes, Mary Lou Williams and Joe Turner. Josephson comes on strong, refuses to accept a "no" and without bothering to audition her, installs Hunter as the Cookery's main attraction six nights a week; she's still there four years later.
Close up, 1978 to present: More than 50 years after they first tried to sign her, Alberta Hunter records her first album for Columbia. She writes a soundtrack for Robert Altman's "Remember My Name," with some new songs and a 1940 tearjerker called "The Love I Have For You." She performs at the White House for the vice-premier of the Republic of China (after turning down an earlier offer because it's her day off). She's given a key to the city of Memphis, where her mother had worked, and is the subject of an upcoming biography from Doubleday. "I'm glad that in coming back, God has allowed me to live up to Barney's expectations," Hunter says humbly.
Cut to final credits: "I'm an old lady . . . but I don't feel it," says Hunter. She's getting ready for her second set of the night at the Cookery. She'll walk out to the piano cautiously, but once she's in place, Hunter will whack out a rhythm with her hands and shake her hips to insistent blues melodies. When Hunter half-sings and half-talks about man trouble, you almost believe it happened last night. She delivers ballads with a touching sincerity that brings tears to some listeners' eyes.
Her voice is powerfully rich and clear, perhaps the benefit of a 20-year rest. When she's finished, Hunter raises her arms in response to the applause, then stares at her audience for a long moment. "Struggle, children. It's a hard road. But don't wait for somebody to hand it to you." She turns around and moves slowly to a nearby booth to catch her breath.
Maybe they'd better hold off on that biography. Alberta Hunter's not finished living her life, not by a long shot.
Replace "The End" with "To Be Continued."