Alberta Hunter could do more with a quizzically raised eyebrow than most singers can with their whole bodies. When she gleefully recounted the joys of a "two-fisted, double-jointed, rough-and-ready man" and catalogued the ways "My Man (Is Such a Handyman)," it was easier to think of her as a woman of the '80s than as a woman in her eighties.
In fact, Hunter -- who died in 1984 -- had reappeared on the New York scene in 1977 after working for 20 years as a practical nurse in that city. Imagine her coworkers' surprise when they found out that Hunter had had an astounding four-decade career that had made her the toast of Chicago, New York, London, Paris and many other places. She had never breathed a word of it to anyone.
Obviously, this is an intriguing story, one that's been told in exquisite detail in Frank Taylor's biography "Alberta: A Celebration in Blues" and now in "Alberta Hunter: My Castle's Rockin'," a vibrant hour-long documentary on Channels 26 and 32 at 10 tonight. Hunter's career was impressive -- from her 1912 debut at Dago Frank's in Chicago to her numerous USO tours into the '50s -- but what's more, she was one of the most delightful personalities you'd ever hope to encounter. Even in her eighties, she sparkled with rare energy, to the point that sometimes her reminiscences were interrupted by sudden whoops at recollected high jinks. Call her irrepressible.
She had run away from Memphis as a teen-ager, lying about her age to land in Chicago's speakeasies. It was a glorious time, with jazzmen emigrating from New Orleans to usher in a new era. Hunter joined up with King Oliver in 1917 at the Dreamland,a posh pre-Cotton Club hot spot, began her recording career four years later with the blues "How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long," and became one of the first great singer-songwriters (her "Downhearted Blues" launched Bessie Smith's career).
Over the next 30 years, Hunter rambled the world: New York in the '20s with Eubie Blake and Fats Waller and the Harlem renaissance; then to Europe, where she quickly became the toast of the continent; to England, where she played opposite Paul Robeson in "Show Boat" at the Drury Lane Theater; a triumphant return to America smothered by the great crash and the Depression; and finally back to Europe, where she worked from bases in Paris and London (Cole Porter, Noel Coward and the Prince of Wales were all avid fans). Hunter's huge repertoire and ability to sing in seven languages led people to call her "a modern Marco Polo."
"We had a ball," Hunter says in the documentary. "We had a wonderful life." She appeared in a 1935 film, "Black Shadows," the first British film to use any color process. It was a lament for black travails in a white world. In 1939, when World War II looked as if it might keep Hunter from staying overseas, she joined the USO, leading troupes of black entertainers right through the Korean War.
In the mid-1950s, Hunter's mother died; they'd been very close. Soon afterward she found herself cast as a "happy Negro servant" in a lousy Broadway play, a role suggesting that her talent wasn't appreciated much anymore. So she quit and, still wanting to be useful, studied to become a nurse. Once again she lied about her age, shaving off 12 years so that when she was forcibly retired at age 70, she was actually 82. "Twenty years and never late one day," she beams.
Then came the late bloom as Hunter was rediscovered and became the toast of New York all over again. Working out of Barney Josephson's Cookery, she sang her ribald blues and compassionate ballads, re-signed with Columbia Records 50 years after having first recorded there, performed at the White House. She was just short of her 90th birthday when she died, seated peacefully in her favorite easy chair.
Stuart Goldman's documentary is well researched and organized, with historical photos interspersed with performances at the Cookery and engagingly spontaneous interviews. The sudden joy and exultation as Hunter remembers the past, the exuberance of her performances and the grit and grace of her personality make this an astounding portrait of a great artist who enriched American life for almost 60 years.
"I'm having a good time," she sings at one point. "Please don't blame me." No one ever did, and we won't see her like again.