Alberta Hunter, 89, a contemporary of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, and the last of the great blues singers, died Wednesday at her apartment in New York. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
Miss Hunter's comeback in 1977 ranked as one of the most memorable musical events of the decade, rewarding old fans and winning a sizable contingent of new ones. That year, at the age of 82, she had resumed the singing career forsaken in the mid-'50s after the death of her mother.
During the intervening two decades, she worked as a practical nurse in New York City. Most of her fellow workers had no idea that she had once been a star on two continents since she had, by her own account, never as much as hummed a melody to herself during that period.
Still, when Miss Hunter returned, it was immediately evident, both on record and at the prestigious nightclubs where she drew standing room crowds, that her sly and technically sophisticated delivery was as strong as ever. Her exquisite diction and her penchant, even in her 80s, for double and sometimes triple entendre were endearing and vibrant. Her specialties were bittersweet ballads and unrepentant, delightfully raunchy blues songs, many of which she wrote herelf. Although her bones were brittle and she moved deliberately, she was a spellbinding performer.
Born in Memphis, Miss Hunter ran away from home in her early teens to Chicago, where she found work cooking and washing dishes in brothels and after-hours clubs. Like many blueswomen of that era, she had no formal musical training, but gravitated towards the city's many black nightclubs.
She eventually landed a singing job (taking a cut in pay to do so) at Dago Frank's, which she often described as "a sporting bar." Absorbing tunes from visiting performers and piano rolls, and finding great inspiration for her own originals among the "dangerous element" that populated the club scene in Chicago, she had by 1919 established herself as a major attraction.
Her earliest recordings were with Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. She also worked with King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and W.C. Handy.
Her 1921 recording of "How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long" was one of the first releases by a blues singer, and she was also the first black singer to record with a white jazz band, the Memphis Five.
In the early '20s, she moved to New York, replacing Bessie Smith in the Broadway hit, "How Come." Smith also recorded one of Miss Hunter's songs, "Downhearted Blues," and it became not only Smith's biggest hit, but one of the first million-selling records and a source of royalties for Miss Hunter for the rest of her life.
From there, Miss Hunter became a star, first in America and later in Europe, where she starred opposite Paul Robeson in "Show Boat" and appeared in the finest hotels and clubs, becoming a favorite of cafe society. She was called the Marian Anderson of the Blues, singing in a half dozen languages.
She continued to perform into the '50s, but after the death of her mother in 1954, she withdrew from music totally and enrolled in nursing school. "I wanted to be around to help humanity," she told an interviewer in 1981. She also admitted to a little fib, telling hospital officials she was 50 when she was really 62. When she was mandatorily retired in 1977 at age 70, she was actually 82.
"They were the most surprised people in the world when they found out I had been a celebrity," she chuckled at the time.
After her comeback that year, Miss Hunter continued an active performance schedule, appearing most often at the Cookery in New York. She wrote and performed the soundtrack for the film "Remember My Name" and released several critically acclaimed albums. Her last public appearance was on a morning television show Sept. 10.
Among her best known songs were "Rough and Ready Man," "My Castle's Rocking," "I Got a Mind to Ramble," "The Love I Have For You," "Working Man" and "Having a Good Time." Miss Hunter resumed her songwriting in 1977 as well, with one song titled "I Want a Two-Fisted, Double-Jointed Rough-and-Ready Man," written when she was 82.
She was married briefly to Willard Townsend, but they were divorced and had no children.
"I call her the Grand Old Lady of the Blues," Barney Josephson, owner of the Cookery, told one writer, "for she is grand." At one show's end, the feisty Miss Hunter stood for a moment, facing her audience, gently admonishing them to look at the example of her own life. "Struggle, children. It's a hard road. But don't wait for somebody to hand it to you!" It was advice she had lived first-hand.