Alberta Hunter, death and rebirth of a Lady of Blues
by Giusy Salvio – Redazione Lunàdigas
The extraordinary story of Alberta Hunter, who conquered the world of music twice: in the 1920s, when she became a blues diva, and then again at the age of 80, when she took the stage again, rekindling dreams and demons of an entire era.
1920s. The Golden Age spreads from America across Europe, overwhelming the western world with a wave of transformations that involved all aspects of society.
These are the years that see the explosion of figurative art, cinema and music, but that also witnessed the dawn of newborn feminism, the first blows to an archaic and patriarchal system, which finally begins to waver thanks to women gaining ground in the world.
Hair and skirts get shorter, and so does the distance that separated women from the men’s world. And if access to the corridors of power is still far off, the doors of art are wide open for them.
If the divas of cinema pay a high price for their freedom, suffering the heavy blow of moral judgment, the world of music – the underground, clandestine and violent world of the slums – sees the birth of divas forged by pain and by the hardships of life, who rise above of any moral or ethical code. Neither angels of the hearth, nor glossy divas in golden cages, the new goddesses of blues, and now also of jazz, are beginning to charm the world with their painful, but also brazen, flaunted and corrosive sensuality.
In years of institutionalized racial segregation, African Americans determine the musical destiny of the whole world: their music, the result of pain and secular oppression of an entire people, spawns new expressive codes capable not only of telling of an era, but also of shaping it and giving it a voice.
It is amidst these hectic and troubled times that the star of Alberta Hunter starts to shine, destined to be one the most extraordinary stories of the blues.
The only certain thing is that Alberta was born in Memphis on April 1, 1895. Her father, Charles E. Hunter, who was a porter on railroad sleepers, abandoned the family soon after Alberta was born. Her mother, Laura Peterson Hunter, worked as a maid in a brothel to support Alberta and her sister, La Tosca, who was two years older. Mrs Hunter, who was ashamed of her job and of her husband’s abandonment, told her daughters that their dad had died and never spoke with them about her job, her feelings, sex or relationships with men. She cared a lot about cleanliness: for the house, the clothes and for personal hygiene. Alberta inherited from her these values, to which she held fast throughout her life. On the other hand, Mrs Hunter was not much concerned with the sentimental upbringing of her little girl, who later suffered sexual abuse by both their landlady’s boyfriend and later by her school’s principal.
Mrs Hunter remarried in 1906 and had a baby girl with her new husband. In 1909, she left Alberta behind and moved to Denver with her other daughters, leaving her with her grandmother with whom she had also spent much of her childhood.
Alberta, who was now the middle daughter, disappeared from her family’s radar. The daughter who had the darkest skin in the household, the least beautiful by her mother’s standards, seemed destined to end up like so many other girls of that time: left on their own, forgotten by their loved ones and by the whole world.
But this was not the case.
From this moment on, truth and legend intertwine in Alberta’s life: she has claimed, throughout her whole life, until the very end, that she had run away from home when she was twelve, thanks to a teacher who had an extra train ticket with destination Chicago. Forging her mother’s permission, the little girl left with the idea of becoming a singer. After randomly jumping on a tram in town, she reached the house of one of her mother’s friends, who offered her a work as a maid, in exchange for a meagre wage and a room and board.
Frank C. Taylor, Alberta Hunter’s official biographer, outlines a different and more plausible thesis: Alberta had moved to Chicago when she was already sixteen, and each month she sent her mother some money.
She never spoke of her childhood in negative terms, despite the abuses she had suffered, but certainly running away from home as a child added to her charm a note of mystery and suffering, that made her more “credible” in the world of blues because, you know, in order to write and sing blues, you must first experience it.
For sure the beginning of her career was not easy, singing in a seedy club in Chicago’s Southside, owned by Francisco Cirofici, known as Dago Frank, where prostitutes and pimps, gangsters and outcasts of all kinds used to hang out. The first time she tried to get in – humming the only two her songs she knew – she was kicked out. The second time, dressed in a fashion to look older, she managed to befriend the pianist and all the prostitutes who worked in the club.
These women will be Alberta’s first true point of reference, they would convince customers to listen to her and leave her generous tips. Later, she would say about them:
“People don’t realize that prostitutes are good people. Prostitutes are the best people. People don’t know what makes pimps and prostitutes what they are, but it’s the circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances lead to this lifestyle. Prostitutes taught me to be a good girl… they made me a good girl ”.
In the club Alberta worked hard on her training: she learned one new song each day, took singing and composition lessons, refined her style, learned the tricks to attract the favour of men, but at the same time learned how to defend herself from them. Her own childhood marred by abuse made her distrust men in general, and in particular those who were manipulative and violent. She did not accept to be controlled by anybody, and soon learned to rely only on herself. One evening, amidst the commotion caused by a murder committed in the darkness of the club, Alberta was caught with her hands in the tip jar, when the lights came back on.
The club closed down, and this was the turning point for Alberta: she starts singing in some of the nightclubs in the area – the Hugh Hoskins and the Panama Cafe – where whites hang out, very different environment from a dirty suburban brothel. Her sweet and cheeky style earned her the title of Sweetheart of Chicago; her career takes off, ranging from blues to jazz, passing through vaudeville.
Meanwhile in Cincinnati, in 1919, in a club where she was performing, Alberta met Willard Townsend, a handsome young waiter whom she married shortly afterwards, likely also to stop rumours about her homosexuality. Their marriage – apparently never consummated – was strained from the very beginning and lasted only a few months, until Alberta threw him out to return to her career, divorcing him four years later. Shortly afterwards, she met the love of her life – which she always kept secret – Lottie Tyler, the niece of Bert Williams, one of the most famous and highest paid performers of the black vaudeville scene.
After yet another murder in a club, Alberta made the extremely painful decision to move to New York but, according to her words, at that time she still “couldn’t sing”.
She felt the need to leave a world that did not belong to her: the success that led to excesses, drugs, alcohol, violence, and wrong stories. In the meantime the woman who made Paramount famous with her recordings, who travelled across the country acclaimed by everybody, who influenced a whole generation of musicians, had never hired an agent to manage her image, her bookings and her earnings, which made it difficult for her to be successful in the record industry. Her talent belonged to live performances, where she could play with the feelings aroused by words, only there she could test the moods of the audience, collect them, and turn them into an integral part of her performance. Her ability to use the bluesy topoi of the woman shattered by petty men lies in the irony with which Alberta reveals them: she is herself the puppeteer who pulls the strings, and so it will be forever. Independent, untamed and full of talent, New York is no longer enough for her and she begins to turn her gaze to Europe, home to many African Americans who have fled from racial laws, convinced that they could find a more fertile and welcoming ground elsewhere.
That is exactly what happens with Alberta: she is fascinated by Europe, which she conquers.
She left in 1927 to perform in England and on the continent, taking part in “Showboat” with Paul Robeson, and several other traveling music shows. She achieved great success in Paris, accompanied by her sweetheart, and she kept performing in Europe throughout the 1930s, with occasional forays into the Middle East and Russia.
Outside America she is treated like a true artist, she gets the respect and acclaim she deserves, but her reserve once again excludes her from achieving true fame.
However, this is a happy time for her, which ends abruptly with the start of the Second World War. Alberta is called back home, but decides to leave with the USO (United Service Organization) to perform in war zones in support of the army, touring throughout a Europe torn by horror.
Quando ritorna definitivamente negli Stati Uniti sono ormai gli anni ’50: il mondo appena uscito dalla guerra vuole andare oltre il dolore, e anche oltre il blues. Alberta, che aveShe finally returns to the United States in the 1950s: the world that has just emerged from the war wants to go beyond pain, and even beyond blues. Alberta, who had always known how to interpret the soul of the public, suddenly felt lost and out of place.
The death of her mother, in 1954, puts an end to her career for good: the pain was too intense and she will no longer sing.
Or so it seemed.
The now ex-diva of cabarets known all over the world decides to make a change in her life, most probably on the wave of what she had witnessed during the war years. In 1957, at the age of 62, when most of people retire, she forged her diploma, subtracting 12 years to her official age on the papers, and successfully took a nursing license.
For the next 20 years she worked in a New York hospital, where she was always the first to arrive, without missing a single day, never, ever revealed her identity to colleagues and patients, and never sang for them.
In these 20 years she will make only two exceptions, for two recordings that took place without anybody knowing.
Alberta had to retire from hospital when she officially turned 70, without anyone knowing that she was actually 82 years old!
She was desperate: that job made her feel alive, now she had nothing left.
Once again, however, life surprised her and she surprised the world of music again.
Jazz impresario Bourgeoise Barney finds her number in the phone book and talks her into taking the stage again, at a party in honour of a mutual friend. After some initial mild hesitation, he managed to persuade Alberta, and at the age of 87 she returns to the scene.
Her voice, now hoarser and scratchier, if that’s at all possible has even improved. Her singing is perfect, her performance takes everyone back in time, to the fabulous 1920s, reliving an entire era.
In reality this was a kind of test: there was someone in the audience who wanted to see if Alberta was still able to perform and… she sure was!
The next morning, she received a call from Josephson, a friend of Bourgeoise Barney’s, owner of the Cookery nightclub in Manhattan, a place on the verge of bankruptcy.
Josephson booked her only for a short-term. Instead, the show would last more than a year, and would mark the return to success of the club and of Alberta herself, with boys and girls queuing up for hours, just to go and see her, to watch her arrive with her shawls and her dangling earrings, and to listen to her hottest hits: bolder, cheekier and more ironic than ever, full of innuendos.
Success never stopped, and neither did Alberta’s untameable soul: African American, lesbian, artist, throughout her life she always looked forward with head held high, relying only on her means, her intelligence and her talent.
But now it’s her body that betrays her: as a result of some falls she breaks various bones, while another illness is silently eating her up.
In the summer of 1984 she felt too tired to keep on performing, and decides to stop all therapies.
She will die in October of the same year, sitting peacefully in her favourite armchair in her Roosevelt Island apartment.
Impossible to fit her into one single musical genre, Alberta Hunter has left traces of herself in all kinds of music that marked her era.
Far from the glamour and the excesses of fame and gossip, no one has ever asked her why she didn’t have children.
We like to think that she simply had so much more to think about, with such an extraordinary life to build.
A life for art, a Lunàdiga life.
Watch the video: Alberta Hunter | Darktown Strutters’ Ball
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