Alberta Hunter: Timeless Classic Blues

Here’s some delightful footage of Alberta Hunter singing “My Handy Man” in a 1981 performance filmed at the Smithsonian.  That’s Gerald Cook, her music director, at the piano.  Alberta was 86 at the time, but her pitch and timing were still impeccable, and only a fool would think she was jiving about wanting someone to “churn her butter” and “cream her wheat.”

Today is the Memphis native’s 118th birthday anniversary.  Hunter was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011, and two years earlier the Hall honored her 1980 recording Amtrak Blues.  Here’s the title cut featuring guitarist Billy Butler, clarinetist Eddie Barefield and trumpeter Doc Cheatham. Amtrak was a highlight of Alberta’s return to show business following a couple of decades spent working as a nurse, a profession she’d entered in 1954 after shaving 17 years off her age.   When Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York required that she retire in 1977 at the mandatory age of 65, she resumed her singing career with a heralded engagement at The Cookery. 

I had the great pleasure of seeing Alberta at Barney Josephson’s nightclub in 1979, and around the same time heard Helen Humes, Sippie Wallace, Big Joe Turner, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson; the latter two were from a slightly younger generation, but all were steeped in the urbane style of Classic blues singing that developed in black Vaudeville early in the 20th century.  As is evident in this film, Hunter retained the skill for dramatizing a lyric that had made her a star as early as 1917, the year she toured Europe and began a five-year run at the Dreamland Café in Chicago.  Alberta’s original, “Downhearted Blues,” became the first tune Bessie Smith recorded on her debut in 1923, and Hunter’s 1935 recording of “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” combined risque humor with a jab at the vanity of racism.

Here’s another clip of Alberta at the Smithsonian putting in an order for a “Rough and Ready Man”

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