Guest author Brooke Filsinger on pioneering Jazz & Blues singer, Alberta Hunter. From an 11 year old runaway, to making a White House visit, this female artist broke barriers and influenced the music we listen to today.
A rough childhood
Alberta Hunter (April 1, 1895 – October 17, 1984) was called the “Sweetheart of Dreamland”. Many claim her appeal was based on her gift for improvising lyrics to satisfy the audience. Among her many ground-breaking moments was in 1923, when she became the first African-American singer to be backed by a white band.
But prior to all this, she was born in Memphis, Tennessee before leaving for Chicago — alone, at the age of 11 — with hopes of becoming a paid singer . Instead of becoming famous, she was forced to earn money working at a boarding-house, not getting her professional start until age 15 when she began singing … in a bordello.
She peeled potatoes by day and played the clubs that appealed to men, black and white alike. She moved from gig to gig, with the (successful!) intent to save enough money to bring her mother up north to be alongside her. One of her gigs was at a club catering to white-only clientele, playing an upstairs cabaret room, far from the main event — and yet:
The crowd wouldn’t stay downstairs. They’d go upstairs to hear us sing the blues. That’s where I would stand and make up verses and sing as I go along.”
Her break came when she was booked at Dreamland Cafe, the most prestigious venue for black entertainers, in an engagement that would last five years. During this time, she was briefly married but she never consummated the union.
The big change
Moving to New York, Hunter’s singer-songwriter career flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. She became involved in several African-American musical revues and launched her recording career with the Black Swan label.
She wrote a lot of her own material — but it is said that her talents were never well-captured on records. Instead, she was reputedly much better live. Despite this, Hunter recorded prolifically during the 1920s under several pseudonyms to disguise her “exclusive contracts” with several record companies.
Hunter first traveled to perform in Europe in 1927. She was accompanied on this trip by Lottie Tyler, the niece of a well-known black comedian. Though Hunter kept her sexuality relatively private, the two remained friends and lovers until Tyler’s death, many years later. Hunter continued to perform in Europe, the Middle East and Russia throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
The respect with which the Europeans treated her as an artist made a great impression on her.
War creates a new path
While continuing her career, Hunter also entertained troupes throughout World War II and became the first black woman to visit the war zone in Korea.
However, she lost her joy in performing after her mother’s death in 1957 so she ‘reduced’ her age, forged a high school diploma, and enrolled in nursing school. She worked in healthcare for 20 years, prepared to devote the rest of her life to nursing, but was forced to retire by the hospital when it believed she had reached the retirement age of 70 years. (She was then actually 82 years old).
Hunter was finally convinced to return to performing, having been offered a two-week engagement at a Greenwich Village club that was so successful it became a multi-year engagement. Hunter also toured Europe and South America, released three albums with Columbia Records, made numerous television appearances, was commissioned to write and perform the soundtrack for the thriller Remember My Name (1978), and was invited to perform at the White House. Her career revival lasted six years. Her comeback album, Amtrak Blues, was honored by the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009 and Hunter was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011 (and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015).
I’m not living the blues; I’m just singing for the women who think they can’t speak out. Can’t a man alive mistreat me, ’cause I know who I am.”
Featured Song: Downhearted Blues
The critically acclaimed song Downhearted Blues, aka Down Hearted Blues, was composed by Alberta Hunter and musician Lovie Austin and first recorded by Hunter in 1922.
One year later, famed “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, recorded the song with piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. It became Bessie’s first #1 record and a big hit for Columbia Records, selling almost 780,000 copies in the first six months. Bessie’s version was eventually included in the inaugural National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002, awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2006, and has been given many other honours.
… but Hunter only received $368 in royalties from all this.
What had happened?
Clarence Williams had secretly stolen and sold the recording rights to Columbia, with all royalties being paid to him. (Sidenote: after Hunter learned what he had done to her song, she stopped working alongside him.)
Over the years, Downhearted Blues has been recorded by numerous other artists, becoming a Blues standard. And yes, royalties from those songs have been properly attributed to Hunter.
The musicians that didn’t know music could play the best blues. I know that I don’t want no musicians who know all about music playin’ for me.”
About the Author
Head Instructor @ TOBlues
For more than a decade, Brooke (Toronto, Canada) has been hopping across Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Asia, dancing, djing, and teaching as she goes. She has been called an organic follower, accidentally creative, and a vagabond street dancer. She isn’t entirely sure what these all mean, but she’s proud of these labels nonetheless.TOblues website