Alberta Hunter may have sang the blues, but she was far from forlorn when she took the stage at New York’s Cookery, at 8th Street and University Place, in 1981 to record the gig captured on Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery. Newly remastered on both CD and 180-gram vinyl from Rockbeat Records (ROC-CD-3024, 2011), this 18-track live set captures the bawdy blues singer at the ripe age of 86 and just as vibrant than she was in the 1920s and 1930s recording for storied labels like OKeh, Victor, Paramount, Gennett and Decca. Hunter’s story is a truly unbelievable one, and thanks to Rockbeat, it’s one with which we can become happily reacquainted.
Hunter joined Josephine Baker, Elisabeth Welch and Adelaide Hall among trailblazing African-American singers who decamped for Europe in the 1920s, changing views of America from abroad. Born in 1895, Hunter was weaned on the blues of W.C. Handy. When she wrote “Downhearted Blues,” it was quickly covered by the great Bessie Smith, becoming a signature song for Smith (and the song gives this album its title). Hunter sang with the likes of King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and was quite possibly an “old hand,” even then. Biographer Chris Albertson asserted that Hunter, always cagey about her age, may have started singing as early as 1906, at eleven years old, having relocated from Memphis to that toddlin’ town, Chicago. Hunter arrived in Europe in 1927, in time to star opposite Paul Robeson in the London production of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, redefining the role played on Broadway by Tess “Aunt Jemima” Gardella in blackface. Hunter shuttled back and forth from America for roughly a decade, finding time to perform onstage and even hosting a radio show. She then entertained American troops for the USO during WWII.
Despite having left behind some of the rawest blues captured on record, Hunter turned her back on show business for the world of nursing in 1956, at 62 years of age, only briefly breaking her “retirement” to record a couple of albums in 1961. To obtain the nursing position, Hunter had lied about her age, and she still smarted when mandatory medical rules required her to bow out of the profession years later. That, though, was the catalyst for her return to performing, and the New York cabaret stage welcomed her with open arms when she appeared at The Cookery beginning in 1977. (She died in 1984, at the age of 89.)
The octogenarian Hunter put The Cookery on the map, and she sounds supremely confident on Downhearted Blues. (She also recorded four albums for Columbia Records, and of those, only the 1978, John Hammond-produced Amtrak Blues has appeared on CD. Are you listening, Rockbeat?) Accompanied only by Gerald Cook on piano and Jimmy Lewis on bass, Hunter rips through 18 songs that are bluesy, tender, sweet and sour. She reclaims “Downhearted Blues” from Bessie Smith, introducing the song, matter-of-factly, as one “I wrote in 1923, before most of you were born!” She adds, “Many records were sold,” before cackling, “And I’m still collecting royalties!” The joy is palpable, though never more so than during the song. “I ain’t never loved but three men in my life,” she sings, then ad-libbing “I was a glutton for punishment!”
But Hunter wasn’t resting on her laurels. Just a few years prior, in 1978, she was engaged to write and perform new music for the film Remember My Name, produced by Robert Altman and directed by Alan Rudolph. From the film starring Anthony Perkins and Geraldine Chaplin, Hunter performs “The Love I Have For You” and the title song, both with great relish. Many of Hunter’s self-penned originals appear on this set, including “I’m Havin’ a Good Time,” which sums up the evening. When she sings “Don’t try to tame me,” it’s inconceivable that anyone would dare! The audience at The Cookery clapped along, and it’s likely you will, too.
She wrote one of the album’s bawdier songs, “Two-Fisted, Double-Jointed, Rough and Ready Man,” which is every bit as much fun as you’d imagine it would be. She similarly milks every double entendre (and some single ones, too!) in “Handy Man” – not the Otis Blackwell song, but something with much more spice that might make James Taylor blush! Ethel Waters was among the other blues women who recorded the song, but Hunter continued revising it, and adding to it, as the years went on. And on “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark,” Hunter mines the humor in a song that could be disquieting. It directly addresses men who don’t find African-Americans as appealing as their lighter-skinned counterparts: ““They say that gentlemen prefer blonde haired ladies/You must be out of your mind if you think I’m out of style/Just because I’m a little bit shady!” or “I may be brown as a berry/But honey, that’s only secondary…” Hunter deliciously amped up the innuendo on a song she had been performing as early as 1935!
You’ll also hear a number of standards given the stripped-down cabaret setting, including George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which illustrates Hunter’s loose, freewheeling and still swinging style. When she sings, “Old Man Trouble, I don’t mind him/You can’t find him…” she throws in an exclaimed “Ha!” You know that Old Man Trouble has attempted to get to Alberta Hunter’s door, but she stopped him cold in his tracks! The disc features a generous amount of live ambiance, including patter in which the chanteuse seems genuinely humbled by the attention, drinking in each and every moment, and mutually appreciative of her audience.
For this edition produced by Cary E. Mansfield and Stuart A. Goldman, Evan Gilmer and Marty Weaker have remastered all tracks. Bill Dahl provides the liner notes, which provide a brief overview of Hunter’s long and fascinating career. Unfortunately there is no information in the perfunctory booklet as to the recording date of the performance, and there are no credits for any of the songs’ composers and lyricists.
Whether you’re just learnin’ the blues or are already well-versed, there’s much waiting for you on Downhearted Blues. When Alberta Hunter was cooking at the cookery, nothing tasted any finer!