Alberta Hunter (April 1, 1895 – October 17, 1984) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and nurse. Her career had started back in the early 1920s, and from there on, she became a successful jazz and blues recording artist, being critically acclaimed to the ranks of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. In the 1950s, she retired from performing and entered the medical field, only to successfully resume her singing career in her eighties.
1910s – 1940s
Born in Memphis, she left home while still in her early teens and settled in Chicago, Illinois. There, she peeled potatoes by day and hounded club owners by night, determined to land a singing job. Her persistence paid off, and Hunter began a climb through some of the city’s lowest dives to a headlining job at its most prestigious venue for black entertainers, the Dreamland ballroom. She had a five-year association with the Dreamland, beginning in 1917, and her salary rose to $35 a week.
She first toured Europe in 1917, performing in Paris and London. The Europeans treated her as an artist, showing her respect and even reverence, which made a great impression on her.
Her career as singer and songwriter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, and she appeared in clubs and on stage in musicals in both New York and London. The songs she wrote include the critically acclaimed “Downhearted Blues” (1922). She recorded several records with Perry Bradford from 1922 to 1927.
Hunter wrote “Downhearted Blues” while recording for Ink Williams at Paramount Records, but she received only $368 in royalties. Williams secretly sold the recording rights to Columbia Records, in a deal giving the royalties to Williams. The song became a big hit for Columbia, with Bessie Smith as the vocalist. Hunter learned what Williams had done and stopped recording for him.
In 1928, Hunter played “Queenie” opposite Paul Robeson in the first London production of Show Boat at Drury Lane. She subsequently performed in nightclubs throughout Europe and appeared for the 1934 winter season with Jack Jackson‘s society orchestra at London’s Dorchester Hotel. One of her recordings with Jackson is Miss Otis Regrets (she is unable to Lunch Today). While at the Dorchester, she made several HMV recordings with the orchestra and appeared in Radio Parade of 1935 (1934), the first British theatrical film to feature the short-lived Dufaycolor, but only Hunter’s segment was in color. She spent the late 1930s fulfilling engagements on both sides of the Atlantic and the early 1940s performing at home. In 1944, she took a U.S.O. troupe to Casablanca and continued entertaining troops in both theatres of war for the duration of World War II and into the early postwar period. In the 1950s, she led U.S.O. troupes in Korea, but her mother’s death in 1954 led her to her seek a radical career change. She prudently reduced her age, “invented” a high school diploma, and enrolled in nursing school, embarking on what was apparently a fulfilling career in healthcare.