Alberta Hunter (252550)
Credit: Contributed

There’s a large blowup photo/poster of famed singer Alberta Hunter in the office of the Edwards Sisters’ Realty in Harlem. Hunter’s naked body is partially covered and at the bottom of the photo is her inscription to a Charlie Parker. How the photo got to the office, who owns it and its value have baffled even experts. Less mysterious is the acclaim Hunter received—much of it as an elderly matron of the blues—as a singer and composer, and a real pioneer in the recording industry.

Hunter was born in Memphis April 1, 1895. Her mother worked as a maid in a brothel and her father, who she never knew, was a Pullman porter. She attended Grant Elementary School, despite a difficult childhood that included desertion by her father.

Hunter’s mother remarried when Hunter was 11 and had another child. Unhappy with her position in the family, she left for Chicago at age 16 with a friend, with the intention of beginning her singing career. But the expectation of earning $10 an hour singing didn’t pan out, so she worked in a boarding house making six dollars a week, including room and board. Soon afterward her mother, who had separated from her husband, joined her.

She was still a teenager when she began singing in the local bordellos before moving on for engagements at the Black and white men’s clubs. Her musical development was greatly enhanced after she began receiving lessons from Tony Jackson, a prominent pianist and teacher. Performances at Dago Frank’s, Hugh Hoskins’ Saloon, the Panama Club and most notably at the Dreamland Café, where she was featured with the immortal King Oliver and his Orchestra, bolstered her emerging popularity.

Beginning in 1917, she was featured at the Dreamland ballroom for five years, and her salary rose incrementally each year to $35 a week. During this period, she branched out to Paris and London, and the respect she received there embellished her renown in America. Along with a headlining career in clubs and onstage, Hunter devoted more time to composing songs, including “Downhearted Blues” in 1922 with Lovie Austin. She recorded the song with the pioneering record producer and pianist Perry Bradford. Later the song gained even greater recognition and royalties when recorded by the great Bessie Smith for Columbia Records, although Hunter was cheated out of the money it earned.

Recording with Bradford opened doors for opportunities with other companies, and there were sessions with Black Swan Records, putatively the first African-American owned recording company, and Paramount, Gennett, Okeh, Columbia and Victor. Under the pseudonym May Alix, she also recorded for Harmograph Records.

In 1928, Hunter had her debut as an actress, co-starring as Queenie with Paul Robeson in the London production of Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” at Drury Lane. Meanwhile, her recording career accelerated, with a long stint at the Dorchester Hotel in London, with Jack Jackson’s Society Orchestra. Her rendition with Jackson of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” was widely acclaimed. She was also featured in “Radio Parade of 1935,” the first British theatrical film.

Settling in New York City in the late ’30s did not curtail her many engagements abroad, and in 1944, in the heat of World War II, she took a troupe of USO performers to Casablanca to entertain American troops. She performed a similar role during the Korean conflict, but when her mother died in 1957, there was a dramatic change in her career.

No longer interested in performing, she enrolled in nursing school and subsequently worked for 20 years at Roosevelt Island’s Goldwater Memorial Hospital. Eventually, she was forced to retire when the hospital suspected she was older than 70. In fact, she was 82. Out of a job, she resumed her singing career, which had already been temporarily revived in the 1960s. Chris Albertson, the record producer, was most instrumental in getting Hunter back into the limelight with a memorable recording date with Louis Armstrong and Lovie Austin on the Riverside label.

In 1976, after she was convinced to sing a party for her friend, vocalist Mabel Mercer and hosted by pianist/singer Bobby Short, she caught the eye and ears of Barney Josephson, owner of the Café Society club. He also owned the Cookery in Greenwich Village, and he offered her a gig there. That engagement lasted six years, and Hunter again drew crowds like she had done in earlier times.

Her stay at the Cookery was soon the talk of the town, so much so that impresario John Hammond signed her to Columbia Records. If the sales of “The Glory of Alberta Hunter, Amtrak Blues” did not reach to numbers expected by Hammond, they were substantial and gave her broader exposure.

Among her television appearances was one on the game show “To Tell the Truth,” and there was a cameo appearance in “Remember My Name,” in which she was also commissioned to write and perform on the film’s soundtrack. These moments induced even more attendees to the Cookery, and she was soon a major tourist attraction in the city. Invitations for her to perform came from all over the globe, even from the White House. Jackie Onassis, then a book editor, sought to sign her for an autobiography, but Hunter turned it down when she learned who the co-author was. Later, with another publishing house, she completed such a project with writer Frank Taylor.

As for her personal life, Hunter had one marriage that ended in divorce when she was very young. There was a long relationship with Lottie Tyler, the niece of the comedian Bert Williams, but that ended with Tyler’s death.

Hunter died Oct. 17, 1984, and she is buried in the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum at Hartsdale, N.Y. Her life was remarkably documented by Chris Albertson in “Alberta Hunter: My Castle’s Rocking,” a TV movie in 1988, narrated by pianist Billy Taylor. Also, Marion Caffey wrote and produced “Cookin at Cookery,” which toured the U.S. with Ernestine Jackson as Hunter.

Hunter was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011 and into Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015.