Singer, composer, nurse, Alberta Hunter was born April 1, 1895, in Memphis where she
lived until at sixteen she ran away (i.e., left with a teacher, without telling her
mother) to Chicago. Best remembered for her "Down Hearted Blues" and for her role
as Queenie opposite Paul Robeson in Showboat, she worked with many of the world's
greatest musicians in the USA and in Europe where she was a great favorite.
After a brief stint in Chicago as a potato peeler and maid, she began singing at Dago
Frank's where she worked until it was closed in 1913. She worked in two other clubs,
and in 1915 she began working at the Panama Café, as well as several after-hours clubs.
In a few months, her popularity had grown to the point that composers Maceo Walker
and W.C. Handy employed her to sing new compositions "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Saint
Louis Blues." By the late 1920s, she was launching songs like "Beale Street Blues"
and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," as well as playing in such shows as Canary Cottage
and later in New York in How Come. Her long and successful career as a recording artist
began in 1921 with the Black Swan label in New York; in 1922 she switched to Paramount,
soon recording her own "Down Hearted Blues." Moving back and forth between Europe
and the US from the late 20s until the outbreak of World War II, Hunter recorded,
played in shows, and in 1937, began performing nationally and internationally on radio.
A tireless and popular USO volunteer, she performed at Eisenhower's victory party
for the Russian Marshall Zhukov and one of forty recipients of the Asiatic-Pacific
Campaign Ribbon. In 1952, she was elected to ASCAP, rare for women or African-Americans.
In 1957—after setting her age back twelve years to enter a nursing program—she was
licensed as a nurse, practicing quite successfully until she was forced to retire
in 1977. Later that year, she launched an astonishing comeback, which lasted until
the year of her death in 1984.
Dr. Joan Weatherly
Image courtesy of University of Memphis Libraries, Special Collections.