Wilde About Blues: Dani Wilde on Alberta Hunter

Alberta Hunter gazing to her left, resting her chin on her right hand.
Alberta Hunter (Image credit: Getty)

Alberta Hunter: (1895-1984)

Alberta Hunter was an outstanding woman. She never knew her father and her mother worked as a maid in a Memphis brothel. Alberta dreamed of a better life. At just 12 years old, having heard that singers could make $10 an hour, she ran away to Chicago.

In Chicago, Alberta earned $6 per week peeling potatoes. Still a child, she dressed up and sneaked into clubs, hounding promoters to book her as a singer. By 1915 she was performing regularly in the small upstairs room of
the prestigious Panama Club.

“The crowd wouldn’t stay downstairs. They’d go upstairs to hear us sing the blues… I would make up verses and sing as I go along.”

Alberta’s mother followed her daughter and they relocated to New York, where Alberta’s song Downhearted Blues was recorded by Bessie Smith. In 1926 she replaced Smith in the leading role in Broadway’s How Come?. Her career escalated as she journeyed between the States and Europe, performing in clubs and theatres alongside Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. During WWII, Alberta toured performing for the troops.

Alberta retired from music at the age of 59. When her mother died, longing for change, Alberta lied about her age and trained as a nurse, completing 20 years of nursing before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70… She was in fact 82 years old. Following her retirement party, Alberta returned to performing. Her comeback led to greater recognition than she had ever experienced. With her gritty, authentic tone and vibrant character, her shows were better than ever!