october 2011

alberta hunter
Albert Hunter: She triumphed over the years by not giving in to them in the slightest

Long May She Live

A new live album recorded during her late-life resurgence finds Albert Hunter feisty and lowdown as ever

Alberta Hunter
RockBeat Records

For those who were too young to experience Alberta Hunter live at New York City’s Cookery cabaret when she held forth there during her remarkable late-life career resurgence, from 1977 until late in the year of her death, 1984, when she was 79 years old, this undated collection of 18 Cookery performances is perhaps cause to rue being born too late to experience firsthand an authentic blues giant undiminished by time. For those who were in New York and old enough to patronize the Cookery during Ms. Hunter’s long-term residency but did not, first, shame on you, second, redeem yourselves by checking out the wondrous music that was happening in your midst when you were too preoccupied to support it.

But then, there’s no reason to rag on anyone who was deprived, even if by choice, of the pleasure of Ms. Hunter’s company in a cabaret setting, and every reason to encourage one and all to invest in Downhearted Blues if the blues is indeed something you love. Though we don’t know the dates of these recordings, the youngest Ms. Hunter could have been was 72. Suffice it to say she triumphs over the years by not giving in to them in the slightest. Accompanied by the nimble, expressive pianist Gerald Cook and the economical, atmospheric bass work of Jimmy Lewis, Ms. Hunter delivers the ballads with affecting conviction, digs assuredly into slow blues laments, and turns up the heat with insouciant attitude and naughty humor on double-entendre classics such as her rollicking “Two-Fisted Double-Jointed Rough and Ready Man” (when Lewis’s walking bass and Cook’s rousing right hand flurries add the salacious swing to her bold assertions of sheer physical desire) and a strutting, no-holds-barred championing of a black woman’s sexual charms, “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” (which she first recorded in 1935), a celebration so lively the audience claps along in time as Ms. Hunter explains exactly why she, “a little bit shady,” has charms a man won’t find in a blonde-haired girl.

Alberta Hunter, in 1981, performs her double-entendre classic, ‘Two-Fisted Double-Jointed Rough and Ready Man’

As strong and sassy as she is on the randy numbers, she’s even more impressive when romance rears its head and requires a softer approach. Ms. Hunter is a most persuasive seductress on two love songs she wrote for the Alan Rudolph-directed/Robert Altman-produced 1978 melodrama Remember My Name (starring Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins). In the touching “The Love I Have For You,” she expresses tender romantic yearnings as emotionally direct, unambiguous testimonies of affection, with the slightest of quavering in her voice underscoring the depth of her feelings, whereas the film’s title tune is a lowdown, heartbroken blues sung by a woman vowing enduring affection to a man who’s dumped her. With a striking balance of fortitude and vulnerability, Ms. Hunter delivers the message over Cook’s curiously swinging piano sorties. Bessie Smith made her recording debut with Ms. Hunter’s 1923 song “Downhearted Blues,” and after providing that background (and informing an amused audience, “I’m still collecting royalties on it!”), she immerses herself in its tale of “a man who wrecked my life,” employing a darker, throaty attack--reminiscent of Bessie’s, in fact--that could not sound more remorseful, as Cook embellishes her performance with cascading blues runs.

Spare and evocative, her “Georgia On My Mind,” with a busy Cook roaming across the 88s, is suitably melancholy in all its austere beauty, as Ms. Hunter adds a little Sophie Tucker flair in the way her voice rises with a drawl at the end of verses, which is perhaps less a nod to the Last of the Red-Hot Mamas than it is to Ms. Hunter’s own vaudeville career back in the day. Telling the audience “I’m gonna sing you some real blues,” she moans a raw, gritty version of her 1950 Regal side, the spiteful “I’ve Got a Mind to Ramble,” a broadside so harsh and unsparing in its lyrical putdown of a no-good man that twice during the grinding workout Ms. Hunter calls out “These are the blues!” Then she rubs it in the guy’s face by taunting him with “I got a long tall young black one, for my personal use” as the song winds down on a comically salacious note.

Alberta Hunter’s original 1935 recording extolling a black woman’s sexuality, ‘You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark,’

With a career that began in 1917, flourished during the blues’s golden age in the 1920s, took her to Europe, into the movies and onto the stage (with Paul Robeson, in the London production of Showboat in 1928), and in close proximity to the jazz giants of her youth (notably Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller), Alberta Hunter had lived a lot of life after coming out of a self-imposed 20-year retirement to begin her extended run at The Cookery. Whatever time these recordings are from during that engagement, they reveal an artist undiminished by age, all faculties intact, her showmanship honed, her musicality unassailable, her spirit possessed of infectious joie de vivre. Long may she live.

Alberta Hunter’s Downhearted Blues is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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