From the '20s to the '50s she had sung from Chicago to Cairo and written dozens of tunes. The most popular, Down Hearted Blues, became a Bessie Smith hit. But Alberta never learned to read music. "I just keep humming until it sounds right," she says, adding cannily, "but I never hum a song for anybody until I have it copyrighted." Of Remember My Name, a character study of an ex-con (Geraldine Chaplin) and the man who done her wrong, Hunter observes: "Most people think you have to have trouble with a man to write the blues—I've never had the blues about no man, never in my life, baby."
In her infancy, her Pullman porter father died, and her mother was a maid in a white whorehouse. At 8, Alberta ran away to Chicago, and at 12 sang for $10 a week at Dago Frank's. Her fans in those days, she recalls, included confidence men and a pickpocket named Tack Annie, who "had a hook concealed in a front tooth to pick diamond stickpins out of gentlemen's lapels while leaning over them."
Hunter replaced Bessie Smith on Broadway in a 1923 flop, How Come (the implausible title character was a clarinet-playing Chinese laundryman). She had married a waiter (who later became a prominent labor union official) but soon ran away to London to play opposite Paul Robeson in Showboat. There she became the favorite songbird of the Prince of Wales.
In World War II Hunter headlined the first black USO troupe and played for Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov and Dwight Eisenhower in Frankfurt following the German surrender. But she gave up singing in 1954 upon her mother's death. Knocking a dozen years off her age, she went to work as a practical nurse at a New York hospital for the chronically ill. "I didn't sing a note for 20 years," she says, until she was invited to a Bobby Short party for Mabel Mercer last autumn. "Don't tell me Alberta's still around," marveled jazz impresario Barney Joseph-son, who immediately booked her into the Cookery in Greenwich Village.
That gig turned into an unlimited engagement. Hunter puts on two shows weeknights and three on weekends, her voice as honey-toned and velvet smooth as ever. And if the young audience doesn't remember her name, it won't soon forget. "I want a two-fisted, double-jointed, ahhh, rough-and-ready man," Alberta insists with a marvelous mix of immaculate diction and rhythm learned as a girl singing gospel all day Sunday. "Now he can be knock-kneed, box-ankled/He can even have frog-eyes;/That won't make a bit of difference/Long as he's o-kay... oth-er-wise." Arms akimbo, Alberta raises an eyebrow at her piano player. As one critic wrote, "She doesn't belt the blues, she insinuates them."
She lives alone on Roosevelt Island, not far from the hospital where she worked until she retired in 1977. Her prime passion nowadays is a daily visit to Macy's department store. Her main regret is that the "old dog" of a Memphis white man who exploited her at the turn of the century likely didn't live to see Tennessee's Alberta Hunter Day. Or hear about her invitation to a White House reception next month. If Alberta should win an Oscar for her first sound track (not inconceivable), she says that "would just about finish me off." It hardly seems likely.
She had worked Memphis before—but running errands for a white man rather than singing. That was in 1901, and he paid her 25¢ a week. Now she was back for the world premiere of the Robert Altman-produced Remember My Name, for which she composed and sang the score. The state of Tennessee declared "Alberta Hunter Day" and, at 83, the blues artist rode in a silver limo up Beale Street (where she was first inspired by W.C. Handy) and received the key to Memphis. "I couldn't have got then what I'm getting now," mused Alberta. "God has his own time."