What are the chances? I recently finished researching and outlining this blog entry – about a jazz singer named Alberta Hunter – only to find that the very next day the Chronicle’s Datebook section would feature two stories about the same Ms. Hunter! I gasped, wallowed for a while in the disappointment of it all, and then finally decided to write the post anyway. But I’m still wondering who tipped off the Chronicle. Frankly, I blame the Kremlin.
What got me started researching the life of a jazz singer born more than 120 years ago is that a book I was reading about the music business mentioned that Frank Sinatra once said he learned more from Alberta Hunter than from any other singer he’d ever heard. To pique my interest further, this woman once recorded an album called Amtrak Blues, and you all know how I feel about trains. I decided that I needed to look her up, and her inspiring story then led me to a similar – but ill-fated – chronicle of another jazz entertainer of the era. Their talents were similarly abundant, and the women faced similar constraints, but difficult personal choices would lead them down tragically dissimilar paths.
Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1895. Her father – a Pullman porter – died very young, and her mother eked out a living as a servant in a brothel. Alberta, a relentlessly cheerful child, sang incessantly around the house, and when a friend in Chicago began sending letters back home about a Southside joint called Dago Frank’s where girls could make $10 a week singing, Alberta saw an opportunity to help out her mom. So in 1911, at the age of 16, she left home quickly and without a word. Clutching a kids’ railroad pass, she hopped on a train headed for Chicago, where she was given a job peeling potatoes in a boarding house for $6 a week.
Because she lied about her age, the scrappy teenager was able to land her first professional gig singing at night at Dago Frank’s, which was both a bordello and a gangster hangout. She felt safe there, though, and grateful to be living in a city in which black entertainers could get paid for their talents. Later in life, she would credit her time there for teaching her most of the life lessons she needed. “That’s a place where all the white prostitutes hung out,” she said, “and all their pimps, you know? And they knew I was nothin’ but a child, young, having run away from home. So they tried to teach me how to be a good girl. They said, ‘See what we’re up against? Don’t let fellas fool ya.’ And my mother always told me, ‘Have plenty sense. Use good judgment. Have a mind of your own.’ ”
When Dago Frank’s closed after someone was murdered there, Alberta moved on to other nightclubs, with both black and white audiences, earning enough to pay her mother’s way to Chicago so that the two could live together. They were sketchy places, but Alberta viewed every situation with good humor. “There was a pickpocket named Tack Annie,” she remembered. “Ugliest woman that God ever put breath in. She could walk up to a man and bite his diamond pin off. But she looked like a horse with a derby on!”
One night, though, Alberta’s piano player was actually shot and killed while they were on stage. So in 1921 she packed up and moved to New York, and that same year she recorded her first tune (“Bring Back the Joys”) with Black Swan, a black-owned blues and jazz record label operating out of New York that claimed it was “The only genuinely colored record – others are only passing.” Not much later she signed with Paramount. And she was no dummy. She recorded under a host of pseudonyms – including her half-sister’s – so that she could have “exclusive” contracts with a multitude of record companies!
It didn’t take long for Ms. Hunter to become internationally famous – not only for her singing, but for her composing and, occasionally, for her stage acting. In 1923, the great blues artist Bessie Smith sold 800,000 copies of her recording of Ms. Hunter’s composition “Downhearted Blues.” (Alberta, though, ended up with only $368 in royalties because her producer had clandestinely sold the rights and somehow ended up with all the proceeds. Such was the lot of black entertainers in those days, who had neither sufficient resources nor the sympathy of the law at their disposal.) In 1928 Alberta was cast in the role of “Queenie” in the London production of Showboat, and over the next couple of decades she spent time in the States and in Europe, recording, singing in nightclubs, appearing in repertory theater productions, and serving as a dedicated USO entertainer during both World War II and the Korean War.
Once the Korean War ended, though, Alberta’s life would take two major turns – one completely away from her music, and the next one all the way back in. As the war was winding down, her beloved mother was ailing, so she returned from Europe to care for her. Then, after her mother passed away in 1954, she stopped singing. Completely. As usual, though, she was able to cut through this roadblock with a bold and unusual plan. Consumed with the desire to find a different kind of meaning in her life, she gave away many of her possessions and became, of all things, a nurse. True to form, she lied about her age and her high school diploma (which she had never gotten) and enrolled in a practical nursing course, earning her license in 1957. For the next 20 years she worked at Harlem’s Goldwater Hospital. But she never sang a note during that time. Not even in the shower? she was asked. “No, I didn’t even hum, because all my interest was in my patients,” was her answer.
After she was laid off from nursing in 1977 because hospital administrators thought she was too old at age 70 (although she was in fact 82!), Ms. Hunter was invited to a party one night given by singer/pianist Bobby Short and she got to talking with the jazz impresario Charlie Bourgeoise, who – once he saw how spry and sharp she was – tried coaxing her back into show business. “Alberta,” she recalled him saying, “we need somebody, when there’s stories to be told, that can tell it. When you’re singing, people know what you’re saying.” She was intrigued but noncommittal. The next morning, though, she got a call from the owner of the Cookery nightclub in Greenwich Village, and he ultimately convinced her to jump back into the business and sing at his club for a two-week “limited engagement.” Well, that lasted for more than a year, and her career was thus resurrected at the age of 82.
For the next six years, Ms. Hunter continued to record and sing in the States, in Europe, in South America, on television, and at Carnegie Hall. She recorded the album Amtrak Blues in 1978. That year, she composed and sang the score of Robert Altman’s 1978 film Remember My Name, despite being unable to read music. She turned down a Sunday invitation from President Jimmy Carter once because – not one to be charmed by power, politics, or fame – she insisted that Sunday was her day of rest. But she relented in 1978 when he asked her to sing at the Kennedy Center in honor of her friend, the contralto Marian Anderson. “Bless his ole heart,” she said about the President before the show. “I’m gonna lay it on ’im!” It turns out that she was the only performer goaded into an encore that evening, and she later remarked that nothing in her career had ever thrilled her like that moment. After that performance, she was a frequent invitee of the Carter White House.
At the age of 89, Alberta finally stopped singing in public because age had started to affect her physical and mental health. She died in October 1984, with most of the money she’d made throughout her life stashed under her mattress.
When I listen to the recordings that Alberta made after her comeback, it’s hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties. Her voice was deep and rich as loam. She looked glamorous and classy, but she was also fearlessly suggestive and sultry. “She doesn’t belt the blues, she insinuates them,” a reviewer once said. Yet the ironic twinkle in her eyes also revealed an appreciation of living that sometimes only the mounting years can bring. I’ve always said that as the years go by, singers’ ranges narrow but their textures broaden. That’s what I call style.
Off of Amtrak Blues, 1978:
“Darktown Strutters Ball” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP-0geORbvM)
Live from the Smithsonian, 1981:
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdaNlZhmHoM)
“Handy Man” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiG3adgU0BI)
If you watch those live Smithsonian clips, you can’t help but smile. I’ve sat back and savored them dozens of times.
Being a black artist in a white world presented an enormous set of challenges that, for the most part, Alberta Hunter was able to face head-on, with cleverness, temerity, and subterfuge as required. But most of the world didn’t know that she was also hiding a major part of herself.
Alberta Hunter, as we now know, was gay.
She was married briefly to a waiter once, when she was in her twenties, but rumor has it that the marriage was never consummated because she told her new husband that she couldn’t bring herself to have “relations” in the house where her mother (and she) lived. It comes as no surprise, then, that the young couple separated just a few months later. I watched a clip of Ms. Hunter’s appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” decades later when she was in her eighties, and Mike asked her if she’d been married. She confirmed her brief nuptials and added, “He was a fine man – believe me when I tell ya. But I knew he needed a wife who was going to look after his clothes being cleaned and get his meals regular. And I wasn’t cut out for that.” Mike asked how she’d given her husband the news of her displeasure. “I didn’t tell him. I just ran away!” she answered. There was much shrieking laughter from the audience. But Ms. Hunter once admitted that the whole sham had been very unfair to her heartbroken husband.
The thing is, the great love of Alberta’s life was a beautiful woman named Lottie Tyler, who was the niece of Vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams. The pair reportedly met sometime between 1915 and 1917 at the Panama Café in Chicago, Lottie gave Alberta her uncle’s address in New York, and Alberta looked her up two years later. After that, they formed a bond that lasted for decades even as they lived apart. Alberta always kept her distance from men so as not to encourage them, and when she traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States, she always had Lottie to come back to.
Lottie Tyler died in Chicago in 1960, and I can’t help but wonder whether she had been ill for a time and whether Alberta’s disappearance from the public eye, along with her sudden inability (or refusal) to sing for a couple of decades, was related as much to Lottie’s passing as to her mother’s. I guess we’ll never know the answer to that.
One of Alberta’s contemporaries, unfortunately, had a career that began similarly but ended sadly, partly because she did not suppress certain parts of her life the way Alberta managed to do so deftly.
Her name was Gladys Bentley. Born in Philadelphia in 1907, Ms. Bentley was, like Alberta, a multitalented performer who left home at the age of 16 and found the beginnings of her career in New York in the 1920s. Unlike Alberta, though, she refused to hide away her natural self. She often eschewed dresses, sporting her trademark tuxedo and top hat instead. And she lived openly with a white woman, making no attempts to conceal her sexuality. “It seems I was born different,” she said, matter-of-factly.
This particular time in New York in the 1920s was called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Greenwich Village and Harlem were neighborhoods that attracted artists and intellectuals, in part because housing was cheap but also because there was a sense of cultural freedom from the restrictions of the Victorian Era. Gay people found an accepting home there, too, and gay entertainers like Gladys felt free to be themselves in cabarets and speakeasies.
Ms. Bentley did some recordings with Okeh Records but her live shows were what drew the crowds. She was a rhythmic, powerful pianist, and she parodied blues standards and show tunes, making up bawdy lyrics as she went. Her shows were funny and risqué. She had a sweetness about her, too, so when she laughingly flirted with women in the audience, no one seemed to mind. And oh, that powerful voice. Her range was such that her voice could sound like a brass section or a bird within a few measures of each other.
1928: “Worried Blues” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptIBk2PZK74)
Gladys made a lot of money in those early days, and she sported a fancy car and an apartment on Park Avenue. But as the 1930s wore on, the effects of the Great Depression were taking their toll on American society. People began to mistrust each other as they scratched out their own livings. Black migration to large northern cities heightened racial tensions. And as Victorian values started to resurrect themselves, the public slowly grew intolerant of gay people. The police began making arrests.
In 1933, Gladys moved her act from Harlem to Broadway for a short time, but “morals complaints” from the more uptight Broadway crowd ended up shutting down her club, so she was forced to move back to Harlem. By then the blues were passing out of favor, and her venue the Ubangi Club shut its doors, too, in 1937. So at the age of 30, Gladys left Harlem for good and moved to Los Angeles to live in a tiny house with her mother, and little by little her confidence, independence, and success began to ebb away. She continued to perform in a selection of nightclubs on the West Coast, and in 1945 she made a few records on the Excelsior label (always careful to watch the content of her lyrics). But with the advent of McCarthyism came the witch hunts aimed at not only communists and their sympathizers but gay people as well. Suddenly, special permits were required for Ms. Bentley to wear pants (I know, it sounds absurd). The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her as a “subversive.” She grew fearful, started wearing dresses, and cleaned up her act.
In 1950 an article under Gladys Bentley’s byline appeared in Ebony magazine. It’s unclear whether she actually penned the piece, entitled “I Am a Woman Again.” She first writes about how society’s censure “has the effect of creating within us a brooding self-condemnation, a sense of not being as good as the next person, a feeling of inadequacy and impotence.” She talks about how people like her can often find solace in the professional world, in that audiences who would “bitterly condemn” them personally still recognize their talent and pay to be entertained by them. But then she goes on to say that she had renounced her ways after finding the love of a man who awakened the “womanliness” in her, and that through his help and the aid of hormone treatments, she had found a way to be “happy and normal.”
The truth was, Gladys claimed to have married two men in her life, but there were denials (from one or both of the men), and it’s possible she never married either one of them. In any case, the relationships ended, of course, in the inevitable dissolution.
To find some meaning in the paradoxical twists her life had taken, Gladys finally turned to religion, but at the age of 52 she became a victim of a flu epidemic and died, emotionally desperate, guilt-ridden, and terrified.
Like many others, I often look back wistfully on “the good old days.” For someone like me, who has led what I consider to be a charmed life, there are good reasons to be nostalgic. But what I often forget is that for many others, the “good old days” simply weren’t.
If I could go back in time, I would thank Alberta Hunter for her guts and for her persistence and for listening to Charlie Bourgeoise when he convinced her to start singing again at the age of 82. As for Gladys, I would thank her for her youthful courage. And given the opportunity I would steer her gently away from dosing her body with hormones in a frightened, misguided attempt to rework her essential nature.
A few months before she died, Alberta was asked what advice she would give to young people. “Learn respect,” she answered, “and by all means respect the other fellow’s ideas and thoughts. Have a mind of your own. Don’t let money get you off the track. And don’t begrudge other people of their success. And don’t sit around waiting for somebody else to do things for you. Do them yourself. And remember, time waits for no one. It passes you by. For no one. Do you hear what I’m saying? It rolls on forever like a cloud in the sky.”
Our ephemeral lives are indeed short. But who knows what more either of these two women could have accomplished if the times in which they lived had been more forgiving of people’s differences. How much better could this world be if people were only allowed to simply be themselves?