The great blues singer Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) was born on this day. A Memphis native, she ran away from a bleak life to pursue a music career in Chicago. Starting in the seediest possible dives, she worked her way up to the city’s top night clubs, including a standing gig with the legendary King Oliver band.
By the early 20s she was a recording artist, and toured both black vaudeville and the big time Keith-Abee–Orpheum circuit in support of her records. (A bit of interesting trivia: Ms. Hunter’s lover through much of the jazz age was Lottie Tyler, a niece of Bert Williams). Follow this link to hear her sing “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” (1935), s song considered so risque they never released it at the time.
Hunter’s career took her into prominent book shows and tours of Europe (both came together when she performed in the West End premiere of Show Boat in 1928). European tours kept her busy when vaudeville died in the thirties, and then the USO kept her employed during World War Two and the Korean Conflict.
The mid 50s were the end of the line for her as an entertainer — or so she thought! After over twenty years as a professional nurse she was coaxed out of retirement, made several records, and started performing live again. The last leg of her career was from 1977 to her death in 1984 at the age of 89.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.