Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Secret Life of a Nurse: Alberta Hunter

Alberta Hunter

Let’s start the New Year with an old favourite, Amtrak Blues.

Like most people of my generation this record was my introduction to Alberta Hunter. A friend pulled it out one day with a cheeky grin. I stared at the cover and sighed inwardly, “Oh brother!”  An aged black woman singing the blues was not my cup of tea in the high noon of Dire Straits and The Boss. But I’m a nice guy so I smiled and offered a bit of false enthusiasm.

They talk about Damascus Road experiences, when one minute you are blind and the next you can see the glory. Well, Amtrak Blues was one of those experiences.  From the moment I heard the tinkling ivories of the Darktown Strutters Ball and Alberta’s sassy voice I was speechless.  The music was old timey but very contemporary.  It swung as loosely as it did in the Roaring 20s but grabbed your attention with modern production and a deep driving bass rhythm.  “Who is this woman?” I asked my friend. 

“Alberta Hunter. She’s over 80 years old.”

By this time she was singing one of my favourite blues songs, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.  I was brought up listening to a white folk trio’s version of it. But that day Alberta sang it, I finally got the full agony, bitterness and desperation of the thing.

Alberta Hunter came to Chicago about a hundred years ago from Memphis. She sang in sleazy, violent clubs and Speakeasys before moving to New York to be closer to the big time.  She found her way on to stage and cabaret and was soon singing in some early American jazz bands.  During and right after WWI she found herself in Europe singing in musicals with Paul Robeson or singing on records with some equally grand names of jazz.  Throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s she was much in demand especially as a live performer. Audiences loved her bawdy sassy ‘damn-I’m-good’ attitude. And she always attracted top notch musicians to share the stage.

In the mid 50s she pulled a very modern trick. She changed careers. Left the footlights and glamour to become a nurse! For the next twenty years she served the sick and frail in a New York hospital, without once letting her colleagues or bosses know who she was or the life she’d led.

In the late 70s John Hammond, discoverer of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Holliday (among others) heard her singing in a club and enticed Alberta back into the studio. The result was two wonderful albums of a Lioness in Winter. Her voice had changed, become deeper, but her attitude was as cheeky as ever. Her eyes still sparkled. Her laughter was still outrageous.  Amtrak Blues was the first of those two albums.

This record broke down some invisible wall in my head. Suddenly I was willing to explore whole new vistas of jazz, blues, swing and old timey music. You could say it was this old forgotten black woman who got my musical ass in gear.

Thank you, Alberta, it’s been an incredible journey.

            Track Listing:
            01 The Darktown Strutters' Ball
02 Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out
03 I'm Having A Good Time
04 Always
05 My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More
06 Amtrak Blues
07 Old Fashioned Love
08 Sweet Georgia Brown
09 A Good Man Is Hard To Find
10 I've Got A Mind To Ramble
Listen here

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