A woman larger than life

Special to The Times

Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days

Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days

It seems that trouble's going to follow me to my grave.

-- "Down Hearted Blues" by Alberta Hunter

--

Though Alberta Hunter endured her share of troubles, the downhearted blues lament she wrote in 1922 proved to be anything but prophetic. Before she died in her favorite easy chair in a New York City apartment in 1984, Hunter staged one of the more remarkable comebacks in show-biz history. In 1977, at age 82, she became an overnight sensation. Hand on hip, jauntily wagging her finger at a nightclub full of spellbound whippersnappers, Hunter winked her way through a stinging, swinging repertoire 15 times a week in Greenwich Village.

Over the next seven years, Hunter recorded an album for Columbia Records, delivered a command performance at the White House, toured Brazil, appeared on "Good Morning America" and continued to write songs, such as "I Want a Two Fisted Double Jointed Rough and Ready Man."

This, after quitting music to work 20 years as a hospital nurse.

Marion J. Caffey, creator of "Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter," says he tried to re-create the singer's mystique in his two-woman show. "When people saw this sassy, brassy woman who's old enough to be their grandmother using all these double entendres, singing songs about sex -- that was a lot of fun to watch."

Caffey conceived his tribute after seeing a PBS documentary about Hunter called "My Castle's Rockin.' " Since "Cookin's" debut in 1997, the show has been staged in 25 cities. It opens Tuesday at the Brentwood Theatre. "People find a lot of hope and inspiration in this show," Caffey explains. "I've got older people seeing this and going, 'My God, I'm not done yet.' "

Taking a break outside of the Brentwood Theatre rehearsal trailer after watching "Cookin' " actress Ann Duquesnay rehearse Hunter's very naughty "Handy Man," Caffey says, "There's no particularly ingenious thing that happened [in creating the show] other than the fact that I was fortunate enough to be the conduit for Alberta to live again," he says. "We're not trying to imitate her so much as we're just trying to capture the essence and the spirit of Alberta."

Taking her show on the road

Hunter's story, encapsulated in "Cookin' " and detailed in the biography "A Celebration in Blues" written by Frank Taylor and her longtime pianist Gerald Cook, is remarkable even without the third-act finale. In 1911, when she was 16, Hunter took a train by herself from Memphis to Chicago, where she peeled potatoes by day and sang Irish pop songs for pimps, prostitutes and pickpockets by night. Gigs with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong soon followed. In 1921, Hunter, thrilled to be making $17.50 a week, made her first blues record. Two years later, Bessie Smith became a national sensation when her version of Hunter's "Down Hearted Blues" sold a then-phenomenal 800,000 copies.

A flurry of diva moments followed over the next two decades. Hunter starred in Broadway revues and partied with Langston Hughes in Harlem. After touring the black vaudeville circuit, she followed Josephine Baker to Paris and put together a cabaret act that blended Tin Pan Alley ditties with raunchy blues, bitter ballads and saucy patter. Jerome Kern cast Hunter as Queenie opposite Paul Robeson in his 1928 West End production of "Show Boat." She later held court in London for a year, wowing cafe society stalwarts such as Noel Coward, Cole Porter and the Prince of Wales.

Hunter's fan club also numbered Al Jolson; Sophie Tucker, who "borrowed" bits from Hunter's stage antics; Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson, who served as her accompanists in the recording studio; Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Cab Calloway, who recorded their own versions of Hunter-penned songs; and Eubie Blake, who once said, "When Alberta sang the blues, you felt so sorry for her you wanted to kill the guy she was singing about."

During World War II, Hunter joined the USO and performed for more than a decade with the Army-sponsored troupe. Though she was married briefly in the 1920s, Hunter was a lesbian. Unusually close to her mother, Hunter was performing for GIs in Korea when her mother died. Hunter fell into a funk, and in 1956, she gave away all her finery, lopped 12 years off her age and earned a practical nursing certificate.

Concealing her lustrous past, she tended patients at Goldwater Hospital in Harlem for two decades before being forced into retirement. Bored, depressed but still sharp as a stiletto, Hunter was surprised to hear from jazz impresario Charlie Bourgeoise, who'd looked her up in the phone book and invited her to a party hosted by Bobby Short.

As Caffey tells it, "All these cats lured Alberta to this party just to see if she actually could stand up, if she had teeth." Having passed that test, Hunter got a call the next morning from Bourgeoise's friend Barney Josephson, owner of Manhattan's Cookery nightclub. Josephson hired Hunter for a short-term engagement. The show wound up running more than a year.

Duquesnay plays the mature Hunter in "Cookin' " opposite Montego Glover as the younger version of the singer. Though she's earned a Tony for "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk" and starred in Broadway musicals "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Blues in the Night," Duquesnay admits the name "Alberta Hunter" rang no bells for her back in 1977, when she witnessed the octogenarian in action for the first time.

"A friend of mine called and said, 'You've got to go see this act,' " she recalls. "There was a line outside the Cookery, and Barney Josephson was greeting everybody. We go inside, and this little elderly woman came out, dressed in this very simple red dress with ruffles, and her hair was pulled up in a little top knot -- not the kind of person you would expect to see. I looked over at my friend, he looked at me and said, 'Just wait.' And then she started to sing."

Aged to perfection

The legendary Cookery shows, excerpted in "My Castle's Rockin' " (available on DVD), reveal a wily entertainer in full command of an earthy wit and richly grained, pitch-perfect voice. In fact, Coffey and Duquesnay argue that Hunter hit her peak as a singer only after outgrowing the fluttery vibrato heard on her 1920s recordings. "Alberta's older records sound very tinny," Duquesnay notes. "That's partly the recording technology, but the truth is, her voice got better as she got older. Sarah Vaughn was like that to me -- sometimes in your later years, voice is like a fine wine, improving with age."

Adds Coffey, "Alberta didn't have a huge vocal range in her later years, but the way she delivered the lines, with so much knowledge and wisdom and truth and fun and naughtiness -- all that combined, I can only call that style. I don't know if Alberta was born with a gift. I think she was born with tenacity, and life put the gift in her. You tell Alberta no, and she just finds a new way through the door."

Musician and jazz scholar Billy Taylor, who serves as artistic advisor for jazz to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, narrated the PBS documentary. He was a friend of Hunter's. "The way Alberta would tell a story reminded me of many of the older people I worked with like Ethel Waters, or Fats Waller, Bill 'Bo Jangles' Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake -- they all had the ability to crack you up. Everybody who came through that period and lived as long as she did, or like she did, they all had this kind of humor, this sense of irony, and boy, did they know how to use it. When Alberta finally came out that last time, she had reached the stage where she really didn't [care]. She had mastered her craft in terms of being able to put over a song, to do comedy, to do the whole bundle that made cabaret. She knew the difference between a song that would make you cry, and a happy blues, or a swinging blues. She had nothing left to prove. It was like, 'You can't hurt me now. I've got it together.' "

*

'Cookin' at the Cookery'

Where: Brentwood Theatre, Veterans Administration Grounds, Wilshire Boulevard near San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood

When: Opens Wednesday. Runs 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 1

Price: $30-$48

Contact: (310) 208-5454

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