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Alberta Hunter - Downhearted Blues – Live at the Cookery

RockBeat Records

18 tracks/71:31

Originally released ten years ago, this title features the seemingly ageless Alberta Hunter at the start of her career resurrection. A famed singer who recorded for a variety of labels in the 1920's, including Paramount Records, Hunter had an impressive voice that earned her the backing of legendary musicians like Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. She later moved to Europe, where she starred in musicals and was the darling of the cabaret set. By the 50's, she was no longer in demand and so she retired from music, starting a twenty year stint as a licensed nurse at a hospital in New York City. When the hospital finally forced her to retire, Hunter begin to sing again to relieve the boredom of retirement.

The owner of the Cookery, Barney Josephson, hired Hunter in 1977 for a six week run at his Greenwich Village cabaret, which sparked Hunter's remarkable comeback that included a series of albums for Columbia. Backed by Gerald Cook on piano and Jimmy Lewis on bass, the singer enthusiastically digs into one of her old hits, “My Castle's Rockin'”, proving that she can still swing at the age of eighty-two. Hunter easily navigates the furious tempo on “I Got Rhythm”, then does an inspired version of a tune she wrote, “Downhearted Blues”, that was a huge hit for Bessie Smith. Cook's forceful piano work keeps pushing Hunter throughout the track. At times his playing is a bit too busy, drawing attention away from Hunter's singing. But his barrelhouse playing on “Two Fisted Double-Jointed Rough & Ready Man” is the perfect compliment to Hunter's saucy vocal.

Some of the songs hark back to Hunter's theatrical career. She delivers all of these Tin Pan Alley tunes with gusto and the skill developed over six decades. While her voice may not be as limber as it once was, Hunter injects plenty of emotion into a poignant rendition of “Time Waits For No One”. She gets the audience involved on “I'm Havin' a Good Time”, a swinging statement about her view on life. Her voice wavers a bit on the opening to “Georgia on My Mind” but she recovers with some unique phrasing that follows Lewis's plunging bass lines.

Hunter is really in her element on the bluesier material, turning “I've Got a Mind to Ramble” from a ballad into a bawdy romp that has the audience roaring in delight. Her ode to a good loving “Handy Man” is another highlight with a salacious performance that might cause some listeners to blush. Finishing with “You're Welcome to Come Back Home”, Hunter exhorts the audience to write their parents and ease their misery.

One of America's musical treasures, Alberta Hunter was fortunate to get a second chance late in life to do what she loved. Once you hear this recording, it will be readily apparent that Hunter embraced the opportunity, her efforts making it clear that she relished being able to once again sing in front of an audience. This entertaining summary of her lengthy career is certainly worth a listen.

Reviewer Mark Thompson is president of the Crossroads Blues Society in Rockford. IL. He has been listening to music of all kinds for fifty years. The first concert he attended was in Chicago with The Mothers of Invention and Cream. Life has never been the same.

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