There are comebacks and then there are unimaginable returns from the edge of the world. One of the most legendary such returns was by singer-composer Alberta Hunter, who was born in Memphis in 1895.
Having taken the train to Chicago at 16, she debuted as a supper-club singer around 1912, sang for gangsters and movie stars, made her first recording in 1921, wrote “Down Hearted Blues,” which became the legendary Bessie Smith's first hit, and eventually starred with Paul Robeson in Jerome Kern's Show Boat at the London Palladium in 1928 and 1929.
Throughout her stage, club and recording career, Hunter played with such esteemed jazz artists as Fletcher Henderson, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. During World War II and the Korean War, Hunter was with the USO, entertaining the troops.
Some say it was the offer of a screen role as a servant that caused Hunter to leave music at age 61. Others say she left to care for her mother. Whatever the case, Hunter spent 20 years as a scrub nurse in a New York Hospital, having lied about her age to get the job. When the personnel department thought she had finally reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, they let her go. She was, in actuality, 82. As fate would have it, the Greenwich Village hot spot known as The Cookery called, and Hunter made a triumphant return to music in 1977.
They say Cookery regulars loved the elderly singer's music and improvisational style so much that they frequently called out, “Sing it, baby!” and “Oh, yeah!” What began as a six-week gig stretched on until Hunter's death in 1984. Within that time, she also managed to write music for the 1978 film, Remember My Name.
If author-director-choreographer Marion J. Caffey has anything to do with it, the world will remember Hunter's name. In 1997 he conceived, wrote and directed Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter, which made its world premiere at the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, Fla. After playing in seven regional runs, the piece recently enjoyed an acclaimed off-Broadway engagement.
Ernestine Jackson, who created the role of Alberta at the Hippodrome, flew to San Diego March 10 to join her colleague Janice Lorraine for preview performances. Directed by Caffey, Cookin' at the Cookery has its San Diego premiere March 21 in the San Diego Repertory Theatre's 550-seat Lyceum Theatre.
“We just finished doing this show at Stamford a few weeks ago. It was well received,” Jackson says. “So when we hit San Diego, we'll take off running. This will be the longest run we've had.
“Marion has developed quite a nice gem. I met Alberta in 1977, never dreaming that I would one day portray her. Time flies and life has its way of evolving, and here I am now, doing her.”
Jackson thinks Caffey has come up with a theatrical production in a non-traditional form: “It's one character balled up in two people. Janice whirls and twirls en pointe constantly. She's what I call the energy of the show. We bounce from one character to the other and finish each other's sentence. It's pure theater.”
When Jackson plays the older Alberta, Lorraine plays the younger, and when Jackson portrays the younger Alberta, Lorraine narrates and plays all the other characters in the rising star's life.
“She was a graceful lady,” explains local blues expert Dan Pothier. “You're talking coming up through the ranks here. Alberta's an institution.”
“I heard her down at the Cookery,” recalls Sweet Baby Blues Band singer-pianist Jeannie Cheatham. “She was one of the originals who not only sang the blues, but all other kinds of things, too. A lot of female performers have to stop in midlife. The good ones come on back and she did. The last part of her career was better than the first. It's like the triumph of the female. You know what I mean? She was tremendous to the very end.”
Asked to describe Hunter's vocal style, Cheatham offers: “It was like a rough, whiskey voice, though I'm not aware that she drank.”
Jackson has impressive dramatic and musical credits of her own, including Tony Award nominations for the all-Black Guys and Dolls and Raisin. She received a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Jackson's Broadway credits also include Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Jesus Christ Superstar, Applause, Hello, Dolly! and The Bacchae.
Show Boat also influenced Jackson's career. Born in Corpus Christi, she moved to New York after high school to attend The Juilliard School.
“I didn't finish,” she says, “because I got my first professional job at Lincoln Center doing Show Boat, the one with Constance Towers, William Warfield and Margaret Hamilton. That was the end of Juilliard for me!
“I understudied the role of Queenie. Otherwise, I was just a kid on the levee and Lincoln Center was brand new.”
Cookin' at the Cookery begins in 1977 and finds the 82-year-old Hunter preparing for the comeback of the century, her first performance in 20 years. Among its 21 musical numbers are some of Hunter's signature tunes, including “My Castle's A-Rockin',” “Handy Man” and “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.” Jackson also sings “The Devil's Music,” “St. Louis Blues” and Hunter's composition, “Downhearted Blues.”
For Alberta Hunter, though there were surely times when she was down, she proved that no matter one's age, you're never out.