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Music Review: Alberta Hunter – Downhearted Blues: Live At The Cookery

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Alberta Hunter is an often forgotten gem of American music. Born in 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee, she was a rare female star of the early 1920s and 1930s blues movement. During 1922 she wrote “Downhearted Blues,” which became one of Bessie Smith’s biggest hits. Her own recording career began in 1921 and lasted until just after World War II. She toured Europe a number of times and performed on Broadway. In addition, she was a member of the USO. and entertained American troops during the Second World War and in Korea.

Her career finally ran its course during the 1950s, so she faked her age, faked a high school diploma, and became a nurse at the age of 62. She was forced to retire at the age of 79 in 1974. Out of boredom she resurrected her singing career after she turned 80. She first performed at The Cookery Club in Greenwich Village while in her early 80s during 1977.

The live recordings that make up Downhearted Blues: Live At The Cookery were taken from one of her performances at that club. It was the place and time where she re-introduced herself to a new generation of fans. She would continue to perform until just before her death at the age of 89.

She stripped the music to basics. She was backed only by pianist Gerald Cook and bassist Jimmy Lewis. For an octogenarian her voice remained a supple and strong instrument, which enabled the focus of the music to shine on her interpretations of the lyrics.

The songs ranged from straight blues to the great American songbook to everything in between. Her own “Downhearted Blues” and “I’ve Got A Mind To Ramble” recalled the blues style of her younger days. “I’ve Got Rhythm” is presented in a swing style similar to Ella Fitzgerald. “Two-Fisted Double-Jointed Rough And Ready Man” and “You Can’t Tell The Difference After Dark” contained sexual innuendo, which was all the more amusing given her age. “Old Fashioned Love” is a simple and beautiful song of a person in her 80s looking back at life.

Her music and style was made for the intimate setting of The Cookery Club. The 18 tracks, which cover just over 70 minutes of music, fly by courtesy of an old master.

Downhearted Blues: Live At The Cookery is a lasting look at the talent and style of an old blues legend. So settle back, put your feet up, and enjoy the regal presence of Alberta Hunter.

About David Bowling