Thursday, April 30, 2020

An Octogenarian Nurse Makes a Major Label Comeback

Alberta Hunter : My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More

In 1980, retired nurse Alberta Hunter, made one of the most remarkable comeback album of all time, releasing the John Hammond produced Amtrak Blues at the age of 85.

For 23 years she was the spunky old nurse at Roosevelt Island's Goldwater Memorial Hospital, healing patients with wise-cracks and care,  until hospital administrators forced her into retirement at the age of 82. That's when Alberta Hunter returned to her first love and her first career, singing the blues. 

For decades, from the 1920's to the 1950's, Hunter sang in nightclubs. She toured Europe, starred in films and even recorded with Louis Armstrong. Now she was back, performing at the Greenwich Village club, The Cookery, accompanied by pianist Jimmy Rowles. She'd stand on stage, a little stooped by age, tell stories and sing bawdy songs like "My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More".

Released on Columbia Records, Amtrak Blues is a one of a kind album. Robert Christgau gave it an A- grade writing:

A hot rhythm section, anchored by pianist Gerald Cook and jazzed up by hornmen Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, and Frank Wess, pitch in with undeniable verve on material from "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" to "Always" to several worthy Hunter originals. Timing and intonation are as savvy as you'd figure, and though the voice isn't quite as full as it must have been, it packs an amazing wallop--when Hunter gloats about getting her butter churned, the memory sounds quite fresh, like maybe the dairy man poked his head in that morning. More good news--she'll be back in the studio with Hammond soon.

Hunter's personality shines through on this album. She's recently been celebrated by New York Times Magazine writer Jody Rosen, who has Hunter on his Covid Quarantine playlist:

There’s something, I think, bracing — or maybe it’s reassuring in hearing the voice of this elderly person that’s so full of spirit and is so sly at this super frightening time. To hear that voice of longevity, I guess, a voice that really embodies this idea of a long life that’s fully lived, that’s festively lived, that’s just something that I need to hear right now.

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