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3/29/11

Alberta and Harry



Alberta Hunter was starring at the Dreamland when a very successful Broadway show called "Strut, Miss Lizzie" came to Chicago and Bill Bottoms, the Dreamland's proprietor, invited the cast to drop by. That's how Alberta and Harry Watkins met, some 90 years ago. Their friendship never faded, they shared an apartment on Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River, and referred to each other as brother and sister. Alberta did not actually live in the uptown apartment, she had her very own on Roosevelt Island, which is also where she worked as a nurse at Goldwater Memorial Hospital. In the 1970s, when the hospital retired her—not knowing that she was well past retirement age (she had lied to get the job), Alberta made an amazing comeback, singing nightly at a Greenwich Village club, The Cookery. To make commuting easier, she rented yet another apartment, this one in Chelsea.

Alberta's biography, written by Frank Taylor in 1987, credits Gerald Cook as co-author, but don't be fooled by that—not a word in there is his. Cook (we used to add an "r" to his last name) was Alberta's pianist, a job he did well, but he was also an opportunist who ended up stealing all her money, jewelry, furs, etc.
Alberta was frugal and her long career had brought her a healthy income, so we are not talking about pennies here. Frank's book is excellent, but—for obvious reasons—it does not contain that part of the Alberta Hunter story. This is the first time I have even mentioned what Cook did after she died, but I will tell that story in the very near future.

Here is the first of several tapes wherein Alberta talks about her fascinating life. This snippet, and that's all it is, was recorded in September of 1981, at her Roosevelt Island apartment. She was  86 and amazingly vivacious, but  we who knew her well also knew that Alberta was slowly beginning to fade. This interview with Alberta and Harry Watkins was done for a documentary film, so you will hear me somewhat off mic. They talk about  their initial meeting in Chicago and Harry relates a story from a time when they were both in Paris. Alberta also talks about some of the places she worked at in Europe, including Copenhagen's Lorry, which also happens to be the establishment where I first recorded Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, et al.


Click on image to enlarge it

The tape begins with Alberta talking about Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, who was among the regular guests at the Dreamland.



Around 1970, I interviewed Alberta for  Danish TV. We were at Ashford 
and Simpson's town house on NYC's West Side. Surprisingly and
 regrettably, Danish TV cut up the original film when German TV asked 
for some footage.
Here is a continuation of the above. Alberta recalls her first singing jobs, in Chicago. As I said, her health was beginning to deteriorate; I had known her for 20 years at this point and I was trying to have her repeat on camera some of the wonderful stories she had told me, but, at this point, they did not come back to her so readily.

At one point, you will hear Alberta abruptly switch to comments on lasagna. The sudden switch is due to the fact that I edited out several breaks for reel change—that followed one of them.

The second segment begins with Harry Watkins recalling when he and Alberta were both in Paris, in 1936.

I will be posting more of Alberta here soon.





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