Alberta Hunter's recording career spanned 60 years, from 1921 to 1982, with time off during the 1950s and part of the '60s to concentrate on working as a health care provider, followed by a successful comeback near the end of her long life. One of several retrospectives that sample her early work, Tell the Difference opens with three duets she recorded for Victor in 1927 with pipe organist Thomas Fats Waller. Those who are accustomed to the octogenarian's purl heard on "Amtrak Blues" might be surprised by the contralto who sings Clarence Todd's "I'm Going to See My Ma," W.C. Handy's "Beale Street Blues," and Maceo Pinkard's "Sugar." After two titles cut for Columbia in 1929 with unidentified accompaniment, the chronology jumps a full decade without including the song that inspired the title of the collection! "You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark," recorded in 1935, is a musical apology for the singer's skin color, and maybe that's why the producers omitted it. Other collections include it, along with two other excellent tunes recorded at the same session. With only 17 tracks, there would have been plenty of room, so the ellipsis is a bit puzzling, as if racist lyrics were somehow foreign to songs originating in the United States of America. Tracks 6-11, recorded for Decca in August 1939, find the singer backed by a team of seasoned players: trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, and string bassist Wellman Braud. Tracks 12-15, dating from the summer of 1940, are warm and intimate duets with pianist Eddie Heywood, Jr. and were originally issued on Victor's Bluebird subsidiary. "Take Your Big Hands Off" and "He's Got a Punch Like Joe Louis" are of 1946 vintage with backing by a quartet consisting of clarinetist Leroy Jones, pianist Sam Clanton, guitarist Al Casey, and bassist Al Matthews. This is a handy sampler, and might suffice for those who don't feel the need to study more complete editions like the four volumes on Document.
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