Esther Lee Jones, known by her stage name "Baby Esther", was an American singer and entertainer of the late 1920s, known for her "baby" singing style. She performed regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Theatrical manager Lou Boulton testified during the Kane v. Fleischer trial that Helen Kane saw Baby Esther's cabaret act in 1928 with him and appropriated Jones' style of singing, changing the interpolated words "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo" to "boop-boop-a-doop" in a recording of "I Wanna Be Loved By You". Kane never publicly admitted this. Jones' style, as imitated by Kane, went on to become the inspiration for the voice of the cartoon character Betty Boop.
When Kane attempted to sue Fleischer Studios for using her persona, the studios defended themselves by arguing that Kane herself had taken it from "Baby Esther" Jones. An early test sound film of Baby Esther's performance was used as evidence. In court, it was presumed that Jones was still in Paris.Contents
Baby Esther Lee Jones originally billed (Lil' Little Esther) was a child entertainer who lived in Chicago, Illinois. She was managed by her mother Gertrude Jones and her father William Jones. Esther was a trained scat singer, dancer and acrobat who used to perform regularly at nightclubs in Harlem and all over the United States in the early 1920s. In her act Baby Esther would dance, make funny faces, roll her eyes and interpolated words such as "Boo-Boo-Boo", "Wha-Da-Da", "Doo-Doo-Doo" & "Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da-De-Da," "Boo-Did-Do-Doo," "Lo-Di-De-Do," and would finish off her routine with a "De-Do".
Helen Kane first saw Esther perform in 1928, where she had a ringside seat with Tony Shayne (booking agent for both Kane and Jones) at the Everglades Club on Broadway. According to Lou Bolton, Esther debuted her "Boops" in April 1928. Helen Kane adapted the scat sounds she had heard to "Poop Poop Padoop", first using it in the Broadway musical Good Boy in which she interpolated it into the hit song "I Wanna Be Loved By You" becoming famous overnight. Helen also used a variety of scat sounds in her 1928 Victor song releases; "That's My Weakness Now" and "Get Out and Get Under the Moon". Kane didn't release the hit Broadway song "I Wanna Be Loved By You" on record until September 20, 1928. An early test sound film was discovered which featured Baby Esther performing in this style, disproving Kane's claims of inventing the scat lyrics "Boop-Boop-a-Doop". Baby Esther's ex-manager Bolton testified that Helen Kane had seen Baby Esther's cabaret act in 1928 with Tony Shayne, and then not too long after suddenly started to scat sing in shows. Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled: "The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force."
Esther had been cited as the "original" scat singer who inspired Helen Kane to scat sing. Esther was honored along with Josephine Hall in 1930, for representing African-Americans and the United States of America when she toured Europe.Career
Baby Esther's career began in the early 1920s when she won first prize in a Charleston contest in Chicago. Esther lived in the obscure "colored" part of Chicago with her mother and father. She was then only 4. Russian-American theatrical manager Lou Bolton saw her performance and got her engagements in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Toronto and other cities, after which he brought her to Europe. Esther Jones was rarely called Baby Esther while performing and went by the names "Li'l Esther" and "Little Esther". Originally she was billed "Farina's Kid Sister", but was later known as the "Miniature Florence Mills". Esther started her career impersonating Florence Mills.
Lou Bolton, who was Esther Jones' ex-manager, used Farina's fame to promote Esther in her earlier career. In 1926, Farina, better known as Allen Hoskins, was an expert Charleston dancer, along with his sister Baby Jane. When Esther Jones debuted as Lil' Esther, she was impersonating and or copying Lil' Farina, and was even using his name. Farina was also known as "Little Farina" and that is where the name "Little Esther" originates. Before Esther left for Europe she was connected to Loew's vaudeville theatre. While touring Spain, Esther was referenced as a "La Pandilla" which translates to "Little Rascal." In reality, this had more to do with her impersonation of Farina. Sources indicate that Esther might have appeared in a MGM Our Gang film short.1928
In 1928, Esther performed briefly at an obscure nightclub called the Everglades Club, where she would do imitations of Florence Mills, late at night. One time Esther's 60-year-old father William Jones and manager Lou Bolton got fined for having Esther perform on stage. Esther's booking agent was Tony Shayne at the time, who one night brought Helen Sugar Kane (another person who he managed) to meet Lou Bolton. There both Kane and Shayne had ringside seats and watched Esther sing and dance on stage. Not too long after watching Esther's performance, Helen Kane suddenly started to scat sing in her act.
In 1928, Esther was signed for a talking short by Movietone booked through William Morris for M.G.M, flanked by a 26-piece orchestra from the Capitol theater, New York city.
Harrison G. Smith, a business associate of Bolden Smith of New York, furnished Esther with several songs: "The Turtle Walk," "My Little Dixie Home," "I've Got the Blues for Dixieland" and "I need a Man (Around My House)".1929
Esther toured Europe in 1929 and became the highest-paid child artist in the world. While touring Europe she delighted audiences including royalty. In Spain she played for King Alphonso and Queen Victoria Eugenie. In Sweden King Gustave and the Queen came to the theater especially to see her. In France, Germany, and other countries, Esther also gave private performances for the nobility and high society. Esther also returned to America a few times.
Esther Jones' first appearance was at the Moulin Rouge. In Paris, Esther was known as the "Miniature Josephine Baker". Audiences raved over her and the Parisian newspapers gave much space to her. Vu, leading illustrated weekly, devoted the entire front cover to her picture and a full page in the interior. Esther would sing, dance, do the splits and generally carry on to the great delight of her audiences and was dubbed as being "too cute for words".
The London Sunday People in its review of Paris plays said of Baby Esther: "Thousands flock no longer to the Moulin Rouge to see Mistinguett herself or the clever American ballet girls, or the beautiful women of the chorus, but to applaud a little mite, 10-year-old, who has won fame and wealth within the space of a few weeks. We are living in an age of speed but this amazing little child has broken every record of sudden theatrical success."
Esther continued her success in South America. In Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Montevideo she proved to be a sensation. In Rio de Janeiro, American Ambassador Morgan came to see her play and after her performance came backstage to congratulate her. He said that is was simply marvelous that she could sing in so many different languages and invited her to sing for him at the American embassy. Accompanying Esther was Gordon Stretton, who was known as the Prince of Wales' favorite jazz entertainer. In the course of the evening the president of Brazil expressed to Sidney Garner his great pleasure at seeing such capable black American artists in Brazil.
Esther was interviewed in Rio de Janeiro by press who wanted to know how she had avoided the racists who lynched and burned black people in Texas and Alabama. Esther replied that she had so far escaped their wrath by staying out of the South.1930–1934
When Esther returned to the United States she continued touring and danced for Cab Calloway and his Orchestra as one of his Sepia Dancers at his club in New York. From 1933 to 1934, Esther appeared in Helena Justa's Harlem Maniacs revue. One of the main reasons Baby Esther is not remembered is because she was never a feature attraction in Cab Calloway's New York club; she was a background Sepia dancer, which is why Esther was only given a small tap dancing number in Justa's revue. Justa had loaned the Sepia dancers from Cab Calloway. In 1934, Esther would have been 13 years old, as she was 7 in 1928. Although with Esther, there seemed to have been a bit of age fabrication, to make her seem either younger or older than she actually was. In a few articles from 1929, it states that Esther was around 11–12 years of age.
Esther later returned to the stage as "The Sepia Dancing Doll" and was dubbed the fastest colored dancer who was red hot. Misinformation spread by pseudologists lay claim that Esther died, when in reality she was still active up until September 1934.
In 1934, Esther also attended a NAACP for Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Robinson also taught Helena Justa and Florence Mills. According to a source, Esther later became a full-time acrobat and had later lost most of her appeal and was then succeeded by other black child stars such as Baby Hilda and Baby Selma.Kane v. Fleischer
In 1930, Fleischer Studios animator Grim Natwick introduced a caricature of Helen Kane, in the form of an anthropomorphic singing dog with droopy ears and a squeaky singing voice, in the Talkartoons cartoon Dizzy Dishes. "Betty Boop", as the character was later dubbed, soon became popular and the star of her own cartoons. In 1932, Betty Boop was changed into a human, the long dog ears becoming hoop earrings.
In May 1932, Helen Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation, for "exploiting her image", charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons, contending that Betty Boop's "boop-oop-a-doop" style constituted a "deliberate caricature" that gave her "unfair competition".1930 title card of one of the earliest Betty Boop cartoons
The trial opened that year in the New York State Supreme Court, with Kane and Betty Boop films being viewed only by the judge. No jury was called. Vocal performers Margie Hines, Little Ann Little, Kate Wright, Bonnie Poe, and most notably Mae Questel were all summoned to testify.
Little Ann Little told the court how the "boop-oop-a-doop" phrase had started out as "ba-da inde-do", which developed into "bo do-de-o-do" and finally to "boop-oop-a-doop". Helen Kane's counsel asked Little, who spoke throughout the trial in a Betty Boop voice, "Oh, do you speak like that way at home?" Little responded to the court, "Yes, indeedy!"Defense uses Baby Esther
The defense argued that Kane had taken the idea from Baby Esther. Evidence was produced that Kane actually derived that singing style from watching Baby Esther perform at the Cotton Club several years before the creation of the Betty Boop character. Theatrical manager Lou Boulton testified for the defense stating that in 1925, he coached a "young negro child" named Esther, teaching her how to interpolate her songs with scat lyrics, "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo", which Kane later reinvented as her trademark "boop oop a doop". Jones' manager testified that he and Kane had seen her act together in April 1928, and just a few weeks later, Kane began to "boop".
Paramount was able to prove that Kane did not uniquely originate or have claim to the Betty Boop style of singing or look. In addition to adducing Baby Esther's performances, they showed performances by actress Clara Bow, who also had the Betty Boop style of dress and hair. Louis Bolton was brought in court to testify. Bolton told the court that he had no idea where Esther was, and he thought that she was still in Paris.
After a two-year legal struggle, Max Fleischer located a sound film made in 1928 of her performing, which was introduced as evidence. Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled, "The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force." In his opinion, the "baby" technique of singing did not originate with Kane.Legacy
Jones is now spoken of mostly in the context of her contributions to Betty Boop's vocal stylings. Jazz studies scholar Robert O'Meally has referred to Jones as Betty Boop's "black grandmother".
Images of a model, Olya, taken by Russian-based studio Retro Atelier in 2008, made up in costume and make-up as a Betty Boop look-alike are regularly mis-identified as Esther Jones.Misconceptions
Baby Esther shares her original name and original stage name with Little Esther Phillips, who was also known as Esther Mae Jones. Both singers used the names "Little Esther" and "Li'l Esther", but Esther Phillips was of a later generation, born in 1935.
An image that went viral (dubbed Baby Esther) was a white Ukrainian female model called Oyla. Older images claiming to be Baby Esther went viral because an official Betty Boop Checks source called Betty Boop and Helen Kane, which is no longer online, had used one of James Van Der Zee photographs of a pretty black college girl beside an image of Clara Bow, claiming it to be Baby Esther without proof.See also