History is full of forgotten or erased stories, stories with layers of misinformation and half-truths piled on them, and stories that focus on one narrow aspect of a person’s life, although their broader tale may be much more fascinating. Many of those hidden tales center around the dispossessed, the minorities, the enslaved, and the losers of a conflict. One of the stories that combines elements from all of these types is the curious tale of Baby Esther and the cartoon character, Betty Boop.
Esther Lee Jones was an African American child entertainer and singer active in the 1920s and 30s. She was known for her acrobatic dancing and her distinctive ‘baby’ style of scat singing, which she didn’t originate herself, but had been taught by her manager, who had seen it done by other performers. In 1926, when Esther was only four years old, she was ‘discovered’ by a talent agent named Lou Bolton. Bolton signed her to perform in nightclubs around Chicago, and Lil’ Esther or Baby Esther, as she was billed, was a big hit. Soon she was on a European tour and received rave reviews in the papers.
Sometime in 1928, white performer named Helen Kane saw Baby Esther sing at the Cotton Club, and decided to incorporate the ‘baby’ style into her own act - a successful move on her part - and she even went on to record major hits like I Wanna Be Loved By You, using the technique. But despite this clear appropriation, Kane never gave Esther Jones credit for the song or the singing style, which became her own signature sound in time.
Of course, artists derive inspiration from each other all the time, and that is a natural part of the creative process, but a decent person will give credit to the artist who inspired them. This is the idea behind paying royalties for the use of creative works. This particular appropriation, however, was also part of a different pattern of injustice - the pervasive appropriation and theft of African American work, art, and style by white Americans who consistently disrespected, denigrated, and de-valued the sources of the intellectual property they took.
But Kane’s swiping of Baby Esther’s style wasn’t the end of the story.
In 1930 a cartoonist named Grim Natwick working for Fleischer Studios created a caricature of Helen Kane in the form of an anthropomorphic singing poodle with a curvy human body, long floppy ears and a squeaky voice much like Kane’s -- and Baby Esther’s. This singing dog was first featured in a cartoon called Dizzy Dishes and was popular enough that the cartoonist developed the character into the Betty Boop that is so familiar in popular culture, and was gradually changed from a dog into a young woman with hoop earrings instead of floppy ears. Her unique blend of innocent and sexy appealed to audiences at the time, although after indecency laws called the Hayes Act were passed, Betty Boop’s look was modified to be more modest to adhere to the new requirements.
In 1932, Helen Kane had fallen on hard times and decided to bring a $25,000 lawsuit against Fleischer Studios for ‘exploiting her image’ and creating unfair competition in the form of the Betty Boop cartoon character. In their defense, the studio charged that Kane had stolen the idea for the baby-style of singing from Esther Jones in the first place, bringing witnesses and evidence to support their claim, including Jones’ manager, Lou Bolton, who testified that, “...in 1925, he coached a ‘young negro child’ named Esther, teaching her how to interpolate her songs with scat lyrics which she later re-purposed into her trademark ‘boop oop a doop.'” Walton also said that Kane had come to see Baby Esther in 1928, shortly before she began using the signature baby style.
In the end, Kane lost the lawsuit, on the grounds that she did not uniquely originate or have claim to the Betty Boop style of singing, and the studio prevailed and went on to create a hugely successful brand with the Betty Boop character who starred in many cartoons and was featured in merchandise and used in advertising other companies’ products.
But once the lawsuit was settled, Esther Jones never received any further recognition -- and was certainly never paid any sort of royalties or compensated in any other way for pioneering the sound and technique that went on to be used by the creators of Betty Boop. In turn, Esther’s act was a permutation of vaudeville and jazz scat singing rooted in the African American music scene and should be recognized as part of that tradition.
The cartoon character Betty Boop, inspired by the woman who appropriated Esther’s style lives on in movies, cartoons, video games, and all sorts of merchandise, but the end of Esther’s story is unknown. What we do know is that Esther had a very successful career as a child performer on an international tour up until her last known performance in 1934.
But when we start digging, the back-story of Esther Jones’ life is far more interesting than whether she was the inspiration for Betty Boop or not! Esther’s story is one of exploitation and success, rich African American Culture and a continuum of performers blending styles into the uniquely American sound of Jazz and a particular time in history on the verge of great change and upheaval.
Esther was born about 1921, the daughter of William and Gertrude Jones. The Jones family was living in Chicago in 1926, when 4 year old Esther was performing as a Charleston street dancer, in some versions of the story she is accompanied on a drum by her brother, and was discovered by talent agent Lou Bolton, who soon became her manager. Other versions of the story say she was competing in a dance competition when Bolton noticed her.
Either way, Bolton booked L’il Esther or Baby Esther, as she was billed, in nightclubs around Chicago, and then branching out to places like Harlem’s famous hub of jazz culture, the Cotton Club and the Everglades Club on Broadway. Reviews reported that Baby Esther was ‘stepping the house into a riot,’according to one newspaper, and ‘a great sensation’ in another. In 1928 Esther’s parents Gertrude and William Jones and Lou Bolton were brought to court and fined for having an underage child out performing until 3:00 am. Bolton was charged with allowing a minor to perform, and the Joneses were charged with improper guardianship. Esther herself was placed in the custody of the Children’s Society until the case was brought to a close.
The hardworking young performer was also recording songs using her distinctive type of scat with sounds like ‘Boop-bo-be-doop’, ‘boo-boo-boo,’ and ‘doop-de-doop.’ She had a few hits, including songs like ‘Sonny Boy’ and ‘My Mammy’. On stage she was a sensational dancer and acrobat and she often played the opening act for bigger names or performed as part of a troupe. Esther often impersonated her idol, Florence Mills, and sometimes was billed as ‘Farina’s Little Sister’, referring to the Little Rascal’s character, Farina. You could even say she was something like the African American Shirley Temple.
It was in April of 1928 that Helen Kane saw Esther perform at the Everglades Club, but that event, though fateful, probably wasn’t even a blip on Esther’s radar. Kane would have an instant hit with I Wanna Be Loved By You, which incorporated Esther’s baby scat style, as well as other successes like Get Out and Get Under the Moon. And of course, next came the cartoon character, Betty Boop. But Esther just kept on going. She was making money of her own, and her agent and parents kept her busy.
In 1929-1930 Esther went on tour in Europe and performed in Spain, Berlin, Oslo, Sweden, Milan, and London to rave reviews. Sometime during the tour, her mother Gertrude fired Lou Bolton because he had been skimming Esther’s hard earned money and because he had ‘Jim Crowed’ Gertrude by doing things like telling people she was a maid, making her wait in the hall when the others went in to dine somewhere, etc. This may have been the American way at the time, but it was not acceptable or normal behavior in Europe. In fact, Europe was a welcoming place for African American performers throughout the early decades of the 20th century, without most of the bigotry and segregation that was so institutionalized in the States.
Esther’s new agent was a Parisian manager named Sydney Gardner, who seems to have taken better care of Esther’s interests in helping her complete her European tour as part of Ernst Rolf’s Revue and later taking her to Brazil before returning to the US, where sadly, Gardner fell ill. Esther continued working in America as part of the Cab Calloway Review and toured the Vaudeville circuit as ‘Little Esther the Sepia Dancing Doll’. In 1933-1934 she performed in Helena Justa’s review called The Harlem Maniacs, and also in a tribute to Bo Jangles.
But Little Esther was a child star, and she was growing up and younger performers began to take her place. By 1934, Esther’s popularity had waned, and the last reference to her is in September when she did acrobatics for a Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson benefit show.
This was the same year that Helen Kane would sue the cartoon studio and Esther’s name would be brought up by her then former manager, Lou Bolton. But Esther herself never testified in the Kane lawsuit, nor did she even comment, although there is evidence that she was in the US at the time.
What happened to this talented young African American child? How did someone with a European tour under her belt just disappear from the records? Did she die? Did she marry young? For now, the fate of Esther Jones is a mystery, but her memory lives on as an echo in the voice of a cartoon character named Betty Boop.
Esther’s narrative is a reminder to dig deeper for more glimpses of the true story, the one that paints a rich picture of the history of our people with art and culture rising up in the most desperate circumstances and creating a legacy that can be traced down the years. Why just learn about how some white woman stole a little black singer’s style and then had it stolen in turn by a cartoonist? Why not learn about the nightclub scene in the 1920s when children could sing and dance their way to stardom and a ticket out of the slums for their family? About a justice system just beginning to have a problem with that. About a musical tradition passed on from performer to performer and building a new nation’s musical contribution - jazz. About a different continent where tolerance was greater than in our own country? And about how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Placing Esther Jones in context ultimately helps us place ourselves in our own place in history knowing that she walked there before us.
NOTE: There is a lot of misinformation about Esther Jones floating around the internet. Read carefully, and look for documentation of the facts before accepting them as truth.
1. Baby Esther entry on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Esther
2. Bettyboopedia, Baby Esther Jones (This site has lots of photos, links, and images of newspaper clippings, probably the most accurate online source on the subject that we have found, debunking lots of the other misinformation out there. [https://bettyboop.fandom.com/wiki/Baby_Esther_Jones]
3. Vaudeville entry in Encyclopedia Brittannica [https://www.britannica.com/art/vaudeville]