Her Story: Baby Esther
Esther Lee Jones, AKA Baby Esther, was an American cabaret singer and entertainer at several night clubs in Harlem including the Cotton Club. Born in 1919, Baby Esther was the original inspiration for the cartoon character Betty Boop and she was Black. It is not until recent years that Jones has received proper credit for this Americana icon.
Jones started as a child entertainer at age 4 from Chicago, Illinois. Her act, Baby Esther, would dance, make funny faces and use interpolated words and other scat sounds. She would often finish her act with “Boop-Boop-a-Doop”. Helen Kane, a white female entertainer, first saw Jones perform in 1928 (Jones was 9). A short time later Kane performed scat sounds almost identical to Baby Esther’s act, then recorded a song titled “I Want to Be Loved By You’ with the “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” phrase in the song. She became famous almost instantaneously.
Boop first appeared in 1930, her character was unique in that she stood on her own rather than being defined by a lead male character. Fleisher Studios created Betty Boop as a characterization of Helen Kane. Once Kane learned about the cartoon she sued the studio. Esther Jones was called to testify in the case but sadly passed away before her day in court. However, after a long court battle, the court declared that Betty Boop’s scatting did not originate with Kane.
The story of Esther Jones is a perfect example of cultural appropriation. It’s important for Her Story to be told.