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“Betty Boop is a powerful symbol of carefree, unashamed sexuality. Very few people have heard about Baby Esther, the talented black singer who inspired Betty Boop.”
Baby Esther, or Esther Jones, had an enchanting, childish voice that brought throngs of jazz-loving visitors to the Cotton Club in Harlem. Her singing voice was flirtatious and lyrical and, according to the audience, had a siren ring to it.
Esther Jones was forgotten by history, and her singing style was stolen by another woman who claimed it was hers.”
Esther Lee Jones (born c. 1918, date of death unknown), known by her stage names “Baby Esther”, “Little Esther”, and other similar variations, was an American singer and child entertainer of the late 1920s, known for interpreting popular songs with a “mixture of seriousness and childish mischief”.After gaining attention in her hometown of Chicago, she became an international celebrity before leaving the public spotlight as a teenager.
She was initially managed by her parents, Gertrude and William Jones. Esther was a trained scat singer, dancer and acrobat who performed regularly at nightclubs in Harlem and all over the United States in the 1920s. In her act, “Baby Esther” danced, made funny faces, rolled her eyes, and—most famously—interpolated nonsense phrases such as “Boo-Boo-Boo”, “Wha-Da-Da”, and “Doo-Doo-Doo”.
By 1924, she was being managed by Lou Bolton. According to Bolton, Esther began using nonsense syllables in her singing between 1926 and her arrival in New York in 1928. In 1928, Tony Shayne, Jones’ New York booking agent, also served as a booking agent for Helen Kane. In the later Kane v. Fleischer court case, Bolton claimed that Kane first saw Esther perform in 1928, at which time Kane had a ringside seat with Shayne at the Everglades Club on Broadway.
While touring Europe in 1930, Esther had already been honoured, along with Josephine Hall, as representatives of both African-Americans and the United States of America.
In 1932, when singer Helen Kane sued Fleischer Studios, claiming that they had appropriated her persona for the voice of the cartoon character Betty Boop, the studios defended themselves by arguing that Kane’s style of singing—characterized by her baby voice and use of the phrase “boop-boop-a-doop”—was not her own invention. Theatrical manager Lou Bolton testified during the Kane v. Fleischer trial that Kane saw Baby Esther’s cabaret act in 1928, in which Esther used interpolated words such as “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo”. An early test sound film of Baby Esther’s performance was used as evidence. Other evidence introduced at the trial included a recording by the Duncan Sisters and testimony from performers such as Bonnie Poe, Margie Hines, and Little Ann Little, who testified that she had been singing in a baby voice and using interpolations such as “bo-de-o-do” for several years. The court ruled against Kane.
During the 1920s Baby Esther performed in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Jackson, Michigan, Toronto, Ontario, Atlantic City, Elizabeth, Union City and New Jersey. In her act Baby Esther would dance, make funny faces, roll her eyes and interpolate 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 unique scatting routine with a “De-Do” in rhythm. A majority of these scat techniques were taught to Esther by her manager at the time Lou Bolton. Bolton claimed that in Chicago he taught Esther how to interpolate “scat singing“ between the bars of music in popular songs. Other scat sounds Esther used to interpolate include “Roop-Woop-a-Woop,” “Ud-Up-Deo-Do,” “Skeet Scat,” “Bup-Bup,” “Poo-Poo-a-Doo” long before Helen Kane. “Roop-Woop-a-Woop” was one of the many scat interpolations used by Esther Jones, which sort of sounds similar to Helen’s “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” routine that Kane debuted in the same year. It is said in history that Helen Kane had adapted the scat sounds she had heard Esther interpolate and changed one of the latter to “Poop Poop Padoop,” first using it in the Broadway musical Good Boy in which she interpolated the scat sounds into the hit song “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in which Kane became famous overnight. Helen’s first two recordings “That’s My Weakness Now” and “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” prove this. When Kane tried to sue the Fleischers an early test sound film was discovered which featured Baby Esther performing in this unique style, disproving Kane’s claims of inventing the scat lyrics. Baby Esther’s ex-manager Bolton testified that Helen Kane had saw Baby Esther’s cabaret act in 1928 with Tony Shayne, and then not too long after Kane 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.” In his opinion, the “baby” technique and “scat” style of singing did not originate with Kane. Little Ann Little, Margie Hines, Mae Questel, Bonnie Poe were then focused on in the second part of the trial. Helen attempted to prove that they performed their vocal shimmies in a way so similar to her that it constituted unfair competition. At the Everglades Nite Club in 1928, Esther would often impersonate her idol Florence Mills and was known as a Florence Mills impersonator. Mills was known to incorporate a “Tooty-Tooty-Too” into her song “Baby and Me” years earlier. At the Everglades, Esther would sing Florence Mills’ most famous songs and would also dance and often uttered her “Do-Do-De-Do-Ho-De-Wa-Da” on stage, a unique scat singing style which is said to have originated from other black stars. This was backed up in court by dancer Miriam Luber. Florence Mills was likely Jones’ inspiration, who in turn was emulating “scat singing” originator Gertrude Saunders. When Max Fleischer, invented Betty Boop he was not only imitating Helen Kane but a whole image of women in the 1920s. Helen Kane did not initiate the phraseology “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” even though she most certainly popularized it. This catchy, inane line of scat was first used by Edith Griffith and in “alternative scat form” by Gertrude Saunders, Mae Barnes, Florence Mills, Baby Esther and others. Bessie Smith’s rival Gertrude Saunders is often cited as the original “scat singing” sensation and spoke out against Helen Kane and Betty Boop in 1934 by saying she “did it first in 1921” while performing in the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along.
Esther Jones was most popular in European countries such as France especially Paris, Sweden, Germany and Spain. Also the capital of London, Brazil and South America. Shamus Culhane best known for his work on the early Betty Boop cartoons references Esther Jones in his 1986 book Talking Animals and Other People which states “under careful cross-examination Kane had to admit that she, in turn had copied the ‘Boop-Boop-a-Doop’ business from an obscure black singer Baby Esther.”  In Richard Fleischer‘s 2005 book Out of the Inkwell he says that, “eventually a piece of sound film made in 1928 was dredged up proving that a black nightclub singer Baby Esther was singing Boop-Oop-a-Doop long before Helen Kane.” As of 2021, Esther has been paid homage by Taraji P. Henson and Big Freedia.