This all-too-often-forgotten African-American cabaret singer named “Baby” Esther gave birth to the cartoon character, Betty Boop, rarely receives credit for it, and whose story in many ways, tells a larger tale about America itself.
Born in Chicago, Esther Jones became a popular entertainer that performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the late 1920s. Esther interpolated (inserted into something else) words such as ‘boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo” to “boop-oop-a-doop” while performing and recording her hit single “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”
Then comes along Helen Kane; a white actress and songstress who saw Esther Jones perform in the Cotton Club in 1928. Helen Kane began to included this “baby style scat” into her music and act, at which point she began to become popular.
When the cartoon character Betty Boop was introduced, Kane promptly sued Fleischer and Paramount Corporation,
the then cartoon company, stating they were using her image.
In the lawsuit, the defense brought out archival footage of Esther Jones singing, which had come from early sound recordings. This was the nail in Kane’s legal coffin.
It was determined that Betty Boop was not based off of Helen Kane, but was a composite of many figures to include “Baby” Esther. It turns out, Esther Jones had invented Helen Kane, and, by extension, Betty Boop.
It’s estimated that the Betty Boop franchise generated millions of dollars in revenue from televison networks and sales of merchandise and cartoons.
During Esther Jones’ entire career, she was mostly known locally in the New York City area, where she reportedly died at a young age.
Initially, Betty Boop was shown in cartoons as an African American woman. She appeared in at least one animated scene in the popular Popeye The Sailor Man series. But soon after, she was transformed into a white woman and remained so until her character was finally retired.