Saturday, October 06, 2012

My Crush on Belle Baker

It seems I have developed a crush, which is sad enough for someone my age. But what is pathetic is the object of my affection died over a half century ago.
This is my favorite picture of Belle Baker, it is a candid moment, probably from a fan magazine. (Proof that paparazzi were around in 1915.). I discovered Belle several months ago by accident while listing to WGBH's streaming broadcast of The Jazz Decades. Since then I have acquired just about everything digital that remains of her work, some fifty songs.

Belle was born in 1895 in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York, the daughter of poor Jewish refugees from the pogroms of Czarist Russia. She began singing on the street and in music halls at the age of 11 and was a star on the vaudeville circuit at the age of 17.

Her contemporaries in vaudeville were names you may have heard of - Jack Benny, George Burns, and Fanny Brice. In her time she headlined over all of them. Belle's first hit was an Irving Berlin (you'll see that name again) ditty titled "Cohen Owes Me $97." Belle's version is lost to history. Fortunately, modern performer Janet Klein has done the skit so we can get a feeling for how Belle sounded.
The earliest recording I have of Belle is a 1919 song that tells of the title character in Puchini's opera Madame Butterfly. In this version she doesn't stay a demure tragedy. She learns to shimmy and "shake her Japan knees" to "keep her sailor boy from going out to sea." Instead of being "as shy as she can be" she "learned to kiss and hug and squeeze and how - Wow, wow." Instead of committing suicide over her lost love, Butterfly ends us with "a dandy voice, two Fords and one Rolls Royce."

One bio describes Belle as "one of the original Red Hot Mommas." Her existing body of work suggest Belle was not of the Mae West or Sophie Tucker, "a hard man is good to find" school. Belle's specialty was "torch songs," romantic tunes about suffering for love. Belle was a small woman, just a tad over five feet tall, but she had a powerful voice, befitting someone who became a star before microphones. She had a natural talent to use inflection to infuse strong emotions into her songs. Her signature song is "My Yiddishe Momme," which I don't like so much because it is too weepy. A better example, and my current favorite, is "There Must Be Somebody Else" by Irving Berlin.

And just to show you what a wonderful singer Belle was, here is Annette Hanshaw's far weaker interpretation, also from the 1920's.

Belle tried to make the transition from vaudeville to Broadway. In 1926 she signed on to star in a Rodgers and Hart musical, Betsy. Unfortunately, this was by far their worst collaboration. Belle realized that and in desperation called her friend, Irving Berlin. In one night, he wrote a song for Belle to sneak into the opening night performance. That song, Blue Skies, was a hit, such a hit the audience demanded Belle do 28 encores before they allowed the play to continue. But even Blue Skies couldn't save this Rodgers and Hart turdfest which closed after 39 performances. It is my bitter disappointment that there does not appear to be any surviving recordings of Belle Baker singing "Blue Skies."

Belle also tried movies. After her vaudeville friend Al Jolson succeeded with the "Jazz Singer" Belle tried her own version. Belle starred in a musical melodrama titled "Song of Love" in 1929. While musical melodramas worked on the New York stage, they flopped in films. Busby Berkeley extravaganzas with scantily clad showgirls were far more popular. Also, Belle was middle-aged by then and audiences wanted younger woman singers like Jeanette MacDonald or Ginger Rogers. After Song of Love, Belle only made two brief singing appearances in films. None of Belle's films have been transferred to digital media.

The love of Belle's life, her off-stage collaborator and husband, Morrie Abrahams, died suddenly in 1931. She gave up full time performing to raise their 11 year-old son. While Belle did work on radio periodically and recorded several songs, she mostly retired from the stage. Her star was eclipsed by others. In 1954 on an episode of "This Is Your Life" fellow vaudevillian Eddie Cantor described Belle Baker as "Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland all rolled into one." Belle died in 1957. Her son had a successful career in Hollywood writing for television.

Belle's powerful voice and emotional verve made her singing of "torch songs" memorable. Take Everything But You, from Song of Love, is an excellent example of how she can infuse a ton feeling into every note. But the pride of my Belle Baker collection are a half-dozen ethnic ditties. More skits than songs, in these Belle dons the Yiddish accent of her heritage and has fun. Spend 89 cents and listen to Ginsberg of Scotland Yard for a good laugh. I can imagine her on a New York vaudeville stage wowing the crowd.

Which is my problem. I do imagine her and I've fallen in love with that imagination. If I were alive back then I'd be the kind of Johnnie hanging out by the stagedoor trying to get a glimpse of the wonderful Belle Baker. I'd probably stalk her too, poor dear.

If you've made it to the end of this you may be in love with that dear little shayner maidel (Yiddish: pretty woman) too. What's left of her quarter century entertainment career can be found for free on the web. Or you can buy CDs from Vintage Recordings.

1 comment:

Katie Porter said...

I discovered Belle's enchanting voice tonight while watching the movie White Christmas for the very first time. One of the songs performed in the medley of mass hits the movie provided was "Blue Skies". This is a song I recently grew familiar with after the students of my school's choir performed it as part of their annual winter concert. While researching the history of the song, I discovered Belle Baker. I searched the web for information about her version of the song, but found nothing other than the trivial tidbits describing her many encore requests after first performing the song in the play Betsy. I am saddened to read that no recordings of the song exist, as I think it would have beeen magnificent to listen to after hearing her beautiful voice on many recordings found on YouTube. Today would have marked Belle's 122 birthday. All that I can think to say about this remarkably voiced woman is that I hope she has seen many Blue Skies wherever her beautiful voice and soul are now dwelling. Happy Birthday Belle!