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.
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.
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
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.