Naxos Nostalgia BSIN01952850
Baker, Josephine - Un Message Pour Toi (1926-1937)
"Un message pour toi" Original Paris Recordings 1926-1937
Variously exotic sex-idol, cosmopolitan celebrity and surrogate mother to foreign orphans, in her heyday Josephine Baker was a living legend of the Paris music-halls and the highest-paid female entertainer in Europe. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, on 3 June, 1906, the daughter of a black-American washerwoman and a white-American, alcoholic father, she was the eldest of four siblings. She grew up in a hard school but used her wits to survive a difficult childhood and an illegal first marriage at the age of thirteen. Educated in Philadelphia, at eight she was already singing in Harlem nightclubs and at ten worked as an extra at the St. Louis music-hall to assist her mother with the house-keeping. In 1921, aged fifteen and keen to make a career as a dancer, she ran away to New York where she joined Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s all-black touring show Shuffle Along.
Having earlier acquired stage experience in Harlem — and now encouraged by Clara Smith to improve her dancing skills — from chorus-line in New York Josephine pulled her face and clowned her way to stardom. Contemporary opinions were divided: her jealous opponents said she "danced like a monkey" while her charismatic personality disarmed all detractors until, through a fortunate combination of comedy and feminine charm and notwithstanding the combined talents of her colleagues Valaida Snow and Elisabeth Welch, she got prominent billing as a sort of black Fanny Brice — an elastic-limbed, boss-eyed, tomboyish comedienne — in the 1924 Blake—Sissle revue In Bamville, soon to be re-christened Chocolate Dandies.
Undeterred from her first ambition to become a dancer, however, in 1925 Josephine joined the Dudley dance troupe (a 25-strong group comprising mostly black dancers, singers and musicians whose ranks included the young Sidney Bechet) in a European tour of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds. This show which, momentously for Josephine, hit Paris as La revue nègre at the Theatre Music-Hall des Champs-Elysées in October 1925, also had the distinction of introducing the Charleston to the French capital. ‘La Baker’ conquered overnight (albeit the impact she made, resplendently naked apart from a strategically-placed ostrich feather, at first alienated the most prominent traditionalists) and, swiftly dubbed ‘l’étoile noire des Folies-Bergère’ and via a combination of stage-presence and cute vocalising, she soon outshone all her rivals at the leading Parisian night-spots.
At the Folies, clad often as not only in that famous skirt of bananas and partnered by leopards, Baker appeared, most notably, in Folies d’un jour (1926) and Un vent des folies (1927) and, from 1930 onwards, at the Casino (in Paris qui remue, La joie de Paris, Paris-London, etc). Ensconced in Paris, she had become a major star virtually overnight. Famed initially for the novelty of her nude appearances, she could also sing. She made her first records by September 1926 — the contemporary hits That Certain Feeling from George & Ira Gershwin’s Tip-Toes and Who?, from Jerome Kern’s Sunny, were among the very first issued matrices — and later showed her "vocal" side (her sweet, tuneful light soprano ascended easily to high C and possibly higher) to greater advantage in an opérette entitled La belle Créole, in reality a quasi-autobiographical adaptation of Offenbach’s La Créole.
By 1927 already styled Joséphine (to facilitate French pronunciation) she had opened her own cabaret, Chez Joséphine, where members of fashionable French society were taught the rudiments of the ‘Black Bottom’ and other, similar Transatlantic variants on the Charleston and, courted by the rich and famous (she later had an affair with Georges Simenon and enjoyed at the very least a close friendship with Ernest Hemingway) she became an institution in her adoptive city. That same year she made three film appearances : silent screen debut in La folie du jour (a one-reeler based on her 1926 Folies show) followed by La revue des revues and La sirène des Tropiques and during 1928 her tours included successful appearances in Amsterdam, Lucerne, Oslo, Stockholm and Vienna and a further tour of South America prior to her return to Paris.
During the early 1930s Baker’s stage-shows were much admired for their sophistication and three were successfully filmed — Zou-Zou (1934; paired with Jean Gabin, she is somewhat implausibly cast as a singing-dancing creole laundress who, replete with feathers and finery, stands in for the temperamental star of a ‘Forty-Second Street’-style cabaret), followed in 1935 by La Princesse Tam-Tam and Moulin Rouge. In 1936 she returned to her native shore to appear on Broadway with Bob Hope and Fanny Brice in Ziegfeld Follies but meeting with an unfavourable reception (poor notices in addition to racist jibes in restaurants when off-duty) returned more or less permanently to France. There, a virtual self-imposed exile, she continued to pepper her repertoire with American film and show-songs: Cole Porter songs in translation originally featured in Born To Dance (1936) and Un message pour toi (originally "A Message From The Man In The Moon" from the 1937 Marx Brothers knockabout A Day At The Races) are cases in point.
In 1939 Josephine partnered Maurice Chevalier in cabaret and following the Fall of France became a covert Resistance-worker (joining the French Women’s airforce, in which she rose to the rank of Sub-Lieutenant, she reputedly helped set up lines of outside communications through Casablanca). In 1940, on screen, she appeared in two French morale-boosters: Fausse alerte and The French Way and later on lent her services working tirelessly as a voluntary nurse, driving ambulances and assisting refugees; a favourite entertainer to troops stationed in Northern Africa and the Middle East, she joined ENSA in 1943. After appearing in London on VE Day in 1945, she again toured Europe and was subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm, the Rosette of the resistance and membership of the Légion d’Honneur.
After the liberation of Paris, Josephine spent the late 1940s alternating between the Folies-Bergère and international tours. By this time a vigorous campaigner for Civil Rights and racial equality in the USA and elsewhere, in 1948 she purchased Les Milandes, a chateau in the Dordogne which, jointly with her third husband, cabaret conductor Jo Bouillon, she converted to a multi-racial refuge for orphaned children. In 1950-1951, in the USA, her political stance was even more boldly stated when she insisted on playing to non-segregated audiences. In 1953 she began a series of farewell tours and in 1959 returned to the Paris Olympia in her own show Paris, mes amours which she followed with guest appearances in the USA during the early 1960s, reportedly to raise funds for her orphanage. In 1964 she suffered a heart-attack but by 1968 had recovered sufficiently to premiere the French production of Hello, Dolly! with some success despite, owing to financial difficulties, having been forced meanwhile to sell her chateau (forcibly evicted, she collapsed and was hospitalised but by the following year, with assistance from Princess Grace and the Red Cross, found new accommodation in Monaco). In 1973 she gave a Carnegie Hall concert in aid of UNICEF before re-visiting London (she appeared on Yorkshire TV’s The Good Old Days in 1973 and played the Palladium on her return trip a year later) and South Africa. Returning to Paris, in March 1975 she celebrated fifty years in cabaret in Joséphine at Bobino’s, but after her short-lived come-back died as the result of a stroke in Paris, on April 12. (Peter Dempsey, 2002)