Gertude C. Saunders

Gertrude C. Saunders (August 25, 1903 – April 1991) was an American singer, actress and comedian, active from the 1910s to the 1940s.

She was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and studied at Benedict College, Columbia before leaving in her teens to join a vaudeville troupe based in Chicago, organized by Billy King.  She was a featured singer and comedian, and performed a number of hit songs including "Wait 'Til the Cows Come Home" (1918), "Hot Dog" (1919), and "Rose of Washington Square" (1920). She was also featured in King's 1919 stage production of Over the Top, which "dramatized the state of African Americans at the time of the Paris Peace Conference".

In April 1921, she became the star of the first production, in New York, of Shuffle Along, by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. She was a part of "the first Broadway musical entirely written, directed, and performed by African Americans".  She received good reviews — according to one critic, "Jazz with more pep than ever seen here before was featured by Gertrude Saunders...". She also made several recordings for Okeh Records, with Tim Brymn's Black Devil Orchestra.

She was spotted by vaudeville promoters Hurtig and Seamon, who offered to increase her salary if she would star in a burlesque show. She accepted the offer and was replaced in Shuffle Along by Florence Mills. Saunders' career faltered as a result of the move, though she continued to star in revues through the 1920s, notably several produced by Irvin C. Miller. In 1929, she featured in a revue promoted by Bessie Smith's husband, Jack Gee. Smith suspected that Saunders and Gee were having an affair, and twice beat up Saunders. Smith was charged with assault; her marriage to Gee ended soon afterwards.  In 1931, Saunders suffered a breakdown and returned to Asheville to recuperate.

She returned to perform in revues during the 1930s, and was claimed in some reports as having, some years earlier, originated the "boop-oop-a-doop" lyrics in scat singing, later associated with Helen Kane. It is now generally agreed that the birth of Betty’s baby style was created by jazz singer named Esther Jones. Esther introduced the baby style, the boop noises and created an act that was amazingly original and edgy for the time.

Saunders featured in several movies, including an uncredited role as a servant in The Toy Wife (1938). In 1939, she co-produced her own show, Midnight Steppers, and she performed in the 1943 Broadway show Run Little Chillun. She also appeared in several films aimed at African American audiences, such as Big Timers (1945) and Sepia Cinderella (1947).

Saunders is portrayed in the 2015 HBO TV movie, Bessie. She is portrayed as Gertrude, who has an affair with Bessie Smith's husband, Jack Gee.

Saunders died in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1991.

Esther Jones

Esther Jones, known by her stage name "Baby Esther", was an African American singer and entertainer of the late 1920s, known for her "baby" singing style. She performed regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Theatrical manager Lou Boulton testified during the Fleischer v. Kane trial that Helen Kane saw Baby Esther's cabaret act in 1928 with him.  In addition Boulton testified Jones'  changed the interpolated words "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo" to "boop-boop-a-doop" in a recording of "I Wanna Be Loved By You". Kane never publicly admitted this. Jones' style, as imitated by Kane, went on to become the inspiration for the voice of the cartoon character Betty Boop.

When Kane attempted to sue Fleischer Studios for using her persona, the studios defended themselves by arguing that Kane herself had taken it from "Baby Esther" Jones. An early test sound film of Baby Esther's performance was used as evidence. In court, it was presumed that Jones was still in Paris.

In 1930, Fleischer Studios animator Grim Natwick introduced a caricature of Helen Kane, in the form of an anthropomorphic singing dog with droopy ears and a squeaky singing voice, in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes. "Betty Boop", as the character was later dubbed, soon became popular and the star of her own cartoons. In 1932, Betty Boop was changed into a human, the long dog ears becoming hoop earrings.

In May 1932, Helen Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation, for "exploiting her image", charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons, contending that Betty Boop's "boop-oop-a-doop" style constituted a "deliberate caricature" that gave her "unfair competition".

The trial opened that year in the New York State Supreme Court, with Kane and Betty Boop films being viewed only by the judge. No jury was called. Vocal performers Margie Hines, Little Ann Little, Kate Wright, Bonnie Poe, and most notably Mae Questel were all summoned to testify.

Little Ann Little told the court how the "boop-oop-a-doop" phrase had started out as "ba-da inde-do", which developed into "bo do-de-o-do" and finally to "boop-oop-a-doop". Helen Kane's counsel asked Little, who spoke throughout the trial in a Betty Boop voice, "Oh, do you speak like that way at home?" Little responded to the court, "Yes, indeedy!"
Defense uses Baby Esther

The defense argued that Kane had taken the idea from Baby Esther. Evidence was produced that Kane actually derived that singing style from watching Baby Esther perform at the Cotton Club several years before the creation of the Betty Boop character. Theatrical manager Lou Boulton testified for the defense stating that in 1925, he coached a "young negro child" named Esther, teaching her how to interpolate her songs with scat lyrics, "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo", which Kane later reinvented as her trademark "boop oop a doop". Jones' manager testified that he and Kane had seen her act together in April 1928, and just a few weeks later, Kane began to "boop".

Paramount was able to prove that Kane did not uniquely originate or have claim to the Betty Boop style of singing or look. In addition to adducing Baby Esther's performances, they showed performances by actress Clara Bow, who also had the Betty Boop style of dress and hair.

After a two-year legal struggle, Max Fleischer located a sound film made in 1928 of her performing, which was introduced as evidence. 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 of singing did not originate with Kane.

Jones is now spoken of mostly in the context of her contributions to Betty Boop's vocal stylings. Jazz studies scholar Robert O'Meally has referred to Jones as Betty Boop's "black grandmother".

Images of a model, Olya, taken by Russian-based studio Retro Atelier in 2008, made up in costume and make-up as a Betty Boop look-alike are regularly mis-identified as Esther Jones.

Teddy Darby

Theodore Roosevelt Darby, better known as Blind Teddy Darby (March 2, 1906 – December 1975), was an American blues singer and guitarist.

Darby was born in Henderson, Kentucky. He moved to St. Louis with his family when he was a child. His mother taught him to play the guitar. In 1926 he lost his eyesight because of glaucoma.

He recorded from 1929 until 1937 under the names Blind Teddy Darby, Blind Darby, Blind Blues Darby and Blind Squire Turner for Paramount, Victor, Bluebird, Vocalion and Decca. In 1960 he was "rediscovered" and recorded by Pete Welding of Testament Records, but the recordings from this session were never released.

Darby was a friend of the blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw. On December 21, 1941, Wheatstraw's 39th birthday, Darby was invited to go for a drive with Wheatstraw and two others, but Darby's wife objected, and he declined the invitation. Wheatstraw and his two companions were killed when their car struck a standing freight train.

Darby's sound was a mix of rural and urban influences, his country blues guitar meshing well with Webb's more urban, St. Louis-based piano style, and his singing reflecting the influence of the city he called home. It was powerful music, reflecting a nimble, dexterous approach to the guitar and bold piano riffs, and passionate, affecting vocals. Darby continued to record until 1937, but his career in blues ended when Tommy Webb was stabbed to death, reportedly over a pack of cigarettes. The combined loss of his cousin and partner, coupled with his disillusionment, caused him to renounce the music and the life of a blues man. He became an ordained minister known as Preacher Darby.

His song "Built Right on the Ground" has been covered (under the title of "I Never Cried"), from the 1970s onwards, by John Miller (who first changed the title), Roy Book Binder, Howard Bursen, and Phil Heywood.