Li’l Esther: The Baby Who Birthed Betty Boop?

African American performer Esther Lee Jones, billed variously as Baby Esther or Li’l Esther, started out in her native Chicago as a child performer in the 1920s, singing, dancing, and performing imitations of famous stars like Farina, Florence Mills and Josephine Baker. By the late ’20s she had performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club, and toured the U.S. and the major European capitols where she performed for numerous crowned heads. Some contend that Helen Kane appropriated Esther’s vocal mannerisms for the character of Betty Boop, although that has since been walked back.

As she grew older, Jones became one of Cab Calloway’s Sepia Dancers in his traveling revue. Jones last known engagement as a singer was a NAACP benefit for Bill Robinson in 1934. In later years it is believed that she performed as an acrobat.

To learn more about vaudeville and the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,