Born: June 3, 1906 | Died: April 12, 1975 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Josephine Baker is remembered principally as a spirited entertainer, the glamorous Josephine who became the toast of France. But there was a great deal more to Josephine Baker. She was a great lover of life and of humanity, who devoted herself to making the world a more hospitable place and to securing a better future for its citizens. She was the role model for entertainers to stand up for their beliefs, and became a legend in the process.
A dancer, jazz singer, actress and a comedian all in one, Josephine Baker was the first black female entertainer to break through racial prejudice in Europe and the United States. Her acts were both outrageously funny and quite sexy. She was a star of stage, screen and recordings; Baker spent much of her life working tirelessly against prejudice, during World War II in Europe and the civil-rights era in America. She's still one of the most famous expatriates in American history, perfectly epitomizing the hedonistic abandon of the Jazz Age in Paris
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906. When she was thirteen she dropped out of school left home and got married but the marriage only lasted a few months before it ended. Josephine started performing as a street musician in St. Louis and soon graduated to performing on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. In 1922 she landed a small part as a comedy chorus girl in the touring company of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's musical revue Shuffle Along. Josephine went over well in her small role in the revue and came to the attention of Sissle and Blake. They wrote a special part for her in their 1924 production of Chocolate Dandies. During this time period Josephine became the steady girl friend of Eubie Blake.
French producers came to New York looking to cast an all- black musical revue in Paris. They saw Josephine performing at the Plantation Club and offered her a part in their production La Revue Negré. In 1925 she went to Paris to appear in in the show. The show opened on October 2, 1925 in Paris at the Théâtre Champs-Elysées. Josephine had two numbers in La Revue Negré. In the first routine she danced a frantic version of the Charleston while accompanied by a jazz band that featured Sidney Bechet. Her second routine was the closing number of the show was called Danse de Sauvage. It was an erotic dancethat she performed with the male dancer named Joe Alex. This dance was the hit of the show and proved to be the role that would launch Josephine towards stardom in Europe.
The La Revue Negré began a tour of Europe but Josephine left the show in Berlin and returned to France, where she was offered a starring role at the famous Folies Bergère. In the show Josephine performed a dance that combined both comedy and eroticism were she wore only a skirt fashioned to look like bananas and comically crossed her eyes. The show was a big hit and Josephine became a major star in France based on this her performances at the Folies Bergère. In 1926 Josephine made her first recordings in Paris and opened her own night club called Chez Josephine.
Josephine's star continued to rise in the 1930s and she became one of the biggest stars in France. In 1936 she returned to America to to star in Ziegfeld's Follies but the show was a flop and Baker broke her contract and returned to Paris disgusted with the racism that she was subjected to while in New York. During World War II Josephine stayed in France and joined the French Air Force working with the Red Cross and performing for French and Belgian troops. During the Nazi occupation of France Josephine heroically stayed in Paris and was a member of the French Resistance.
Josephine visited the United States during the 50s and 60s with renewed vigor to fight racism. When New York's popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.
Josephine agreed to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1973. Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage.
On April 8, 1975 Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68- year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at on April 12, 1975.
More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21- gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Her gravesite is in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco. The French government bestowed her with the country’s highest honrs as the Croix de Guerre; Rosette de la Resistance; and Legion d'Honneur.
A century has passed since the birth of Josephine Baker, and over a quarter century has passed since her death. However, the mark that she made on society during her life has not yet begun to fade.
Source: James Nadal