Josephine Baker may be remembered most in popular culture for wearing a skirt of bananas (and not much else), and captivating Parisian audiences of the 1920s with her unique blend of exoticism and theatrical sexuality. Her career, however, comprised a much broader span of years and musical media. Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, she became a stage performer in her teens and came to Paris with La Revue Nègre in 1925. Baker’s career flourished in France, where she was celebrated as a singer on stage and screen throughout the next fifty years. She embraced the French as much as they embraced her, working for the French Resistance and performing for the troops during World War II, for which she was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the Croix du Guerre, and the Rosette de la Résistance. Her professional reception in the United States was less enthusiastic initially, but she received greater accolades in the latter half of her career from American critics and audiences. She became involved in the civil rights movement in the U.S., taking part in the Freedom March in Washington, DC, in 1963.
A new release from Sepia Records collects twenty-seven of Baker’s songs from 1930 through 1953, the period during which she recorded most heavily. Sung mainly in French and English, these numbers comprise a range of styles, from the Tin Pan Alley sound of “Pretty Little Baby”, to the mature Piaf-like chanson crooning of “J’ai lu dans les étoiles.” Included are some of Baker’s signature songs (“La petite Tonkinoise”, “J’ai deux amours”), as well as several that play up into her exotic image (“La Congo blicoti”, “Besame mucho”). There are notable instances of a French appetite for American popular styles, too: a Francophone rendition of Alfred Bryan and Fred Fisher’s “Peg O’ My Heart” (here, “Peg de mon coeur”) appears, while another track, “C’est ça le vrai bonheur,” is credited to French songwriters, but bears a remarkable musical similarity to Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Most notably, this collection includes five songs recorded for French Pacific, previously not available on CD.
This compilation presents a vital image of Josephine Baker as a mature songstress at the height of her career. In its twenty-three-year span, we hear the changes apparent in her skills, vocal technique, and the popular musical styles that she embodied. Long after her youthful personification of the Jazz Age, she proved a talented and beloved entertainer who navigated the changing decades with apparent ease and style.
Posted by Ann Shaffer
Editor’s Note: the complete title of this CD is Hommage à Josephine Baker: disque du centenaire=a centenary tribute; [songs from 1930-1953].