Betty Boop is one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time, a virtual sex symbol created during a time where bold women were often frowned upon. The character’s signature vocals stood out, but she wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a Black woman in Harlem who inspired the style.
Esther Jones was a singer in Harlem who performed regularly in the Cotton Club jazz establishment.
Jones, also known as “Baby Esther,” coined a vocal style using “boops” and other childlike scat sounds during her act. Actress Helen Kane caught a Baby Esther performance in the late 1920s, and began using the “boops” in her songs as well. Kane found fame early on with songs such as “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and incorporated the “Boop A Doop” scat, often called the “baby style,” into her music.
In 1930, cartoonist Max Fleischer introduced the Betty Boop character via Paramount Studios’ Talkatoon series. Some historians point to Kane as the inspiration, a fact backed up during an episode of television history talk series, Stu’s Show.
Animation historian Ray Pointer and Fleischer’s nephew, Bernie Fleischer, spoke at length about Betty Boop and her background. Another white starlet at the time, Clara Bow, may also have been an early inspiration for the cartoon.