On this day in 1975, pioneering singer/actress/dancer/civil rights activist/spy Josephine Baker passed away at the age of 68. She died just a few days after a retrospective performance at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her 50 years in show biz. Jackie O, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier funded the show and opening night featured a celebrity-studded audience that included everyone from Mick Jagger to Sophia Loren. Baker's body was discovered four days later, reportedly surrounded by newspapers featuring glowing reviews of her performance.
At her funeral, she became the first American woman to garner full French military honors, one of many "firsts" involving Baker. She was the first black woman to star in a major film, the first to demand (and get) integrated audiences at her concerts and the first to become a global superstar. She fought for civil rights in America (offered a chance to lead it after MLK's assassination, she declined for fear of also being killed) and, before that, helped France (her adopted homeland) in World War II, for which she received numerous honors. Baker was also reportedly a bi-sexual who had serious relationships with both men and women in her lifetime, adding some spicy mystique to her life story.
She got her start as a vaudeville dancer at 15 and eventually became one of the highest paid chorus girls on the planet. In the mid ’20s she did burlesque shows in Paris and around Europe, well-known for her trademark banana-skirt and, later, her pet cheetah Chiquita, who would join her on stage (and, reportedly, terrorize the orchestra). Baker was considered a "muse" for artists from Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who once said she was "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."
Baker's life has been the source of several films, musicals, plays and books. On screen and stage, she's been portrayed by the likes of Lynn Whitfield, Diana Ross, Keri Hilson and Beyonce, who sported Baker's banana costume during a 2006 performance (see below) and, in her "Naughty Girl" video, she again paid tribute by dancing in a giant champagne glass.
Baker released several albums in the early ’50s for Columbia and Mercury. Here she is performing her biggest hit (in France), "J'ai Deux Amours."
Click on for Born This Day featuring Hound Dog Taylor, Tiny Tim, Nick Hexum and Vince Gill.
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing an April 12 birthday include early Chicago Blues artist Hound Dog Taylor (1915); oddball Pop star ("Tiptoe Through the Tulips") Tiny Tim (1932); frontman for classic rockers Steppenwolf John Kay (1944); the "army guy" from Disco stars The Village People, Alex Briley (1947); former teen idol David Cassidy (1950); Canadian Rock guitarist (and one of Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett's favorite players) Pat Travers (1954); influential guitarist for Brit AltRock favorites Echo and the Bunnymen, Will Sergeant (1958); former singer for Dark Wave/Goth pioneers Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard (1961); singer/songwriter/guitarist with Pop/Rock band Everclear, Art Alexakis (1962); half of the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray (1964); Saint Etienne frontwoman Sarah Cracknell (1967); rapper (and younger brother of Cypress Hill's Sen Dog) Mellow Man Ace (1967); 311 singer Nick Hexum (1971); Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman (1978); lead singer for Panic! at the Disco, Brendon Urie (1987) and Country star and onetime member of Ohio's Pure Prairie League, Vince Gill (1957).
Gill is returning to Cincinnati later this month (April 27) for a show at the Taft Theatre. Known to the general public mostly as a singer/songwriter, Gill is also a pretty amazing and underrated guitarist. Here's a couple clips in honor of Mr. Gill's 55th b-day.