When it comes to the real thing, few artists have impacted audiences with such a raw honesty only to reveal a powerful voice and a vulnerable heart the way Baby Jane Dexter did. Now, that big heart has been silenced. After a Herculean battle against all odds, fighting complications involving diabetes, heart disease and a brain tumor, she died peacefully at The Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, at 1:00 A.M. on May 21, 2019, where she had undergone treatment for more than a year. She was 72 years old.
Her story began in affluent Garden City, Long Island where she went to school with actress Susan Lucci. She was the eldest of four children. Her mother was a teacher and an actress who appeared on the cover of Newsweek Magazine in 1993. Her father was a prominent dermatologist and author. She grew up listening to a wide range of music by jazz and pop artists and was initially influenced by the mournful interpretations of Billie Holiday and the sassy Bessie Smith. Another muse was Judy Garland whose emotionalism touched her and would forever remain an influence. After seeing the movie The Jazz Singer on television as a child, she announced she would be a singer. The journey began.
After attending Nassau Community College, she drove a cab and juggled dates and impromptu appearances in small Manhattan clubs at night. The late television actor Freddie Prinze (Chico and the Man,) who was a rising comic in those days, opened for her at Budd Friedman’s storied Improvisation (where Robin Williams got started) and comedian Bruce Vlanch became her first opening act. A freak motorcycle accident in her early twenties almost derailed her aspirations. She suffered head injuries that would plague her for the rest of her life. Metal shrapnel bits were embedded in her brain that left lasting side-effects including ongoing vertigo, memory loss, depression and personality disorders that occasionally caused momentary temper flare-ups. Undeterred, she plowed ahead and reclaimed the pieces of her dreams as she hit the club circuit full throttle.
While nothing could quell the noises in her head or the commotion that was building around town over her shows, there were more hiccups and some cloudy choices including a brief chorus stint in the original company of Broadway’s Hair. Few are aware that she was invited to be one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes. She turned the offer down. Cabaret staple Steve Ross was her first accompanist when she started performing. She would evolve into a night club fixture for decades. Such was her popularity in the mid-seventies that a five day gig at the now defunct Tramps, a funky nightspot on West 15th Street that attracted rising blues and jazz artists, was extended to 19 weeks. Then there were the revered clubs like Reno Sweeney that memorably presented a bevy of stars like Peter Allen, Diane Keaton, Barbara Cook, Ellen Greene, Jane Olivor, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Melissa Manchester, etc., where she caught the eye of local industry movers and shakers who lavished her with vapid promises of record contracts, etc.
A successful run at The Ballroom in SoHo attracted celebrity-filled audiences nightly. For awhile, it looked like she was on the path to major stardom. A turbulent personal relationship interrupted this journey and led to a self-imposed hiatus lasting almost a decade. During that period, her weight ballooned and she was overwrought with depression and suicidal thoughts. More questionable choices and faded dreams made her believe her singing career was over. As she emerged from this nightmare, she became involved in helping others by fusing her natural gifts of communication and empathy. An instinctive nurturer, she found a rewarding calling as a counselor with VisionQuest, a respected field directive that offered a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders traumatized by abuse and violent crime.
She sought out the most difficult, isolated cases and, using a hands-on technique in her Healing Through Music seminars, gave hope to the disconsolate. She was fiercely committed to this program and remained for several years. Her involvement received praise and her efforts were extolled in several publications. I think that work meant more to her than her singing – much more, said Broadway’s Karen Akers, a good friend for 46 years. The two-time Tony nominee (Grand Hotel, Nine) also noted, Baby Jane and I go back to the days of Reno Sweeney in the early seventies when Lewis Friedkin kick-started both our careers in cabaret… I’m just one of many who will miss her.
After an appearance at a benefit concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Baby Jane gingerly returned to performing in 1991 to fulfill a deathbed promise to her beloved friend, Vito Russo, the respected author (The Celluloid Closet) and AIDS activist. She quietly booked five Sunday brunch shows at Eighty Eight’s on West 10th Street without expectations. Rod Hauser was at the piano. Word spread that she was back. Cabaret impresario Erv Raible (The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, Brandy’s, Eighty Eight’s) became a full time champion and convinced her to begin a regular run that turned into a series of love-ins as new audiences discovered and rediscovered her unconventional performing style. Mabel Mercer she was not. The late cabaret critic Bob Harrington noted in his “Bistro Bits” column in Back Stage… every newcomer must see this force of nature who lights up the stage like few others…. she turns non sequiturs into an art form. He also said… she was an original who defied comparisons to others. Years later, she would become one of his caregivers before his passing.
At Eighty Eight’s, Ross Patterson replaced an ailing Hauser and a professional bond was born that would remain a powerhouse constant for almost 25 years. Together, they became a force to be reckoned with as her talents complemented by Patterson’s prodigious and sensitive arrangements soared. Audiences cheered. Critics gushed. She and her Musical Director, Ross Patterson, made fabulous music together at their memorable shows, said Karen Akers. With Ross’s beautiful, intuitive support, Baby Jane used her voice, rich with emotion and power, to ‘sock it to us’ with stunning honesty.
Sold out gigs at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Rainbow & Stars and every venue in between ensued as well as The Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill in Los Angeles, Blues Alley in Washington, DC, Joe’s Pub, and the Kennedy Center in a bumpy sojourn filled with moments that brought diamonds and rust (to paraphrase Joan Baez).
Somewhere in this circus the late record producer Mike Berniker offered to produce her for Sony Classics. This was major. He was most famous for producing Barbra Streisand’s first three albums for Columbia among his credits. After sending her to a voice therapist to enhance her range and numerous meetings and rehearsals at Sony, the project was abruptly canceled. A jolting letdown that wouldn’t break her. Music entrepreneur Jack Globenfelt produced her first album, “I Got Thunder,” on his Cabaret Records label which earned her a rave review in the New York Times. The album, like her shows, summed up much of her life through soulful and explosive songs. Her CDs are now collector’s items.
Over the years, new friends became part of her extended family as well as rising singers who learned so much from her gut-wrenching interpretations of songs ranging from a trenchant ballad (“For All We Know”) to an obscure ditty from the Great Depression (“One Meatball”) as well as her profound originals. With the defiance of a benevolent tornado she infamously sang an original about a date rape (“Fifteen Ugly Minutes”) that was as controversial as it was mesmerizing with its empowering statement about women. She followed this with an unapologetic “This Is a Man’s World.” It was her way of coping with the tragedy that happened to her as a teenager. Like some pinball wizard, she gently whisked emotions into the pockets they belong with ease. She memorably tore hearts out with a personalized reading of the Ellington-Strayhorn lament, “Something to Live For,” exposing a vulnerability that was shattering.
The Metropolitan Room became her professional home in 2006 until it closed doors in 2017. Throughout Dexter’s career, there was never a pretentious or self-pitying phrase in her gutsy translation of a lyric. Her clipped banter with audiences broke up the tension and showed a lighter side that left crowds howling at her wacky observations on the absurdities of her own life. In that colorful life, plagued with problems, poor choices and broken promises, she always found a coping mechanism through her music with pungent lyrics that reflected who she was.
She also gained a loyal cult following that never wavered.
Writing in the New York Times in 2012, Stephen Holden said… A performance by the cabaret singer Baby Jane Dexter is like a revival meeting without Jesus. Possessed of a booming contralto, Ms. Dexter doesn’t sing lyrics so much as preach them as if she were imparting carefully chosen passages of scripture. Her health began a slow and dramatic decline over the last decade. But she refused to give up saying that if she couldn’t sing, she couldn’t live. She struggled in excruciating pain for years and performed her last two shows in a wheelchair in December 2017 at Pangea in the East Village.
Social media exploded with loving comments at the news of her death. Numerous friends and fans alike poured out heartfelt sentiments. Television producer-comedienne Angela LaGreca wrote on Facebook: One of the greatest. Fierce. Deep. Artful. We will miss you. Acclaimed entertainer Mark Nadler put it simpler saying: Our World is now smaller… much smaller. Grammy winner Julie Gold said, There will never be another one like her. Songwriter and multi-Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown said, This is the end of an era. What a force she was.
And Ross Patterson said: Baby Jane impacted my life in so many ways. I can’t begin to name the ways. I am forever grateful to have known her. To have made music with her. To have made an impact with her. When people would ask for me to describe Baby Jane, I would always say ‘Everything about her was large’. And it was so true. Her spirit. Her fearlessness. Her passion and commitment. Her loyalty. Her love. Maybe songwriter-pianist Alex Rybeck summed it up best: She was generous in the way she used her gifts. Her powerful voice was equaled only by the force of her convictions. She used music to express feelings, and made us laugh, cry, remember, yearn, and triumph. When she sang, she testified. Like a beautiful, awesome storm cloud that rages, then blesses us with a rainbow. She made her time here count.
Baby Jane Dexter received many awards including seven MAC Awards in major categories, the Back Stage Bistro Award, a Nightlife Award and a TheaterScene Entertainer of the Year Award.
In 2015, MAC honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Aside from a plethora of heartbroken fans and friends, she leaves behind her devoted sister Dallas-Lee who resides in Alaska, two estranged siblings and a cousin, Nancy-Jo Hays. Funeral arrangements were private. There will be a public memorial in the fall.
Her life was a sterling testament to holding on against the odds and jumping back on that train even if it’s going too fast. Now that she is gone, everybody hurts.