Personal Bio

Career

 

 

"I now know that every moment, good and bad, is a gift and a lesson that has helped me be clear about who I am and what I do -- what I do is who I am."

 

Jane Dexter grew up in Garden City, Long Island, New York, the daughter of a dermatologist and a college physical education teacher and actress whose name was Jane Dexter. Thus, when little Jane needed a stage name, she became "Baby Jane". From her earliest days, Baby Jane was a performer, an imaginative little five-year-old who hiked her crinoline up under her arms and, inspired by The Jolson Story, sang "April Showers" into her hairbrush.

She did not have the usual educational progression, and moved from school to school. "I even went to a girls finishing school. I got an 'incomplete'," she jokes in her show. It was her desire to be a singer that motivated Baby Jane to begin working at age 14 in a local theater group. After school, she learned her way around sets and lighting and selling tickets. She wanted to perform and at this point became "Baby Jane Dexter". Still a student, she auditioned for, and got a job in the Broadway cast of Hair, which didn't last too long when she asked the director to hold her job while she went to Spain to get her teeth capped.
 

"Life is basically a work in progress. It's about moving forward and finding out what's going to be."

 

 

 

 

 

Career

 

"I know that my strength and my power are in the music and in the connection between me and my audience."

 

Adolescent Jane came home, went back to school, got a job driving a taxi on Long Island, and at night she traveled into Manhattan to a comedy club, The Improvisation, to be discovered. Her music was eclectic — rock, blues, rhythm-and-blues — performed between comedy acts of Jay Leno and Andy Kaufman. When she heard that a new club in Greenwich Village was opening and needed girl singers, Baby Jane went to the owner, Lewis Friedman, and asked to audition. She became his first opening act in the Paradise Room of the famed Reno Sweeney, the club that was to feature such up-and-coming young performers as Karen Akers, Peter Allen, Paul Reiser, and of course Baby Jane Dexter.

In the next few months, she zoomed to nightlife stardom, headlining in Boston, Chicago, Miami, Washington, and Los Angeles as well as the hottest New York nightspots. In addition, she expanded into television with a featured spot in No Holds Barred, a CBS series. She also moved into the theater, performing in plays like Anything Goes and The Music Man, as well as portraying another great belter, Sophie Tucker.

But while Baby Jane Dexter's career was blossoming, inside she held a secret. In the early 70's, she met a handsome guy who paid her a lot of attention, and although she had been warned to stay away from him, he made her feel desirable, pretty, and sexy. This was before the term "date rape" was even coined, but that was what happened to Baby Jane Dexter who, like many other young women, tried to push the ordeal from her mind. It wasn't until 1979 that she told songwriter Drey Shepperd what had happened to her, and he convinced her to write the music to, "Fifteen Ugly Minutes", a haunting song about the ordeal.

Despite the satisfaction from writing the song, Baby Jane began a downhill slide resulting in a ten-year hiatus from performing. At this time, in the late '70's, music tastes were shifting, and record companies were not comfortable with Baby Jane's personal style of music, revolving around songs that spoke to her. They were interested in disco and punk.

"I was different and didn't fit easily into any category. Although my audience was there, the label guys didn't know how to market me."

Baby Jane only meant to step back for a couple of months, not a decade. In 1981, she found herself on a wagon train, traveling with VisionQuest, a correctional covered wagon program for teenage criminals as an alternative to prison. She was asked to join because Bob Burton, the executive director of VisionQuest, had seen one of her New York shows and as he later said in a Newsday account, "She has a strong presence about her. She's intuitive and has a native ability to work with human beings."

His comments proved true, not only for VisionQuest, but in her later counseling and motivational programs. But first she had to go camping, something -- to put it mildly -- she resisted. "I hated camping. To me, camping was going to a motel," says Baby Jane. "Camp food meant getting stuff from the deli." But she gave it a try. They traveled 20 miles a day by covered wagon. They slept in teepees and cared for the pack animals and did general chores. Hopefully the young offenders would learn they could succeed through hard work, and they could respect themselves.

"I was the one riding a mule in velvet pants," she laughs. But Baby Jane had it just as hard as the kids. She cried every night for the first week. Then, as she slowly became involved with the kids, talking and listening, singing with them and laughing, she realized that they were connecting, and she had a valuable purpose there. Baby Jane stayed with VisionQuest for two months, but the experience of learning she had an ability to help people remained with her.

Still, without music as the focus of her life, Baby Jane's life continued unraveling. She fell in love and was caught in a long tumultuous relationship. She lost belief in herself. Instead of applause, she faced severe depression. She was hospitalized and finally helped with medication. She had a close friend, film historian and AIDS activist, Vito Russo, who stood by her during all her advance-and-retreat attempts to perform again, but then in the mid-80's, Vito was diagnosed with AIDS.

It was now Baby Jane's turn to help him, and while doing so, he urged her to go back to her singing career. She finally agreed to sing at the two benefit concerts for the unveiling of The Names Project Quilt, A National AIDS Memorial. On the stages of Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, Baby Jane joined luminaries like Senator Ted Kennedy, playwrite Edward Albee, opera singer Frederica von Stade, and actress Celeste Holm.

She took another step forward in late 1990. Vito was dying, and Baby Jane decided to sing a full show for him. She chose Eighty-Eights in Greenwich Village. It was to be a Sunday afternoon show so that Vito could come. It was very important to Baby Jane that Vito be at her show. "And then, just before I was to open, Vito died," she remembers.

But Baby Jane did perform, and a few months later, in 1991, she was back in business at Eighty-Eights. She shaped together a show and a album called, I Got Thunder, powerfully reflecting her experiences, her grief and caring for Vito, the depression, her counseling of teens, her doomed long-term romance, the sadness and self-hatred that can damage a life. She included two songs Vito had indicated in his will that she sing at his memorial. Baby Jane, with accompanyist Ross Patterson, was carving out a new career.

"What became important was the value of life. There is no more time that is not important."

She continued the story in a second show and a second album, Big, Bad, and Blue -- Live, now stressing healing and new self-confidence. Every song is part of the story, some new, like "Big Body Woman", and others are old, like "Blues In the Night". Some are fun, like the Depression-era song, "One Meatball", which has become an audience sing-along. Because through it all, Baby Jane Dexter never lost her wit and humanity. Her third show, The Real Thing - An Intimate Opera, ran at Eighty-Eights from November through June, and returned in the fall. This show brought in all the New York City and surrounding area press, and she received universally rave notices.

"I want the audience to leave with more than they came in with."

She also developed a motivational workshop program. " "Healing Through Entertainment -- A Motivational Performance Art Experience For Women". Baby Jane emphasizes being positive, talking through problems, loving and not hating, using a powerful communication of personal stories, songs, love. She has taken her workshops through New York City and beyond, to countless women who are fighting the trauma of depression, domestic violence, homelessness, rape.

"Through my music and what I choose to sing about, I take them down the path of entertainment. I also take them -- if they want to go -- to that place that's safe to be, to hear what a person might want to hear, what a person might need to hear."

Since her return to performing, audiences and critics alike have been quick to see that connection. It is what makes her such a riveting performer at venues like Eighty Eights, The Russian Tea Room, The Village Gate, the Seaport Jazz Festival, The Blue Note in Manhattan, Blues Alley in Washington DC, and King of France Tavern in Annapolis' Maryland Inn. She has appeared at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles, the Plush Room in San Francisco, and Toulouse Cognac Bar in Chicago.

In September, 1997 and May 1998, she took part in a prestigious gathering in New York City, TED/Technotainment. This is a joining of the entertainment industry with the technology industry, aiming to form the foundation of America's creative economy in the decades ahead. Featured among the many prestigious speakers from different fields were Baby Jane Dexter representing the individual female singer; theater performers; a gospel choir; the dean of USC Film School; leading authors and magazine writers; Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks; the President of the American Museum of Natural History; university authors and professors; the Executive Director of Sundance Institute, and other illuminaries.

She has won the Backstage Bistro Award and she is a multiple winner of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Female Vocalist Of the Year award. In 1998, she won the MAC Award for Best Major Pop/Rhythm & Blues Performer. In 1999, she won that award for the second time.

On September 15, 1998, Baby Jane Dexter made her debut at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall to acclaim from fans, critics, musical peers. In December, Baby Jane appeared at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in the Concord Jazz, multi-talent Christmas show, A Singin’, Swingin’ Christmas.

She continues to appear in major rooms around the country. In April 2002, Baby Jane won the MAC Award for Major jazz/Pop/Rhythm & Blues Vocalist of the Year.

-Elizabeth Ahlfors

 

 

2005 Elizabeth Ahlfors. All Rights Reserved World Wide.