Just What Is Happening With Baby Jane (Dexter)
Baby Jane Dexter has had a singing career in the clubs for about forty years and, despite setbacks, shows no signs of slowing down. She is back this month with two more of her acclaimed "More Rules of the Road" show, following last year's "Rules of the Road." Dexter will be at the Metropolitan Room on December 13th and 27th.
Dexter began her career in the legendary nightclubs of the 1970s, before spiraling through depression and other traumas in the '80s, and then returning triumphantly in the early '90s.
The no-holds-barred Dexter spoke with EDGE about her setbacks, successes, and songs.
Not Jane Dexter Jr.
EDGE: Your mother was an actress named Jane Dexter, so it makes sense that you became Baby Jane.
Baby Jane Dexter: Yes, I am ’Baby’ Jane because my mother was Jane Dexter. That wouldn’t really be obvious, but because my mother was an actress, when I went to do a TV show on NBC when I was young, they told me I couldn’t be Jane Dexter because there was already one in the union. I said, ’It’s my mother, she’ll share!’ They said there could not be two people with the same name in the union. So I suggested Jane Dexter Jr. They hated that. Then I thought my legal name Jane N. Dexter, but when you would say it, people thought a duo was coming out. Thus, Baby Jane Dexter was born.
I sometimes said as a joke that when I was born my mother said, ’Look, it’s a baby Jane!’ I was kidding, but there you have it.
EDGE: You began your singing career during the days when the club Reno Sweeney was popular. It has gained an iconic status. What was that place and time like?
Baby Jane Dexter: Reno Sweeney was named after the character from ’Anything Goes.’ It was the club that helped to usher in New York nightlife of the ’70s. Reno Sweeney was owned by a man named Lew Friedman who wanted to create a place to present old and new artists in the intimate and beautiful way that could be afforded to them because he believed in it so much.
Incidentally, Lew’s roommate in college, Eliot Hubbard, is the one who actually named it Reno Sweeney. He also named Lew’s restaurant, which is now Elephant and Castle but used to be called Bellybutton. Lew sold that to buy or open Reno Sweeney.
Dream come true...
EDGE: Where was it located?
Baby Jane Dexter: It was at 126 W. 13th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. The Paradise Room at Reno Sweeney opened in January of 1973. Melissa Manchester opened the room.
The Paradise Room was what had been the garden of whatever the edifice previously was. The room had a slightly raised stage with black and white tiles reminiscent of a deco period. There were a couple of palm trees. The trees must have been fake, but they looked real.
When I was a young girl watching movies on TV, I saw nightclub scenes that were so fabulous that I dreamed of growing up and singing in them. In those movies, the singer would come out on a shiny floor, in a beautiful dress, in this room that also had lots of palm trees. . . . When I walked into The Paradise Room it was like I was walking into a dream come true. It wasn’t just like the nightclubs in the movies but it was reminiscent somehow. I was starry-eyed and hoped I would be liked and hired.
I was living on Long Island, going to school, driving a taxi, going in at night to the original Improvisation, which was on 44th St. and 9th Avenue, and singing in between comics who were doing their thing. I was looking to be discovered just like everyone else. At the Improv, the comics would do about 20-minutes and a singer would go on and sing one or two songs in between.
Danny Aiello was the host or at the door. He actually got me a job for $50 at a bungalow colony in New Jersey where I went and when I got there the place was giving out ping-pong awards and things. They moved the ping-pong table and I did a show and got my $50!
Also, while I was at the Improv, someone told me there was a fellow with a place in the Village who was hiring singers. I had a flyer with quotes from Bette Midler, Tiny Tim, and someone else and I left it on Lewis Friedman’s desk. Later I got called to come in and audition. I did and I got hired.
Lewis Friedman had the gigs run Tuesday through Saturday, two shows a night. He instituted the ’main act / opening act’ policy so he could hire either someone with a name and/or a following to be the main act and then he could give a chance to newcomers to be the opening act. Lewis also played the piano and actually accompanied some people.
They also made these great posters for their artists and these posters became quite famous. Most were designed by Eliot Hubbard. See, Lewis did something VERY right that doesn’t really exist anymore. He was a visionary and wanted to make the club famous and make the club the attraction and become known as a place that would always present quality entertainment.
So the club took ads, made posters, had a beautiful room with professional sound and lights, AND he gave you a salary and provided musicians.
All kinds of people performed there, from so many forms of music. Diane Keaton, Barbara Cook, a famous classical/jazz harmonica player, Cab Calloway, Anita O’Day made a famous comeback there in 1975 . . . The Manhattan Transfer . . . Peter Allen became well known and cultivated his ’thing’ . . . there were so many.
Remembering Vito Russo
EDGE: I understand you were good friends with author, activist, and GLAAD founder Vito Russo. How did he influence your life?
Baby Jane Dexter: Vito Russo came to my first show at Reno Sweeney and after seeing it, asked me if he could interview me. I do not remember the interview. What I do remember of 17-1/2 years of love, support and friendship.
Vito was the conduit to my returning to pursuing my career in 1991. When Vito was very sick and dying, I was one of his round-the-clock caregivers. He kept saying, ’Am I ever going to hear you sing again?’ I brought a tape machine to his apartment with piano accompaniment on it to sing to him. Vito understood my gifts better than I did, and he said, ’No,’ when he saw I was going to sing to him in his apartment. ’You have to sing in public. What you do is affect people through your singing and I need to know that is what you are doing.’ This was around August or September of 1990. I had stopped pursuing my career for about ten years and it was at that point that I scrambled to find a place to sing and a place where Vito could see it.
I ended up with a series of four Sunday brunch shows and one evening performance. I wanted to do afternoon shows so Vito, who was so ill, could make it to one of them and I had to have a few so there were options for Vito.
Shortly before I started those shows, Vito died. I was with him in the hospital the night of his death. I cancelled all the shows and kept one just because I had promised Vito.
In Vito’s will he wanted me to sing ’Forever Young’ and ’When I’m Gone’ at his memorial. There ended up being one in New York, where I followed Larry Kramer, and one in LA at Craig Zadan’s home and one in San Francisco at the Castro Theater. I brought half of Vito’s ashes to San Francisco where some important and close friends had a ceremony scattering his ashes.
Vito Russo loved me unconditionally and was a great fan and friend. When Vito went to Washington, D.C. to read names at the first showing of the AIDS Quilt, which was being filmed by Rob Epstein for ’Common Threads, Stories of the Quilt,’ it was Vito who insisted that I perform ’When I’m Gone’ and ’Forever Young’ at the Kennedy Center. I closed the first act of this star-studded event with ’When I’m Gone’ and the second act I was next to closing singing ’Forever Young.’
There is so much that I could say about Vito and about Vito and me. After I sang that one show in December 1990 and the club owner wanted me to come sing at his club 88’s, I said, ’Why? Everyone is dead.’ Then I did all those memorials to Vito and after realizing through his will, it was his way of making sure I would do what he wanted me to do, I made Vito my higher power and called that club owner in NYC and started back in February 1991 and have not stopped. There is so much to say but not enough time.
How did he influence me? By loving me, being my advocate and believing I could do no wrong. He was probably the most important influence in my life in many ways.
Healing through song
EDGE: You wrote the song ’15 Ugly Minutes’ about a date rape ordeal you suffered in the 1970s. You’ve also been outspoken about depression. How has shining light on these issues, and singing again, helped in your healing process?
Baby Jane Dexter: I wrote ’15 Ugly Minutes’ as a closure to my own experienced with being raped.
It became a closure years later when I sang it in public and so many women wanted to share things that had happened to them.
I do a self-expression workshop for young women in an alternative program to maximum security prison. ’15 Ugly Minutes’ is the anchor for that 2-week workshop. So many women, young and older, have found a safe place to express themselves as a result of that song.
I have performed the song in prisons, hospitals, facilities for the homeless, and more. The result of singing this song and the effect it has on people and what ensues turned out to be the closure for me.
In my visits with the groups, sharing my experiences through my singing and more is received in a most powerful way.
EDGE: What did you do during the ten years that you left the business?
Baby Jane Dexter: I was derailed, I lost my confidence. I had a serious relationship with a guy who said he was a guitarist and ended up a drug addict. We lived together for eight years. One of those years was wonderful.
I was lost from the music. I did occasional performances in an attempt to start back again, but . . . As I told you, it was Vito who was the conduit to my beginning to pursue my career again.
I was suffering. I ended up with alopecia areata, where my hair fell out from tension, sadness and depression.
EDGE: ’I Got Thunder’ was your debut studio album and announced your comeback in a big way. It has become a classic. Did you feel good about what was happening in the studio while you were working on that album?
Baby Jane Dexter: I felt fantastic about what was happening in the studio because I was actually in the studio making a record (of course they were CDs by the time I got to make one), and Elba Records, owned by Jack Globenfelt, paid for this to be done. I will always be grateful to him for that.
It wasn’t always easy in the studio. I had to fight for ’15 Ugly Minutes’ to be on the album. Jack did NOT want it but I believed it was important and had a big future. I had to convince him to allow it. Nobody believed in it, not the producer, not the engineer, but it ended up being on it and I am also grateful to the bass player, Jay Leonhart, who went back into the studio for me to cut the song again when it had been rejected. He got his drummer to do it too. He was very sensitive to why I NEEDED to do that song.
I’m sorry I made it kind of hard on Jack who made my dream of having a recording come true.
Also, the cover and packaging was voted into a special book that comes out every two years in the recording industry of the best covers and packaging of the year. That fabulous illustration was done by the wonderful artist, Robert W. Richards.
After the CD came out it was reviewed very favorably on the cover of the Sunday NY Times Arts and Leisure section. It was favorably reviewed everywhere, including Entertainment Weekly, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The LA Times, and many national magazines.
So this was an amazing experience to make my first album.
Meeting Gregory Peck
EDGE: You have been in this business for a long time. Who was the most thrilling person you met in your showbiz life?
Baby Jane Dexter: Well, let’s see. When I was singing in LA at Studio One, a very ’in’ and popular place at the time, I was standing next to Gregory Peck. Just standing there was one of the most exciting things. He was a REAL movie star and he starred in one of my all time favorite movies, ’To Kill A Mockingbird.’
Sarah Vaughan was one of my most thrilling people. I was taken to see her by her best friend, Robert W. Richards, and he wanted to introduce me after the concert. I ran away because I was shy and intimidated. Later I became friendly with her. She meant a lot to me.
THE most thrilling person to me was Abbey Lincoln. I was her fan and admired her work so much and the title song of my first album, ’I Got Thunder,’ was written by her. I went to see her at The Blue Note. After the show I went upstairs and stood in line, this awestruck white gal waiting in a big line of black people to meet her. By the time I got to the front of the line, I said to her, ’Miss Lincoln, you are not going to know me, my name is Baby Jane Dexter . . .’ Before I could say a word, she reached out her arms to me and said, ’I Got Thunder! That was the biggest compliment you could pay me.’ This was unbelievable. Here was my idol . . . like Babe Ruth knowing me and my work and not being disappointed. Wow!
I got to know her a little more later and had a number of wonderful conversations with her. Her song ’Throw It Away’ is one of the most influential songs in my life.
EDGE: You made news a few years ago when you fainted onstage at the Metropolitan Room during a heat wave and air conditioner breakdown. When you came to, you began singing again while the paramedics stood by. What was that moment like?
Baby Jane Dexter: Passing out and going unconscious on stage was pretty scary. I came to on stage. It was near the end of the show. The medics were there . . . many people in the audience were crying. The fire department medics were hydrating me and lifted me onto a chair. They wanted to take me to the hospital, which they did. But before they did, I sang a song to the audience. I sang ’For All We Know.’ The lyric begins, ’For all we know we may never meet again . . . .’
It happened five times over the year. It turned out to be my heart and I now have a double pacemaker.
EDGE: Do you have any regrets?
Baby Jane Dexter: Sure. But I can’t do anything about that now.
Every good thing, bad thing, mistake and just everything in my life are the gifts that inform me of who I am and that helps me understand what I sing about.
EDGE: If you had to put it in a nutshell, what are Baby Jane’s rules of the road?
Baby Jane Dexter: They are all I know and have learned in my life and can express through song. I speak through the songs. The songs are my language and that language ends up being universal and ageless.
Baby Jane Dexter appears at the Metropolitan Room on December 13th and 17th. Go to www.metropolitanroom.com for details.