“Whatever happened to Baby Jane?” was a serious question among cabaret fans during the 1980s. That was when Baby Jane Dexter–a popular performer during the cabaret boom of the 70s at venues ranging from New York’s trendsetting Reno Sweeney and Ballroom nightclubs to Chicago’s Man’s Country bathhouse–dropped out of a music scene that couldn’t quite figure out how to market her. “People said they didn’t know what to do with me–but the problem was I didn’t know what to do with me,” says Dexter, who struggled with depression during that time. A tall, hefty woman with ratted hair and a huge, gritty voice whose range extends from gravelly high wails to deep, Sarah Vaughan-esque low tones, Dexter was half coaxed, half coerced back into singing by her close friend, the late gay activist and film historian Vito Russo; after appearing at a few AIDS benefits in the late 80s, she returned to full-time club and concert work in 1991. Today she sings straight from her big, open, good-humored heart, shifting from brassy bravado to almost girlish vulnerability with ease and honesty–for both aspects are integral parts of her personality as well as her stage persona. Ably backed by the lush and lively piano playing of Ross Patterson (who also accompanies her on her recent CD, Big, Bad & Blue), she’s at her best belting out blues- and gospel-inflected numbers, from standards like “Blues in the Night” and “Do Right Woman” to less familiar gems such as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For,” Thomas A. Dorsey’s “(I’m Going to) Live the Life I Sing About in My Song,” and Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away.” The latter two tunes establish the themes of renewal and commitment that have come to dominate Dexter’s life as well as her show, giving her singing emotional authenticity to go with its rollicking power. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, Toulouse Cognac Bar, 2140 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-665-9071.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.