The moods of Phillip Baker glow and change like neon, first bright and joyous, then critical and displeased.
He is the son of Josephine Baker, the Parisian nightclub legend of the roaring 20s, and he struggles, trying to describe a woman he knew intimately yet distantly, a mother who denied him, then depended heavily on him. He lived in her shadow.
And she cast a formidable one from the day in 1925 that she seduced Paris in a skirt of bananas, through her work for the French Resistance in World War II, through her years of generosity and hard times as the mother of 11 adopted children.
Now Baker is smiling, the freckles spreading like nutmeg. The cabaret singer is in town firming up plans for a 36-city tour of his multimedia show, which begins at Howard University on Nov. 18. Relaxing between appointments, he offers a sample of his life with Josephine:
During the intermission of his first nightclub act years ago in Rome, at the club of the celebrated hostess Bricktop, Philip Baker got a note backstage. "You're not doing any of my numbers," wailed the writer -- his mother.
"Jo told me, 'You have to struggle and make it like other young people,' and then she called Bricktop and said, 'Book him.' Then she said she was coming and I said no. But there she was opening night in one of her disguises, a wig and big glasses.
"So I went back on stage and said, My mother's here. I'm really nervous because she's critical. But I hope you'll bear with me.' I didn't mention her name. And she stood up and yelled, 'You didn't tell them it was Josephine.' And the audience went wild."
So what do you do with that kind of mother, whose fame endured 50 years before her death in 1975. How do you turn out: justly revengeful like Christina Crawford, adoring like Natalie Cole, ambivalent like Mercer Ellington?
Baker looks sideways, a trim profile of tweed and turtleneck, shaping a rich mouth into a moon. "Well, it's like I said to Gail Lumet [Lena Horne's daughter], if we came out of this s... sane, we are incredible people," he says.
The only natural child of Jo Baker, the product of a little-known relationship between Baker and a Harlem businessman during her run with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York in the mid-1930s, Baker is hardly ever mentioned in his mother's biographies. But reams of newsprint have been devoted to her 11 adopted children and embellished her reputation as a large-hearted heroine.
"People say she didn't want to be tainted," says Baker, explaining his absence from biographies and even her obituaries. For the first five years of his life, he lived with his father, whom he describes as a landlord and street lawyer "to numbers people and some other illegal businesses."
"Jo told me she thought my early years were crucial, so I had to know my black heritage. I have tried to look at the period. She had made it in Europe. Then she came back for the Follies, was terribly frustrated. Her manager, who wanted to marry her, went back to France. She was alone, had this relationship and child. But when my father died she claimed me.
"Still, she did allow a bunch of white people to say, 'Don't talk about this black child or his father.' But later on everyone understood, and I am in one of Picasso's books. He talks about the fact I was there on the Riviera with her."
So instead of hostility Philip Baker offers understanding and loyalty. There's also candidness about his seesaw view of his mother, anger at accusations of his exploiting her name, bitterness about her treatment in the U.S. when she spoke out against racial discrimination, frustration that his own success in Europe hasn't been matched in the United States. "Skitsy" is Baker's flip shorthand for his schizophrenic feelings toward her, and it is evident that he is still working out the relationship.
"The younger generation needs to know about and understand the complexity of her character," says Baker.
To set the record straight, Baker begins in the middle, retelling the famous story of his mother's charge that the Stork Club waiters ignored her during a visit in 1951 and the ensuing battle with powerful columnist Walter Winchell. Baker is still mad.
"The myth is that she was superficial, materialistic, that she was a classic black dumb blond, that she had trouble with her blackness." And though he can tell plenty of stories about her racial consciousness -- "Jo was a god in Harlem. When she was there, she was home," he says -- he admits she cooperated with the myths. "She knew she had to be what people wanted -- she had to be stupid; she had to be glamorous." She was born in St. Louis, the daughter of a washerwoman, and earned her first coins as a maid before she found show business. After a break in the pivotal black revue "Shuffle Along," she left for Paris, danced the Charleston, pranced on stage in exotic costumes and largely personified the Jazz Age for Europeans. Through relationships with Pirandello, Colette, Erich Maria Remarque, Picasso and Judy Garland, according to her son, she remained her own woman. "She believed entertainment was a vehicle. That way you can bring people together and then make a statement," Baker says.
Still, he believes he never really knew her. "My childhood was difficult because I was Jo Baker's son. For years I was very angry because I thought she was giving love to everyone else but me. So the time we spent together was very intense. She was always there for the noon meal, but we never had the meal together because the phones kept ringing."
Shrugging at those slights, Baker points out the courage and competitiveness of his mother. "Her work during the war, I knew it was dangerous. She was ill, in and out of hospitals at the time. I always thought she would die. But she was fighting for integration, she was trying to show how black she was, she became obsessed.
"One time she was asked to do a concert. Maurice Chevalier was hot and Jo's agent carried word that Maurice would entertain the colored folks but must have star billing. Jo said, 'Leave this to me, I will go on at 8 p.m. and not come off until 1 a.m. Then the troops will leave.' And that's what happened."
For Baker, taking a career route other than show business was never a question. "Every night after homework, I went to the theater. On Saturdays and Sundays I stayed all day. It didn't turn me off. I loved it, I loved the applause," he says.
But what were the gaps in this life of fancy?
"Well, the only thing missing," he says, his back straight against a booth in a Columbia Road bar, "was a strong male image. The men she married were weak, and that caused me problems sexually. The strong men in my life were Gabby and Hayes, two brothers who stayed in France after the war and had one of the best soul food restaurants in the world."
During the time Josephine Baker stayed away from the States, her son was drawn by the civil-rights movement. His involvement coincided with her adoption of what she called her "rainbow tribe" of children of different nationalities. "When I was 16, she started adopting. And I was very hostile at first. I saw her, at that point, pulling back and spending more time at home. Then the time was gone," says Baker.
In America, he met Coretta Scott King, whose husband was then leading a burgeoning movement, and was drawn into the fund-raising and marching end of the movement. Both mother and son took part in the historic 1963 March on Washington, Jo Baker wearing her uniform of the Free French.
After his name, and his own identity, was secure in Europe, Baker tried to break into clubs here. About 1963 he appeared at San Francisco's Hungry I, with a little-known Bill Cosby as his opening act. That and an impromptu duo with a good friend, Barbra Streisand, at the London Palladium have been the high points of his career.
"Years ago Barbra and I were roommates. She was working the Bon Soir for $7 a weekend. We were not lovers, by no means," says Baker, who has been married and divorced and has two children. They were mutual confidence-builders, and Streisand helped him move away from the shadow of his mother. "Barbra played the Palladium and said from the stage, "When I was thinking of walking away from this, a friend saved me.' We sang three numbers together -- and she didn't mention Jo."
Coming to grips with his mother's death has consumed most of the last three years for Baker. "After her last performance she was sitting on the stage and told her light man to hit the spotlight. She said, 'I just want to be on stage one more time.' She knew the end was coming. Then her funeral was like going to another performance. But for 1 1/2 years I didn't deal with her death. She was away. I never cried, I never went to the cemetery."
In his show, Philip Baker doesn't mention his mother at all. "But at the end, there are slides, pictures of me with her in the park. And it ends with her banana number. And I turn around and say, 'Thank you, mother, for giving it all to me.' That's how I feel."