Richard Jose -- America's Great Countertenor

By Tim Gracyk

Richard Jose

Do you wish to hear the great Richard Jose? Unfortunately, there is no commercially issued compact disc of Jose.

I'll list here the song titles--my favorites--on the Richard Jose compact disc that I might eventually compile. All performances are taken from 78s and were recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1903-1906.

  1. Silver Threads Among the Gold
  2. When You and I Were Young Maggie
  3. Ben Bolt
  4. Since Nellie Went Away
  5. With All Her Faults, I Love Her Still
  6. We've Been Chums for Fifty Years
  7. Home Sweet Home
  8. Dear Old Songs
  9. I Cannot Sing the Old Songs
  10. She Fought On By His Side
  11. The Ninety and Nine (cut on Feb. 23, 1906)
  12. Rock of Ages
  13. Abide With Me
  14. Nearer My God To Thee
  15. Sun of My Soul
  16. Softly Now the Light of Day
  17. Time and Tide
  18. Belle Brandon
  19. May, Sweet May
  20. Dear Old Girl
  21. Oh Come All Ye Faithful
  22. Silver Threads Among the Gold
  23. Time and Tide
  24. Time and Tide (alternative take)
  25. Rose of My Life
  26. I Cannot Sing the Old Songs
  27. When You and I Were Young, Maggie

The following biography is an excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.

Richard Jose

Richard Jose was the first countertenor to make recordings. His voice was unique and beautiful. His recordings sold extremely well (he made records for the Victor Talking Machine Company only), he was popular on stage, and his image appeared on the covers of popular sheet music. Yet he was forgotten for decades.

The famous British countertenor Alfred Deller, who almost single-handedly generated new interest in the high male voice in the 1940s, never acknowledged Jose as a predecessor, perhaps because Jose specialized in sentimental ballads. Deller was interested in a different type of music and may have never heard Jose's records, which would have been rare in England. Modern countertenors never mention Jose as a predecessor, but they are probably unaware of Jose's fame in America at the turn-of-the-century. Most countertenors today are trained singers--like Deller, they work with a different kind of material than Jose, who worked steadily in vaudeville and specialized in sentimental ballads that were popular in his day.

A countertenor's voice is sometimes called an alto since the countertenor sang the alto part (alto meaning "high"). A countertenor's sound is closest to that of the female contralto (or counter-alto). Whereas countertenors today rely on falsetto, Jose--along with Will Oakland, another popular recording artist of this time--achieved an unusually high range without reliance on falsetto, using full lung power. Jose could color the tone of the voice in a way that is difficult for anyone using falsetto. No singer relying on falsetto could have produced the volume needed to fill concert halls, as Jose did for decades. His was an extraordinarily rare--and beautiful--voice.

He recorded for Victor exclusively and was among the company's best-selling artists during the Monarch and Grand Prize period. Although Victor issued nothing new from Jose after 1906, several Jose selections remained in the Victor catalog until 1919, including "Silver Threads Among the Gold," closely identified with Jose. One Jose disc remained in the catalog as late as 1922: "Abide With Me," recorded on February 23, 1906 (Victor 16660) and backed with "Child of a King," sung by Elizabeth Wheeler.

Most of Jose's discs, even the earliest issued on Monarch and Deluxe labels, identify Jose as "counter-tenor," a term that would have been new to record buyers. On some labels Jose is identified as "tenor."

Countertenor Will Oakland began recording in 1908, two years after Jose's last Victor recordings were made. Oakland was inevitably compared with Jose for much of his career, even by the Edison Company when it promoted Oakland's Edison work. Literature for Oakland's "Dear Old Girl," which was issued in 1913 as Edison Record No. 2075, states, "Richard Jose, the phenomenal contra- tenor, was the first to feature the song, and from its first performance it was a decided success." This is a rare instance of one company referring to another company's exclusive artist. Perhaps eager to cash in on the success of first Jose and then Oakland, Columbia sometimes labeled Manuel Romain a countertenor despite Romain being a regular tenor. Countertenor Frank Coombs began recording in 1910.

A book titled "Silver Threads Among the Gold" in the Life of Richard J. Jose was published by Grace M. Wilkinson in 1945, four years after Jose's death. The biography was written with the help of Jose in the late 1930s. The term countertenor is not used in the book and almost nothing is said about Jose's singing techniques, but his range is noted: "Mr. Jose's compass was from D above middle C to E above high C." The book also notes that when he sang "Goodbye, Dolly Gray," Jose's principle "working note was high 'D,' two half-steps above the sacred high 'C' of Italian tenordom."

The countertenor was much valued centuries ago, especially in the 1600s and early 1700s (English composer Henry Purcell was reportedly a countertenor), but Richard Jose was the first singer in America to enjoy fame as a countertenor. His recording career was brief--from 1903 to 1906--but his concerts were popular years before and after his recording sessions. Will Oakland enjoyed a much longer recording career, and when Oakland ceased making recordings, no other countertenors made recordings in America during the 78 R.P.M era. In England in the 1940s, Alfred Deller (a baritone who employed falsetto) won new respect among singers and voice enthusiasts for the high male voice. Deller's first recordings were made in 1949 for HMV.

Richard Jose's story reads like a Horatio Alger tale: a penniless boy rises to the top of his profession, enjoying renown and even fortune. His wife Therese (he married Therese Shreve of Carson City, Nevada on July 20, 1898) recalled in an article written for The Pony Express, a publication she edited, that Harry Von Tilzer presented her with "a huge sunburst diamond broach" in gratitude for her husband making a hit of the 1900 song "A Bird In a Gilded Cage." She says Charles K. Harris likewise presented a diamond necklace in gratitude for her husband's help in popularizing "After the Ball." Unfortunately, Therese is given to exaggeration and overstatement, and all her statements should be take with a grain of salt.

Jose worked closely with composer Paul Dresser. In his 1944 book They All Had Glamour, Edward Marks lists many Dresser songs popularized by Jose. Therese Jose stated her husband even went into the publishing business with Dresser. Oscar Lewis' history of San Francisco's Palace Hotel, titled Bonanza Inn, tells of an Examiner reporter late for an interview with the famous conductor Walter Damrosch because the reporter had been detained elsewhere by the beauty of Jose singing to the accompaniment of Dresser himself. The reporter was too caught up in the music--"hypnotized," he announced--to be on time. The reporter's first words to the famous Wagnerian conductor were of praise for the beauty of Jose singing Dresser's "A Mother's Grave."

The History of Boston Theatre, published in 1908, records that when Jose left a Boston stage after singing on the night of April 5, 1891 (he sang encore after encore), the happy audience rose en masse and likewise left the theatre--despite the fact that several other numbers remained on the program, including the popular Rigoletto quartet.

Historian Charles Hamm states in Yesterdays that Jose's instinct for a hit was not perfect. When given the chance in 1892 to introduce Charles Harris' new "After the Ball," Jose at first advised Harris that an earlier tune called "Kiss and Let's Make Up" was superior. Jose was with the Primrose and West Minstrels at that time.

He was born in England in the Cornish village Lanner. His birth certificate, according to British researcher David Ivall, shows Jose as being born on June 5, 1862. Various sources give later dates. Jose's wife cites 1869 in her account of the singer's life in a 1968 edition of The Pony Express though a 1978 edition of the same corrects the year to 1862. The singer's 1941 death certificate cites 1872, off by ten years.

Jose's baptismal record is dated September 17, 1862 and gives the surname as "Joce." This is a phonetic spelling and indicates how Jose is pronounced in Cornwall, where it is an ordinary name. Although Victor catalogs give a Spanish pronunciation ("hoh-zay") and the singer evidently adopted this pronunciation at some point in his career, this name in Cornwall is pronounced to rhyme with "rose"--that is, "Joe's." There is no accent mark in the large "Jose" on the singer's tombstone, but Jose himself used an accent mark when signing his name.

His father, Richard Jose senior, was a copper miner who died in late 1876. Jose emigrated to Nevada in search of an uncle after the father's death. Some accounts depict him as a mere boy when he emigrated, a myth Jose himself and later his wife Therese promoted, with Jose's obituary in The Billboard giving the age as eight. However, he was fourteen or possibly older when he emigrated. He never located the uncle but he found a home in Nevada among Cornish miners who welcomed the fellow emigrant. He became an apprentice to a distant uncle who was a Reno blacksmith at Fourth and Sierra streets, William J. Luke. Jose is still called "The Singing Blacksmith" by history buffs in Reno and Virginia City, Nevada.

Jose was largely untrained as a singer. Although the singer's wife recalls that Jose's father played the organ and sang in the village church, the only real instruction may have been in Jose's teen years when, according to Arthur Cecil Todd's 1967 book The Cornish Miner in America, one Bishop Whitaker arranged for singing lessons in Reno.

Although some sources suggest that Jose's career took off in Sacramento with Charlie Reed's Minstrels, Jose had considerable experience earlier in Reno and elsewhere. A newsreporter from Virginia City, one Alfred Doten, kept a detailed journal of life in Nevada from 1849 to 1903. The journals were published in three volumes in 1973, and several references to Dick Jose's singing in Nevada show that Doten was an early enthusiast.

Doten's first reference to Jose is in the entry for February 16, 1885. This is earliest known reference to Jose aside from documents regarding his birth and baptism: "Dicky Jose a young man about 19 yrs old & resident of Reno came up with the Reno Guard, as a member, & having one of the finest tenor voices I ever heard, he favored us with several popular ballads, with others to accompany him--After the funeral was over he was at the Hole-In-The-Wall saloon, Capt Avery's, and sang, & the bands also played there."

Two years later, Doten refers to Jose as "Reno's favorite tenor": "In response to encores and vociferous calls he sang 'Grandfather's Footsteps' in his clearest, sweetest, most sympathetic voice, and was rapturously applauded" (July 4, 1887).

In his entry of August 5, 1887, Doten writes about Jose performing with a female singer: "Dickie has a peculiarly beautiful tenor and alto voice--a mezzo tenor, as it were. She about 19 or 20 & he a little older." This is a rare reference to Jose singing with a partner. He always sang as a solo artist when recording for Victor.

In 1891 while in Virginia City, Doten notes that Jose is with Thatcher's Minstrels. Twelve years lapse before Doten's journals again speak of Jose. In Carson City, Doten gives this entry on August 18, 1903: "Richard J, otherwise Dicky Jose with his star company of minstrels--30 or 40--arrived on morning train from Virginia [City] where they played last evening to crowded house . . . Dicky Jose told me today that he weighs 247 pounds--About 35 yrs old--"

He was actually over 40. Jose was to make his first recordings a few months later.

In the mid-1880s Jose joined the San Francisco minstrel troupe led by Lew Dockstader. Wilkinson states, "Mr. Jose never blacked his face during the many years he sang in the minstrels nor did he ever parade on any street." As documented in Annals of the New York Stage, Jose's success in New York began in September of 1886, when he was 24. Dockstader's company performed a comic number titled Jim the Penman, with Jose playing Ag, a daughter. Jose appeared on New York stages on a regular basis thereafter, being an important addition to Denman Thompson's successful The Old Homestead a few years after the play was first presented in 1886.

Fagan and Moran's Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records shows that Richard Jose made his first recording on October 27, 1903. The song was "Silver Threads Among the Gold," published in 1873, with music by Hart Pease Danks and lyrics by Eben Eugene Rexford. Wilkinson reports Victor executives hesitated paying $100 for Jose to record a song that was already old. The song had been a standard in minstrel shows by 1888 but had gone out of fashion by 1900.

Jose was not the first to record "Silver Threads Among the Gold," but he was the first recording artist to enjoy success with the song (in the 1890s, it had been cut a few times on brown wax cylinders). Within a few years after Jose cut it, the song became an industry standard. Few songs have been covered by so many artists. The first Edison version was issued in December, 1905 (9162), sung by soprano Marie Narelle. The December 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "There have been constant requests for this ballad and doubtless our friends have often wondered why it has not been listed before, but to have it by Miss Narelle is well worth waiting for."

The early 10 inch version (#2556) of the song is not to be confused with the better-selling 12 inch version (#31342). Jose sang Rexford's popular song five times for Victor. On December 8, 1904, Jose redid "Silver Threads Among the Gold" and Victor pressed this as a 10 inch record, reusing the number of the version made a year earlier. On December 10, two days later, Jose recorded the 12 inch version, and though Jose sang additional versions in later years for Victor, apparently none were improvements since they were not issued. The 1904 version stayed in the Victor catalogue for years.

Jose recorded some hymns along with sentimental songs. His last recording session was on September 16, 1909, but nothing was issued from this. His last Victor records are from February, 1906.

An injury may account for Jose's recording career being cut short. According to a 1978 edition of The Pony Express, in 1906 a stage curtain fell on Jose with such force that stitches were required in his scalp. Therese Jose recalls that at this time the singer's "black hair turned perfectly white overnight." (In the late 1940s she had reported to Jim Walsh that the accident occurred in 1905 but she later cited 1906.) At this time he was touring as the head of the Richard J. Jose Grand Concert Company.

Around 1915, the K & R Film Company, named after owners Pierce Kingsley and R.R. Roberts, made a six reel film with Jose titled "Silver Threads Among the Gold." In an unusual gimmick during the age of silent pictures, the singer stood in the wings of theatres that showed the film and sang along to match the motion of lips on the screen. Along with the title song, Jose sang "Every Night a Prayer is Said" and "Where Is My Wandering Boy?" This was the company's first film and, on June 5, 1915, it was the first to be shown at Madison Square Gardens as a motion picture theater. The singer's voice must have been powerful to fill this hall. No copy of the movie is known to exist.

The film's producers issued in 1915 a publication called The Kanr Journal, and Jim Walsh quotes in the April 1950 issue of Hobbies an article titled "The Life Story of Richard J. Jos." Among other unlikely details, it reports that as a boy soprano Jose "sang before the crowned heads" of England.

In the 'teens Jose toured with a small company that presented a "pastoral play" titled "Silver Threads." Richard Jose did not leave the theatre until 1919, according to Bess Johns, a niece living in Butte, Montana.

Jose was eventually appointed Assistant Enrolling and Engrossing Clerk of the California Legislature. During the 1930s, Jose served as California Real Estate Commissioner. He sang occasionally in the years of retirement, including on radio's Shell Hour. On radio, he performed numbers which by this time would have been regarded as nostalgic tunes. Jose was associated with songs of a different era even in the early 1900s. An irony of Jose's hit "I Cannot Sing the Old Songs," recorded for Victor in 1905, is that many songs were already old by the time he recorded them. He had popularized "With All Her Faults I Love Her Still" in 1888, almost twenty years before recording it as Victor 31171.

Jose made a rare electric recording in San Francisco for the small MacGregor and Ingram Company around 1930. According to David Banks, the company, which made custom records, first appears in the San Francisco phone book in 1930 and is listed again in 1931. In 1932 the company changed its name to MacGregor & Sollie, which survived until 1937. Jose was approaching 70 when he recorded for the last time "Silver Threads Among the Gold" and "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." Curiously, one side is number 449 and the other 441. A sticker on the back of some copies states, "Obtainable from the exclusive representatives, Schwabacher-Frey, 735 Market St., San Francisco off Grant Ave." David Banks reports that the Schwabacher & Frey office was in the Russ Building at 235 Montgomery. The 735 Market St. address was the Schwabacher & Frey Stationary Co. (Printers & Bookbinders). Perhaps Jose appeared at the stationary store to autograph copies of his disc.

Some of Jose's recordings are available on compact disc. Some wonderful recordings include "May, Sweet May," "We've Been Chums for Fifty Years," "Since Nellie Went Away," and "Your Mother Wants You Home, Boy, And She Wants You Mighty Bad." The pianist Christopher Henry Hudson Booth, identified only as C.H.H. Booth on early Victor discs that identify him at all, accompanies Jose on many recordings. Some rare Jose recordings include "She Fought On By His Side," "Katey Dear," and "The Blind Boy." If anyone has copies of these recordings, please contact me since I would like to have them made available on compact disc.

Jose lived at 795 Sutter St. in San Francisco for decades until his death at age 79 on October 20, 1941. He had no children. He was buried in Colma, California.