Ada Jones (1 June 1873 - 22 May 1922)
- by Tim Gracyk
Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.
Ada Jones was the leading female recording artist in the acoustic recording era, especially popular from 1905 to 1912 or so. Her singing range was limited but she was remarkably versatile, being successful with vaudeville sketches, sentimental ballads, hits from Broadway shows, British music hall material, "coon" and ragtime songs, and Irish comic songs. She was known for an ability to mimic dialects.
Victor catalogs listed roles at which she excelled: "Whether Miss Jones' impersonation be that of a darky wench, a little German maiden, a 'fresh' saleslady, a cowboy girl, a country damsel, Mrs. Flanagan or an Irish colleen, a Bowery tough girl, a newsboy or a grandmother, it is invariably a perfect one of its kind."
Columbia catalogs as late as 1921 stated: "Miss Jones is without question the cleverest singer of soubrette songs, popular child ballads and popular ragtime hits adaptable for the soprano voice now recording for any Company. She is also one of the most popular singers in the record field and her records have been heard in all quarters of the globe. Her duet records with Mr. [Walter] Van Brunt, unique and entertaining as they are, have also come in for unlimited popular approval."
Despite this high praise in Columbia's 1921 catalog, very little of her vast output was available by the early 1920s. For example, of the nearly two hundred titles that she recorded for Columbia from 1904 to 1917, only six remained in the catalog by 1921--five duets and one solo effort, "Cross My Heart and Hope To Die."
She was born in her parents' home at 78 Manchester Street in Oldham, Lancashire, England. Her father James Jones ran an inn, or public house, named The British Flag--the original building no longer stands. Her mother's maiden name was Ann Jane Walsh. Ada was baptized on June 15 in Oldham's St. Patrick's Church as Ada Jane Jones. Her birth was registered on August 18, 1873. The family moved to Philadelphia by 1879 (documents show that a brother was born there in that year). Her mother died and her father remarried. Ada's stepmother, Annie Douglas Maloney, encouraged Ada to make stage appearances, and "Little Ada Jones" was on the cover of sheet music in the early 1880s. One example is the sheet music for Harry S. Miller's "Barney's Parting" (1883). The January 1921 issue of Farm and Fireside duplicates an 1886 photograph showing Ada Jones as "Jack, a stable boy with song."
According to Milford Fargo during a presentation about Jones at the 1977 Conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, cash disbursement books at the Edison National Historic Site suggest Ada's stepmother had been hired to make or mend drapes for the Edison company. The Jones family at that time lived nearby in Newark, New Jersey. It is likely that at the studio she saw an opportunity for her talented stepdaughter. Ada's earliest recordings were brown wax cylinders made for Edison in late 1893 or early 1894 (no recording logs of this period exist). Two surviving cylinders are "Sweet Marie" (North American 1289), a song by Raymon Moore, and "The Volunteer Organist" (North American 1292). Piano accompaniment is presumably by Edison's house pianist, Frank P. Banta. A male does the announcement for each record.
They are among the earliest commercial recordings of a female singing as a solo artist. Estimating how many female singers preceded Jones is difficult. Moreover, nothing is known of singers such as "Miss Lillian Cleaver, the phenomenal contralto of the Howard Burlesque Co."--she is included in an 1892 New Jersey Phonograph Company catalog described by Jim Walsh in the October 1958 issue of Hobbies. Allen Koenigsberg lists known female pioneers--some were instrumentalists, not vocalists--on page 59 of The Patent History of the Phonograph (APM Press, 1990): "[B]efore 1896, they included Phyllis Allen, Laura Bennett, Lillian Cleaver, Lilla Colman, Susie Davenport, Minnie Emmett, Jennie Evers, Maude Foster, Ada Jones, Anna Lankow, Bessie Mecklem, Rose Monks, Jessie Oliver, Alice Raymond, Alice J. Shaw, Ella Thiebault, Jessie Warner, and Emma Williams." Others include Hallie Beck, Alice Clifford, pianist Miss Hangs, Jennie O'Neill Potter, and Effie Stewart.
Though Jones would later win fame as a performer of comic numbers, her brown wax cylinders give no hint of her comic talents. The sentimental "Sweet Marie" had been introduced in the show A Knotty Affair, which opened in New York in May 1891. Composed by Raymon Moore, its lyrics are meant for a male singer:
I've a secret in my heart, Sweet Marie
A tale I would impart, love to thee
Ev'ry daisy in the dell
Knows my secret, knows it well,
And yet I dare not tell, Sweet Marie...
Come to me, Sweet Marie, come to me
Not because your face is fair, love to see
But your soul so pure and sweet,
Makes my happiness complete
Makes me falter at your feet, Sweet Marie
It is not known whether the song was already in Jones's repertoire or whether Edison recording executives, believing that sentimental numbers best suited female singers, picked this song for what was probably her recording debut. Jones was in A Knotty Affair in December 1893, but the song was sung on stage by its composer, Moore.
Jones may have recorded other numbers at this time (titles on North American 1290 and 1291 are unknown). Shortly after her recording debut, the North American Phonograph Company went into receivership--in August 1894--and this ended the first phase of her recording career. A decade would pass before she recorded again.
Meanwhile, other female singers made discs and cylinders but most had very short recording careers and none sang comic numbers regularly. Columbia's November 1896 cylinder catalog lists fourteen titles performed by contralto Maud Foster--titles include "I Want Yer, Ma Honey," "I Don't Want to Play In Your Yard," and "Mamma Says It's Naughty"--but Foster is absent from the company's June 1897 catalog, so her recording career was decidedly short-lived. Berliner artists of the late 1890s include Laura Libra, Virginia Powell Goodwin, Edna Florence, Dorothy Yale, Grace McCulloch, Florence Hayward, Maud Foster, Mabel Casedy, and Annie Carter. These were trained singers and mostly sang light opera selections or sentimental parlor songs. Few made records after 1900. With the exception of Edna Florence, these vocalists did not work for Eldridge R. Johnson's new Consolidated Talking Machine Company (this soon evolved into the Victor Talking Machine Company) when Emile Berliner was forced by an injunction to stop making discs (Florence Hayward did make Victor discs in 1905 and 1906). This is surprising since many of Berliner's male vocalists did work for the new company.
A predecessor to Jones was Minnie Emmett, who was especially important to Columbia a year or two before Ada Jones had her first Columbia session. Emmett's recording career went in rapid decline just as Jones started to enjoy success. A predecessor to Jones in specializing in comic numbers was Marguerite Newton. Born in 1865, she was known as "The Little Annandale" early in her career. Newton recorded over 20 titles for Edison, including "Kiss Your Goosie Woosie" (4606) and "De Cakewalk in the Sky" (7143). She retired from show business in 1916 and died at her home in Gallitain, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1942.
Beginning in 1902, Corinne Morgan was among the first female singers to record regularly, mostly duets with Frank C. Stanley. She sang sentimental fare, not comic numbers. Even a rare "coon" number, sung with Stanley--"'Deed I Do"--is characterized in the June 1903 Edison Phonograph Monthly as being "of a sentimental character." Announcing the release of Standard 8427, "The Lord's Prayer" and "Gloria" as sung by a quartet featuring two male voices (Frank C. Stanley and George M. Stricklett) and two female (Morgan and one Miss Chapell), the June 1903 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly frankly admitted the limitations of technology at that time: "It has always been a difficult matter to make successful Records of female voices, and after months of careful experimentation our Record Department has succeeded in getting perfect results in quartettes and duets. It is now at work on solos, and expects before long to list some very good songs by female voices."
When the September 1903 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly announced an October release of one Morgan title, it again acknowledged that technology up to that point had not done justice to female singers: "A fourth feature for October is the listing of one of the best Records ever made by a woman's voice. It is No. 8499, 'Happy Days,' and is sung by Miss Corrinne [sic] Morgan, with violin obligato...It is sung by Miss Morgan with entire absence of all objectionable features of Records made by women's voices..."
It was perhaps for the best that Ada Jones ceased to make recordings for a decade. If she had made more in the 1890s, they likely would have been commercial failures for technical reasons, or recording executives might have selected for her too many sentimental numbers, preventing Jones from standing out. In 1905, when her recording career began in earnest, the time was right for this comic singer. For a long time was she unique among recording artists, the only female to record as steadily as Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough, Len Spencer, and Arthur Collins.
Presumably in the 1890s Jones developed as an entertainer. As a stage performer, she specialized in singing while colored slides were projected--it was the illustrated song's heyday. She evidently worked steadily and continued to be featured on sheet music covers but was by no means famous yet. She would win fame only through records--the first female to do so.
Billy Murray reported in the January 1917 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, and then later to Jim Walsh, that he was responsible for Jones making her Columbia recording debut in 1904. He recalled that when one of his sessions with Len Spencer drew criticism, he recommended Jones for studio work. Victor Emerson, then supervisor of Columbia sessions, was appalled by Murray's imitation of a female and insisted that a woman play the role. Murray stated in the Edison trade journal, "I can get away with some pretty high notes, but there were a couple in that song that I couldn't reach on tiptoes...So I told the director about the girl I had heard in the Fourteenth street museum [Huber's] and suggested that she be given a try-out. He told me to bring her around. I did, and she made just as big a hit with everybody else as she did with me...Some one has spread the impression that Ada Jones is in private life Mrs. Billy Murray. We are married but not to each other."
Walsh writes in the June 1947 issue of Hobbies, "According to Dan W. Quinn, Spencer 'hot-footed it down to Huber's museum' and obtained Miss Jones' services just a day before Quinn made her a similar offer." That Quinn seriously planned to work closely with Jones seems doubtful since he normally did not sing with others. His own recording career declined around the time that Jones's blossomed. Huber's Palace Museum, sometimes called Huber's Fourteenth Street Museum, was located at 106-108 East 14th Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. Entertainment "museums" were divided buildings, with one stage for freak acts and another for variety shows. Several shows were given each day, and entertainers worked hard at museums. Not a high-class establishment, Huber's often featured performing monkeys and Unthan, the "armless wonder" who played piano with his toes. Harry Houdini performed at Huber's before enjoying widespread acclaim as an escape artist. Before it closed in 1910, Huber's was known in New York City for its variety of vaudeville acts but was not a leading vaudeville house and did not feature top-name entertainers.
Jones undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity to make records. Performing before live audiences must have been difficult since she was subject to epileptic seizures, and no medication at this time controlled epilepsy.
In the February 1917 issue of Edison Amberola Monthly, she stated: "The first record I made was a duet with the late Len Spencer. It was a rendition of the once popular song called 'Pals,' and was one of the famous 'Jimmie and Maggie' series of records. My first solo was 'My Carolina Lady,' a song that swept the country when 'coon' songs were in vogue."
That she cites "Pals" (also known as "He's Me Pal") as her first record is interesting. For Columbia, she probably had made with Len Spencer "The Hand of Fate" a little earlier. She did record "Pals" with Spencer for Edison around the same time and she was probably trying to recall her earliest Edison recording since she was being interviewed for an Edison trade publication. That she cites "My Carolina Lady" (music by George Hamilton, words by Andrew B. Sterling) as her first solo record is interesting. It was issued in March 1905 as Edison Standard 8948 (her Victor version was released in September). She either forgot about the solo recordings of the 1890s or believed that rare brown wax cylinders were not worth mentioning. The February 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly stated, "'My Carolina Lady' serve[s] as an introduction to the Phonograph public of another new singer in Miss Ada Jones, who has a charming contralto voice. Miss Jones sings this selection in a style all her own, with a dainty coon dialect and expression, that claim your interested attention at once."
She is called a contralto here. She was at different times identified as a contralto, mezzo soprano, and soprano. Most companies called her a soprano. That she is also called "Miss Ada Jones" is noteworthy since in Manhattan on August 9, 1904, she had married Hughie Flaherty.
Her Edison debut recording was followed in April 1905 by "He's Me Pal" (8957), the Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan song, for which she takes on a Bowery accent and works with Spencer. In May, Edison issued "You Ain't the Man I Thought You Was" (8989). The April 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly stated, "Miss Jones' coon dialect will be found very entertaining...A coon dialect by the female voice is something new in our recent supplements."
Around this time her first Columbia records were issued. Though she recalled in 1917 that "Pals" was her first record (it was issued in 1905 as Columbia disc 3148 as well as Edison two minute wax cylinder 8957), Columbia discs with earlier numbers include "The Hand of Fate" (3050, with Len and Harry Spencer) and "Mr. and Mrs. Murphy" (3108, with Len Spencer). The first Columbia cylinder of Spencer and Jones was "The Hand of Fate," issued as Columbia cylinder 32623 (again, Len's brother Harry is an assisting artist) and she recorded "The Hand of Fate" for Victor in late 1904, several months before recording "Pals" (on May 3, 1905) for the company. It seems likely that "The Hand of Fate" was the beginning of her second recording career, not "Pals."
In April 1905 the team of Jones and Spencer is cited for the first time in an Edison trade publication. The April issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly announces the May release of the Ted Snyder song "Heinie" on Standard 8982 (they recorded it as Columbia 3206 around this time), calling it a "Dutch vaudeville specialty." This was followed in June by the release of Jones and Spencer performing "Ev'ry Little Bit Helps" (9016). On various records the two imitated Bowery toughs (on the popular "Peaches and Cream," Spencer was a "newsy" named Jimmie, Jones being his "goil"), German immigrants, Western ranch workers (as in the skit "Bronco Bob and His Little Cheyenne"), African-Americans, and others. Most of their so-called vaudeville specialties or vaudeville sketches (some Victor labels use the term "descriptive specialty") were written and arranged by Spencer himself. They were "vaudeville" skits only in the sense that Spencer was influenced by routines typically performed in vaudeville by others; his skits were not actually performed in vaudeville.
For the next few years a new Jones or Jones-Spencer performance would be issued regularly by Edison. Often the company included in a new Advance List, issued each month, both a Jones performance as well as a Jones-Spencer skit. In May 1910, Edison released a Jones performance ("By the Light of the Silvery Moon," on which she is assisted by a male quartet), the Jones-Spencer routine titled "The Suffragette," and the Jones- Murray duet titled "Just a Little Ring From You." To be featured on three new records issued by one company in one month was remarkable. Busy at this time with other companies as well, she was at the peak of her popularity! Jones and her husband Hugh Flaherty lived in Manhattan at 150 W. 36th Street until 1910, so visiting the Edison studio in lower Manhattan and the midtown studios of other companies was easy. They then moved to Huntington, Long Island.
She did not play an instrument. Unable to read music, she learned songs by ear. In a letter dated March 12, 1982, Milford Fargo gives this information about the singer when answering a question posed by Ronald Dethlefson about Jones's handwriting: "Actually she did not have very good script and rarely wrote her own letters because she was aware of it. She had meager formal schooling and was content to let her stepmother write for her. Len Spencer (of the Spencerian handwriting family) often signed autographs for her on pictures and documents in the Edison and Columbia files. Also her writer friend, Elizabeth Boone, composed letters and copy for her and often sent them in her own writing."
Her first Victor discs were issued shortly after the company switched from the "Monarch" label to the "Grand Prize" label (beginning in January 1905 the phrase "Grand Prize" in small print surrounded the center- hole of new discs, and the phrase "Victor Record" in large print replaced "Monarch Record" on ten-inch discs). Her first Victor session was on December 29, 1904, and Spencer was her partner on two selections: "Reuben and Cynthia" (4304) and the burlesque melodrama "The Hand of Fate" (4242). As a solo artist, she recorded on that day two "coon" songs, only one of which was issued: "Mandy Lou, Will You Be My Lady-Love?" (4231). It was issued in March 1905, the same time that Henry Burr's first Victor disc was issued. Both Burr and Jones would become important to Victor--as well as to Columbia and Edison. Their talents were so different that the pairing of Burr and Jones was in no way inevitable, yet they eventually recorded some duets.
She gave birth on January 14, 1906, to daughter Sheilah (sometimes spelled Sheelah in newspapers), her only child. Jones worked in the final trimester of her pregnancy, attending Victor sessions as late as December 15, 1905, and returned to work relatively soon after giving birth. On March 16, 1906, she recorded for Victor the song "Henny Klein" as well as skits with Len Spencer.
Though Billy Murray "discovered" Jones at Huber's in 1904, Murray and Jones were not paired immediately. Soon after the two finally worked together, probably beginning with a Victor session on November 2, 1906 (they cut "Wouldn't You Like To Flirt With Me?" and "I'm Sorry"), the duo became very popular--in fact, along with Collins and Harlan, and Campbell and Burr, the team of Murray and Jones was among the most successful duos of the acoustic era. Their first Edison record was Standard 9659, "Will You Be My Teddy Bear," issued in August 1907. Their first Columbia cylinder was "You Can't Give Your Heart To Somebody Else And Still Hold Hands With Me" (33088), their first Columbia disc being "I'd Like To See A Little More Of You" (3612). Before this disc, Jones and Murray had joined Frank C. Stanley for "Whistle It" (3589).
The Jones-Murray pairing became exclusive to Victor and Edison after Murray signed a joint contract with those companies in 1909. Their most successful Edison cylinder was probably "Rainbow" (Standard 10049). This Percy Wenrich composition (with lyrics by Jack Mahoney) was issued in January 1909 during a craze for "Indian" songs. Jones recorded similar songs with Murray, including "Blue Feather" (Standard 10162), "Silver Star" (Amberol 940), and the popular "Silver Bell" (Standard 10492; Amberol 576).
Other notable Jones-Murray recordings issued by various companies include "Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee," "The Boy Who Stuttered and the Girl Who Lisped," "Smile Smile Smile," "When We Are M-A-R- R-I-E-D," "Wouldn't You Like To Have Me For A Sweetheart," "I'm Looking For A Sweetheart, and I Think You'll Do," "I've Taken Quite a Fancy To You," and "The Belle of the Barbers' Ball" (popularized on stage by female impersonator Julian Eltinge with the Cohan & Harris Minstrels, according to the February 1910 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly).
The March 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly stated, "Scarcely less popular than Miss Jones' solo Records are those made with the assistance of Mr. Murray, himself one of the best of the Edison artists. The duet Records by Miss Jones and Mr. Murray are eagerly sought for in each month's list." By this time, sales of Jones and Murray duets significantly exceeded sales of Jones and Spencer records. The July 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly stressed that the team of Jones and Murray had no competitors: "Miss Jones and Mr. Murray have the field absolutely to themselves so far as comic love duets are concerned--they have no near rivals."
Probably because of demand for Murray and Jones duets, she worked only occasionally with Spencer by 1909. The last Edison cylinder credited to Ada Jones and Len Spencer is wax Amberol 670 featuring "The Crushed Tragedian," issued in May 1911. Jones also contributed to "Uncle Fritz's Birthday," credited to Len Spencer and Company and issued on wax Amberol 700 in June 1911. But so closely associated were Jones and Spencer, who died in late 1914, that several editions of the Victor catalog, beginning in 1915, state at the end of the biographical sketch for Jones, "The recent death of the popular and genial comedian, Mr. Spencer, is regretted by a host of friends and admirers."
Because Murray in 1909 became exclusive to Victor for discs and to Edison for cylinders, Jones needed another partner when singing for other companies, and for a few years she relied heavily on a young Walter Van Brunt, especially during Columbia sessions. Many Lakeside, Oxford, United, and Indestructible records feature the duo of Jones and Van Brunt. They stopped working together in mid-1914 because the tenor signed an exclusive contract with Edison. Van Brunt later recalled in a taped interview with Milford Fargo that he found Jones to be easy to work with, stressing that he could not recall ever having a disagreement or exchanging a cross word.
Other partners include Henry Burr, Billy Watkins, Will C. Robbins, George Wilton Ballard, George L. Thompson, M.J. O'Connell (he used the name "Harry Dunning" for their Rex duets), and, in the last stage of her career, Billy Jones. With Byron G. Harlan she cut "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" (Diamond Disc 50518). Harlan was among the prolific artists in record studios during the years Jones was popular, but the two rarely worked together. Though well-known for performing "coon" songs, she never recorded duets with the artist best known for "coon" songs, Arthur Collins.
She continued to work with Cal Stewart until his death in 1919. Especially successful was "Uncle Josh and Aunt Nancy Putting Up The Kitchen Stove," recorded for several companies. It was renamed "Uncle Josh and Aunt Mandy Put Up The Kitchen Stove" when an Emerson master was used for a Radiex pressing (4082), and Stewart was identified on the Radiex label as "Duncan Jones."
In contrast to colleagues with various pseudonyms, she was issued only as Ada Jones. Also noteworthy is that she performed for a decade without rivals--that is, no singers of similar talents seriously threatened her popularity despite many comic female singers being introduced to record buyers from 1905 to 1915. The most talented included Helen Trix, Clarice Vance, Maude Raymond, Elida Morris, Irene Franklin, Stella Tobin, Stella Mayhew, and Dolly Connolly (more obscure are Amy Butler, Lilian Doreen, Marie Hoy, June Rossmore, and Ethel Costello). Nora Bayes was more famous but this was due to stage successes--her early records did not sell well. Each singer's recorded output was minuscule compared with Jones's. Stage work, which often included touring on vaudeville circuits, undoubtedly prevented a few from cultivating recording careers whereas Jones in this period devoted all efforts towards making records.
Dorothy Kingsley on two Edison Standard cylinders sounds remarkably like Jones. On Zon-o-phone 1078 Kingsley even performs a song that Jones recorded for various companies, "Do You Know Mr. Schneider?" However, Kingsley's career was too brief for Jones to have worried about her as a rival. Kingsley was not a pseudonym for Jones. Documents at the Edison National Historic Site show that Jones was paid $1950 for the business year ending on September 30, 1908; Kingsley was paid $85 for making two cylinders. Otherwise nothing is known today of Kingsley except that she also made a few Victor, Zon-o-phone, and Indestructible records around the same time she worked for Edison. As little is known of Madge Maitland, who made one Edison cylinder, "Is Everybody Happy?" on 9210, and a Columbia disc, "My Lovin' Henry" (3328). The January 1906 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly reports that she is "well known on the vaudeville stage," adding, "Miss Maitland's coon dialect has never been excelled by an Edison singer." But Maitland's recording career was too brief to pose any threat to Jones.
Anna Chandler was virtually promoted as a Jones rival. Announcing Chandler's second cylinder, "I Want Everyone to Love Me" on wax Amberol 770, the July 1911 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly stated, "Six years ago we 'discovered' Ada Jones. Today she is recognized as a leader in Phonograph circles wherever civilization extends. Our latest 'discovery' is Anna Chandler, who six years hence will certainly be equally as well-known and universally liked." But Chandler records did not sell well.
Popular discs featuring Jones as a solo artist include "Waiting at the Church" (Victor 4714, 1906), "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave" (Columbia 3599, 1907), "The Yama-Yama Man" (with the Victor Light Opera Company, Victor 16326, 1909), "I've Got Rings On My Fingers" (Columbia A741, 1909), "Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon" (with the American Quartet, Victor 16508, 1910), "Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine" (with the American Quartet, Victor 16844, 1911), "Row! Row! Row!" (Victor 17205, 1913), and "By the Beautiful Sea" (with Billy Watkins, Columbia A1563, 1914).
For several companies Jones recorded Maurice Stonehill's "Just Plain Folks," one of her most popular numbers. Lyrics are about an aged couple who, upon visiting their son for the first time in years, are disappointed that the wealthy son resents the visit. Edison issued it on two-minute Standard 9085 in September 1905, Columbia soon following. On wax Amberol 286, a longer version was issued in September 1909. Early Blue Amberols had record slips, and none had less text than the one included with Blue Amberol 1771, which gives chorus lines and nothing else: "We are just plain folks, your mother and me/Just plain folks like our own folks used to be,/As our presence seems to grieve you,/We will go away and leave you,/For we're sadly out of place here/'Cause we're just plain folks."
Edison promotional literature hailed her versatility. The July 1908 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly announced the September release of "Hugo" (9928) and stated, "Here is more proof that Ada Jones' versatility has no limit. This charming entertainer can sing an Irish song 'to beat the Dutch,' and then turn right around and sing Dutch to beat the Irish. That may seem like a very difficult feat, but there will be no room for doubt after hearing 'Hugo,' which is her latest Dutch dialect [German] song."
Walsh writes in the May 1977 issue of Hobbies, "The late Fred Rabenstein, who was Edison's paymaster, told me that Ada Jones 'never bothered to learn a song until she came to the studio to make the record,' and this annoyed Walter Miller, the recording manager. On one of her 'takes' of the Diamond Disc of 'Snow Deer,' she sings 'snow bird' at one point where she should say 'deer,' and surprisingly the error was allowed to go uncorrected."
Her performance of "O'Brien Is Tryin' To Learn To Talk Hawaiian" was issued on Diamond Disc 50402 in May 1917. A promotional blurb on the disc's jacket praised her comic talents and suggested she was still at the top of her profession: "Ada Jones is without a peer singing comic songs. You'll laugh at these ridiculous words even when you have heard them many times, and you will always find the tune irresistible. Miss Jones is one of the best known of all comic song singers. As a dialect singer she is unique."
However, by 1916 her popularity was in decline. Her career suffered when popular music changed in the World War I era, leaving her with only the occasional session, usually for small companies such as Rex and Empire. Columbia was the only company to engage Jones regularly into 1916 (she evidently made no Little Wonder discs--few female artists made them, exceptions being Elida Morris and Rhoda Bernard). One sign of decline in popularity is that, as a solo artist, she is on only six Diamond Discs, which is a contrast from the many Standard and wax Amberol cylinders she made for Edison prior to the introduction of Diamond Disc technology. When she did go to the Columbia, Edison, or Victor studios, she was sometimes given only bit parts in ensemble pieces.
In a rare instance of a company remaking a record that had originally featured Jones, Columbia in late 1920 used Gladys Rice, assisted by the Harmonizers, to redo "All Night Long," originally issued in 1913 on A1297 as performed by Ada Jones assisted by the Peerless Quartet. The same catalog number was used for the 1920 remake. The choice of Rice, whose voice was very different from that of Jones, is surprising, especially since Jones herself was presumably available in 1920--she was making records for other companies. Possibly companies by the World War I era viewed Rice, who was also versatile, as a successor to Jones.
After sessions became infrequent, she began making personal appearances, which became her chief source of income. In the June 1972 issue of Hobbies, Walsh describes a Jones concert he attended in his hometown of Marion, Virginia, in 1922. In the early 1920s Marion "had less than 4,000 population," and the concert was given in the Smyth County courthouse instead of in a theater. Performing in small towns could not have been lucrative.
By 1917 new recording artists such as Marion Harris, Van and Schenck, and Gladys Rice made Jones's delivery seem old-fashioned. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, a new generation of female singers regularly recorded "blues" or at least Tin Pan Alley songs with "blues" in the title, but Jones never cut a song with "blues" in the title. When the Jones-Murray performance of Harry Von Tilzer's "Don't Slam That Door" was issued as Blue Amberol 3135 in April 1917, it was advertised as a "conversational coon duet." "Coon" songs were decidedly old-fashioned by this time.
In an attempt to keep up with the times, she did record a few songs about the war, such as Solman's "We'll Keep Things Going Till The Boys Come Home," issued on Imperial 5513 in December 1917, and Berlin's "They Were All Out of Step But Jim," issued as Okeh 1008 in July 1918. The Heineman Phonograph Supply Co. began issuing Okeh records in mid-1918 and she recorded a handful of titles for the company, joining George L. Thompson for three titles.
She recorded "She's Back Among the Pots and Pans Again" in late 1917. It was issued on Empire 5526 and Imperial 5526 in February 1918, the reverse side of both discs featuring Byron G. Harlan singing "Long Boy."
In 1917 she recorded songs for the Starr Piano Company, maker of Gennett hill-and-dale discs. The Raymond Hubbell song "Poor Butterfly" was enormously popular throughout 1917 (with words by John Golden, it was introduced in 1916's The Big Show at the Hippodrome Theatre in New York), and on Starr/Gennett 7603 Jones sings the comic "If I Catch the Guy Who Wrote Poor Butterfly," issued in August 1917. Others issued between November 1917 and March 1918 include "Cross My Heart and Hope to Die" (7603), "Don't Slam That Door" (7607), and "Says I To Myself, Says I" (7637), and "I'm Old Enough For A Little Lovin'" (7637).
The Edison company continued to engage Jones though not as regularly as in earlier years. The company by this time relied far more upon Helen Clark and Elizabeth Spencer for popular songs, and Gladys Rice became increasingly important to Edison. Rice was even paired often with Billy Murray, Jones's traditional partner.
No new Jones material was recorded for Edison between June 1914 and May 1915. There is a large gap in Blue Amberol releases featuring Jones as a solo artist. Blue Amberol 2409 featured her singing Monckton's "Bedtime at the Zoo," issued in September 1914, but then no new Blue Amberols of Jones were issued until two years later, with "If I Knock the 'L' Out of Kelly" (2940) released in September 1916. This is in contrast to new Jones cylinders being issued nearly every month during her heyday in the Standard and wax Amberol period. She did contribute to three performances issued between Blue Amberols 2409 and 2940. Blue Amberol 2777 features Gilbert Girard "and Co." Blue Amberols 2912 and 2914 feature the Metropolitan Mixed Chorus. Jones helped but was given no label credit. She also did remakes of "The Pussy Cat Rag" and "Uncle Josh's Huskin' Bee" in 1915.
Walsh reports in the June 1960 issue of Hobbies that when a new performance of "The Golden Wedding" was needed for Diamond Disc release, it was recorded on January 25, 1918, with Jones's 12-year daughter playing the role of a granddaughter. (According to researcher Milford Fargo, Sheilah died in the 1930s.)
Jones and Murray recorded Harry Von Tilzer's "Bye and Bye," issued as Blue Amberol 3545 in September 1918. It was the last Blue Amberol to pair Jones and Murray.
The April 1918 issue of Talking Machine World reported that rumors were being spread that Jones had died. Page 13 stated, "Ada Jones, like Mark Twain, objects to being reported dead, and the veteran talking machine artist was quick to deny the latest rumor of her demise in the following letter: 'I have often been reported dead. I even had a double who has been singing throughout the country, using my name, as "Ada Jones, the phonograph artist." I have just been out with a troupe of phonograph artists giving several entertainments where I was introduced as "Ada Jones, the mother of the phonograph." Which made me feel very ancient, I assure you. Cordially yours, Ada Jones, Long Island.'"
It is impossible now to assess how widespread such rumors were or to know if rumors were spread at all. Obviously reports of such a rumor--and, with it, the proclamation that she enjoyed good health--must have been judged excellent publicity by everyone at the time, especially since Jones had begun to tour. Not surprisingly, Jones took the opportunity to stress that she was touring. The March 1908 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly had mentioned a similar rumor: "A report has apparently gained considerable circulation in the Middle West to the effect that Miss Ada Jones died recently. There is absolutely no foundation for the report. Miss Jones is in good health and is making Records for us each month." The July 1910 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly refers to the same rumor: "The persistency with which the report makes it appearance is exceedingly annoying to Miss Jones, and we are bothered by frequent requests for contradiction or confirmation of it."
From 1918 until her death she gave concerts, usually in small towns. Page 138 of the July 1918 issue of The Voice of the Victor stated, "Ada Jones and the Shannon Four recently appeared in concert in Roanoke, Va., under the auspices of the Roanoke Cycle Company." The January 1919 issue of Talking Machine World reported on its front page that on December 26, 1918, the singer "sang several coon and character songs" in the Opera House in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Others who performed were the Shannon Four as well as the McKee Trio. The trade journal by 1919 rarely used the term "coon" for songs since such music was long out of fashion by this time.
Page 75 of the March 1919 issue of Talking Machine World reports, "R.L. Hollinshead, manager of the talking machine department of the Clark Music Co., this city [Syracuse, New York], believes in keeping his customers familiar with the various record artists in order to maintain their interest in their machines. With that end in view he recently conducted a very substantial concert with Miss Ada Jones, one of the veterans among the recording artists, as the chief attraction. Miss Jones sang several character songs, for which she is noted, and also sang an Italian character duet with Mr. Hollinshead, entitled 'I'll Take You Back To Sunny Italy.' Mr. Hollinshead sang several songs, and there was demonstrated an Edison Re-Creation of a song by Jones and Murray, to show the remarkable reproduction of the human voice. The concert was one of a series which the Clark Music Co. is giving free to the public..." The "concert" probably took place in the talking machine department of a store.
Jones and Murray had their last hit as a duo with "When Francis Dances With Me" (Victor 18830), composed by Benny Ryan and Sol Violinsky, who was really Sol Ginsberg. It was recorded on August 25, 1921, and finally issued in January 1922, too late for Christmas sales. Victor executives probably had no great expectations for the record since Jones records in recent years had been slow sellers. The surprisingly brisk sales of this particular record can be attributed to the song's success in vaudeville. The music stops at one point for an exchange of comic dialogue, which was typical of recordings of a previous generation, such as on many Collins and Harlan records. By the 1920s, comic singers sometimes exchanged dialogue before music began--as Billy Murray and Aileen Stanley do on several numbers, such as "Whatdya Say We Get Together" (Victor 20065), and as the Happiness Boys do--but not often in the middle of a song.
This was her last Victor disc. For Edison she cut the same song with her namesake, Billy Jones, on September 6, 1921. It was issued on Diamond Disc 50852 in December 1921 and Blue Amberol 4404 in January 1922. The last song she recorded was "On A Little Side Street," singing it with Billy Jones for Edison (Diamond Disc 50852; Blue Amberol 4404). She also cut it as a solo artist for Okeh 4439, which was issued in December 1921--she is on one side of Okeh 4439 while a pioneer of radio, new recording artist Vaughn De Leath, is on the other. Jones also recorded the song for Victor but takes were rejected.
During most of her recording years she resided in Huntington Station, Long Island, New York. She died of uremic poisoning (a kidney failure) in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on May 2, 1922, while on a performing tour. The town's newspaper, The Evening Telegram, had announced days earlier that Jones and her company would perform at the local Palace Theater on Saturday evening. Her company consisted of obscure artists--violinist Beth Hamilton; pianist and soprano Mabel Loomis; and one "Armstrong," identified as a "man of mystery, who will entertain by moments of mystifying and being funny." A feature length motion picture and two-reel comedy were also scheduled for the evening's entertainment.
The newspaper reported days later that on the Monday after the Rocky Mount performance (she had sung "Oh Lordy" and "You Ain't the Man," among other numbers), Jones collapsed in her hotel room. She had been booked for a Monday evening performance in Tarboro. Other company members, ready for the train station, stopped at her room shortly before noon on Monday and found her semi-conscious body. She was taken to the local St. Mary's Hospital on Tuesday morning and died that night. Her remains were transported to New York for burial.
Walsh reports in the June 1972 issue of Hobbies what Jones researcher Milford Fargo had learned in 1958 from the singer's longtime housekeeper, Rosina Mackie--namely, that Jones had been reluctant to begin the tour. Page 172 of the June 1922 issue of Talking Machine World included a short article under the heading "Death of Miss Ada Jones"--she was still identified as "miss" despite many years of marriage. Her husband Hugh Flaherty died on July 9, 1961, outliving his first wife by nearly four decades. He had met Jones in a theatrical rooming house at 82 East 10th Street. Walsh reports in the November 1961 issue of Hobbies that Flaherty, who had been born in County Kerry, Ireland, "worked vaudeville routines and danced 'solo' with the Byron Spahn traveling tent show. Ada was the feature of the Spahn show, singing with illustrated song slides."
Performances by Jones, who always worked as a free-lance artist, were issued on these domestic labels: Aeolian-Vocalion, American, Aretino, Busy Bee, Central, Clear Tone (single-faced), Cleartone (double- faced), Clico, Climax, Columbia (she recorded the most titles for this company), Concert, Cort, Crescent, D & R, Diamond, Eagle, Edison, Emerson, Empire, Excelsior, Faultless, Gennett, Harmony, Harvard, Imperial, International, Lakeside, Leeds, Lyric, Manhattan, Marconi, McKinley, Medallion, Mozart, Nassau, Okeh, Operaphone, Oxford, Paramount, Path Actuelle, Path Freres, Perfect, Playerphone, Puritan, Radiex, Radium (made by Leeds & Catlin), Remick Perfection, Rex, Rishell, Siegel Cooper, Silver Star, Silvertone, Square Deal, Standard, Star, Sun, Symphonola, Symphony, Talking Book, Thomas, United, Victor, and Zon-o-phone.