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Ada Jones: the "First Lady" of the Phonograph
Ada Jones

The first woman to have her voice recorded by the phonograph was no doubt some lady fascinated by Thomas Edison's original tin-foil invention. The first woman to achieve widespread acclaim as a professional recording star, however, was unquestionably Ada Jones. There is some proof that hers was one of the first women's voices successfully recorded for early commercial cylinders, but that is an incident rather unrelated to her great popularity later as the world’s "First Lady" of the phonograph.

Ada Jones was born June 1 1873, in Oldham, England, a coal mining town near Manchester. Her mother, Ann Jane Walsh, was reportedly a singer; and her father, James, was the innkeeper of The British Flag. At an early age Ada showed an unusual gift for mimicry, and her father encouraged it by "showing her off" at public entertainments. By 1879 James Jones had moved his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he continued in his trade as a bartender. Ada’s new step- mother, Annie Douglas Maloney, was quick to recognize the child’s talents; and from 1880-1886 "Little Ada Jones" made professional appearances on the stages of several theatres in New York and Philadelphia.

No longer billed as a child star, Ada Jones continued her career as a singer in variety shows and as a comedienne in musicals from 1887-1893 appearing with such now-famous personalities as John Bunny, Blanche Ring, and John Rice. In 1893 Ada Jones sang two of that year’s greatest song hits, "Sweet Marie" and "The Volunteer Organist," into the recording horn at the Edison laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey. Her voice was strong and clear, the words were distinct; and these were among the world’s first successful solo records by a woman for commercial purposes. This new aspect of Ada’s career was not to last long. The Edison record- makers were soon to go temporarily bankrupt, and at the same time the "illustrated song" gained real vogue.

Illustrated Popular Song

For the next 10 years Ada Jones was considered a leader in the art of singing with the coloured slides that illustrated the latest popular songs. Standing in the half dark near the illuminated screen, she brought many a tear to the eyes of the listeners with the mournful ballads and comic songs of the "naive Nineties"..." While the Convent Bells Were Ringing", "By the Dreamy Susquehanna Long Ago", "My Carolina Lady","Mr. Captain Stop the Ship". Her picture and credits such as "Illustrated with great success by the clever artist, Ada Jones... the Sweet Singer" appeared on the sheet music of many songs. She was a favourite regular attraction in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, New York, and Connecticut. In the summer months she toured as the featured artist of the Byron Spahn tent shows. During the winter season she appeared with the James Kennedy Repertoire Company playing character roles as well as singing.

Vaudeville

With her natural flair for imitating dialects, with her experience as a comedienne and in playing character roles, with her ability to project a homey ballad or a comic song,it is no wonder that Ada Jones was an instant success at the moment the recording industry needed her in 1904. Up to that time several women had made commercial vocal recordings, but on the whole they were not as satisfactory technically as those of the male singers. Clarity in the female voice was especially hard to capture in the popular "vaudeville" records, in which the men reached as high as they could in falsetto to imitate the women’s roles in the skits.

The famous story of how Billy Murray heard Ada Jones at Huber’s Museum and how he introduced her to the recording studios in New York has been told several times. Her clear voice, her excellent diction, and her years of varied experience afforded Ada Jones immediate popularity as a new recording personality. She had what Billy Murray termed "ginger," and through the use of her voice alone she was able to transmit it into the wax. For the next decade Ada Jones truly reigned as "The First Lady of the Phonograph". She performed on all types of cylinders, 2 and 4-minute wax, 2 and 4-minute celluloid — and on all kinds of discs — single-faced and double-faced, lateral-cut and vertical-cut — issued in North America and abroad. In all, her new recording career spanned 17 years from the release of her first record in January 1905, to the last in January 1922. Record collectors are generally familiar with the actual recording activities of Ada Jones: her fortunate association with veteran Len Spencer and their popular dialect sketches, her famous "conversational duets" with Billy Murray and Walter Van Brunt, her solo records of great variety — from child ballads to comic songs. Jim Walsh has covered these activities especially well in his excellent articles for Hobbies magazine.

Post-war Fortunes

Milford Fargo

When World War I focused musical attention away from the prevailing styles, many regular performers for records found themselves suddenly and helplessly out of fashion — and out of work. Ada Jones was one of them; but undaunted, she turned to making records for the smaller companies who welcomed the famous name: Aeolian-Vocalion, Emerson, Gennet, Lyric, Okeh, Operaphone, Paramount, Pathé, and Rex. She accepted any "bit" roles she could get from the "Major Three" — Columbia, Edison, Victor — and many times received no label credit for her work. She even "took to the road" in 1918, making personal appearances in the smaller rural communities where the "real" Ada Jones drew large crowds of devoted fans. By 1921 the nation’s musical tastes were swinging back to the pre-war styles with almost a vengeance. Victor made a new Ada Jones-Billy Murray duet, and Edison teamed her with Billy Jones for the same number, "When Francis Dances with Me." It looked as if Ada Jones was about to make a deserved comeback when suddenly on one of her tours she was taken ill and died in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on May 2 1922.

It is tragic that such a significant career ended in such a state of suspended promise. It might be observed, however, that at this same time the old acoustic era of recording was also coming to a close. Perhaps it was cruelly appropriate that the reign of its pioneer "First Lady" should pass with it.

Mr. Fargo was a celebrated and distinguished member of the faculty of the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York. A teacher, choral master and tenor soloist, and collector of early sound recordings, he enjoyed an international reputation. Mr. Fargo died May 8 1986. This article is based on the author's presentation to the 1977 Conference of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections.