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Ada Jones, Female Recording Pioneer
Part 1

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 paid this tribute: "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, most of her Columbia records were unavailable six remained, with only one ("Cross My Heart and Hope To Die") being a solo effort.

Early Years

She was born on June 1, 1873, 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). The 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, and 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.

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
When I hold your hand in mine, Sweet Marie
A feeling most divine comes to me
All the world is full of spring,
Full of warblers on the wing
And I listen while they sing 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 the show 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 evidently ended the first phase of her recording career. A decade would pass before she recorded again.

Other Female Recording Pioneers

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 Maude Foster titles include "I Want Yer, Ma Honey," "I Don't Wantto 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 company what became the Victor Talking Machine Company when Emile Berliner was forced by an injunction to stop making discs. This is surprising since many of Berliner's male vocalists did work for the new company.

A predecessor to Jones in specializing in comic numbers was Marguerite Newton, about whom nothing is known except that in her youth she was known as "The Little Annandale." Newton recorded over 20 titles for Edison, including "Kiss Your Goosie Woosie" (4606) and "De Cakewalk in the Sky" (7143). She died 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 Octoberis 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. She was extremely successful and for a long time was unique, the only female to record as regularly as Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough, Len Spencer, and Arthur Collins.

Throughout the 1890s Jones continued to develop as an entertainer. As a stage performer, she specialized in singing while colored slides were projected it was the heyday of the illustrated song. She evidently worked steadily and continued to be featured on sheet music covers, but she was by no means a famous entertainer yet. She would win fame only through records the first female to do so.

Peak Years as Record Artist

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 upon a woman playing the role. Murray states 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 aboutthe 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 states: "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 "My Carolina Lady" music by George Hamilton, words by Andrew B. Sterling as her first 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 these old brown wax cylinders were not worth mentioning. The February 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "'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, with soprano used by most companies. She is called "Miss Ada Jones" though 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), by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan, for which she takes on a Bowery accent.

In May, Edison issued Jones performing a "coon" song: "You Ain't the Man I Thought You Was" (8989). The April 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "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 recordings was issued, and though she recalled in 1917 that "Pals" was her first record (it was issued as Columbia disc 3148), 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). It is possible that she participated on late takes on these numbers, and that Spencer worked without Jones on early takes that would account for her memory of "Pals" as being her first record. But 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. He was influenced by others' vaudeville routines but his skits were not 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" 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 various midtown studios 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, researcher 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 "Grand Prize" surrounded the center-hole of new discs, and the "Victor Record" 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 Victor artists, and despite differences in styles they eventually recorded some duets.