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American Recording Pioneers

A Prehistory of Ada Jones: 1889–1905

By Allan Sutton


Related Article: Ada Jones at Home The Bain News Service Photos


   
Ada
Jones led a checkered career before establishing herself as one of the most popular female recording artists of the acoustic era. She played juvenile roles in the early 1880s, 1 and by the end of that decade she was taking on adult parts.

The earliest mention of Jones’ adult work to be found in the New York Times is a January 22, 1889, review of John Wild’s Running Wild. 2 The play opened at the Star Theatre (New York) on January 21, 1889, 3 and was characterized by the Times as belonging “to that numerous collection of pieces designed to introduce ‘specialties.’” Jones played the part of “The Young Lady that Never Scorns,” and the Times reported that “Miss Ada Jones sang a number of ditties that pleased the audience.”

Despite a positive review, Running Wild closed after only eight performances. Out of work following its closure, Jones was reported to be “interested” in participating in a program of comic and dramatic readings that was to be presented at New York’s Chickering Hall on March 5, 1889. 4 It is not known whether she made the cut, or how else she might have been employed after Running Wild, but her name vanishes from the Times until the autumn of 1890.

September 1890 found Jones back on Broadway, playing the role of Lila Butte in a revival of My Aunt Bridget. The show had first opened in 1886, was revived briefly in early 1890, and then was revived again—this time with Jones in the cast—at the Bijou Theatre on September 7, 1890. Advertised with the curious slogan, “Don’t Wait for Barnum, Circus Ain’t In It,” 5 the show closed after only sixteen performances, reopened at Niblo’s a short time later, flopped again, and closed after seventeen additional performances. 6

Jones’ name again disappeared from the press, and her activities during 1891–93 remain largely unknown. In late 1893 or early 1894 she made her first documented recordings, for the North American Phonograph Co. At least two of them — “Sweet Marie” (1289) and “The Volunteer Organist” (1292) — survive in private collections. They are among the earliest recordings of a female vocal soloist to be issued commercially, although the often-cited claim that they are the first has yet to established beyond the shadow of doubt. Jones is not known to have made any further records for the next decade.
     

Ada Jones at Huber's Museum, 1904

Jones on the bill at Huber's Museum, from the New York Times for
October 16, 1904. She apparently severed her full-time employment
with Huber's at the end of that year, coinciding with the start
of her increasing activity in the recording studios.

     

With her recording career cut short by North American’s closure in 1894, Jones finally found steady work at Huber’s Eighth Avenue Museum in New York. The earliest known mention that Jones was singing at Huber’s was a New York Times report on November 3, 1895. That week, she shared the spotlight at Eighth Avenue with Mlle. Sebastian and her Troupe of Trained Dogs, Pryer’s Punch and Judy, and something entitled “Frank’s Broom Factory.” 7

Huber’s Eighth Avenue was a lesser sibling to the main Huber establishment, the Fourteenth Street (or Palace) Museum. George Huber and E. M. Worth opened their popular Fourteenth Street “dime museum” on August 18, 1888. Originally named Worth’s Museum, it combined elements of historical museums and circus sideshows with live musical entertainment. The building contained a theater, but its main attraction was the Hall of Curios — 5,000 square feet of glass-fronted displays cases in which all manner of archeological, animal, and human curiosities were exhibited. In April 1890, Worth left the partnership, and Huber went on to build an entertainment empire that included Huber’s Casino, Huber’s Road House, Huber’s Wilhelmina Café & Hotel, and even Huber’s Ti Point Stock Farm. A typical Huber bill of the early 1890s featured “Rhea, the Peg-Legged Horse,” “Mitchell, the Soap King,” and bicycle races by “The Eight Fat Women.” Among the very few of Huber’s alumni to go on to greater things was magician Harry Houdini, who honed some of his early routines at the museum.

In February 1896, Jones moved from Eighth Avenue to Huber’s more famous Fourteenth Street Museum as part of “a specially organized company” that included Ravel, the Champion Club Juggler. At Fourteenth Street, Jones and company performed in the separate theater, apart from the parade of freak attractions in the Hall of Curios. On the week of Jones’ move, the featured act was one Captain Vetrio, “a young man who eats poisons and lives to tell of their effect as a diet.” The Captain, it was reported, had a fondness for Paris green but preferred morphine for lunch. 8

During the first week of March 1896, Jones and company shared billing with “Signor Monstrom’s Troupe of Boxing Monkies” and “Bertha the Snake Charmer.” 9 But perhaps more intriguing was the appearance on that week’s theatrical bill of the Spencer Brothers. If these were Len and Harry Spencer— and that is not certain, as no first names are given in the billing — it would establish that Len Spencer was already familiar with Jones long before Billy Murray arrived in New York, and could lend some credence to the theory that it was Spencer, and not Murray, who first recommended Jones to the recording companies.

In November 1899, Jones shared the billing with an Edison Projectascope for the first time. 10 Her singing of “illustrated songs” became so popular that by May 1900 it was reported that she was heading Huber’s theatrical company. 11 For four more years her name would continue to appear in Huber’s advertising, although usually in small print and overshadowed by billings for the trained animals and human oddities that drew most of Huber’s patrons.
    

Edison Vitascope poster, 1896

Edison's Vitascope was the motion-picture counterpart to his Projectascope, the
slide projector in front of which Jones sang "illustrated songs" at Huber's.
(Library of Congess).

Huber’s would prove to be a dead-end for Jones. Dime-museum acts were considered disreputable by much of the public and were ignored by reputable theater critics, denying Jones the reviews and publicity she would need to further her theatrical career. Then, too, Jones was not aging gracefully — something of a liability in the theatrical profession. The first photos of Jones to appear in the record catalogs show a rather matronly-looking woman appearing much older than her early thirties.

The question of who actually secured Jones’ first 1904 recording session can probably never be answered definitively. Murray’s claim to have done so first appeared thirteen years after the fact, in the January 1917 edition of The Edison Phonograph Monthly — a marketing publication not known for its factual accuracy. He was still repeating his claim when interviewed by columnist Jim Walsh in 1947. The possibility that it was Len Spencer who first brought Jones to the studios has been discussed above. Then too, it is certainly likely that some highly placed employees of the Edison organization were already familiar with Jones, even if they were not aware of her early history with the company. Huber had a close business relationship with Edison dating back to 1899, and the Fourteenth Street Museum had the honor of being chosen to screen the 1903 premier of Edison’s historic feature film, The Great Train Robbery. Jones’ illustrated-song routines with the Edison Projectascope generated favorable publicity for that device in the press, quite possibly bringing her to the attention of Edison officials.

The question of which was Jones’ first recording (aside from the 1894 cylinders) is equally problematic, given that Columbia session files for this period no longer exist. However, a combination of primary-source and circumstantial evidence suggests that her earliest sessions were held in December 1904. The last known Huber’s Fourteenth Street ad to mention Jones appeared in the New York Times on December 11, 1904, coinciding nicely with the earliest documented Jones recording date, for Victor, on December 29, 1904. 12 The earliest Ada Jones session to appear in the Edison cash books is January 12, 1905, for which she was paid $30. Unfortunately, the cash books do not indicate which title was recorded. 13 
    

Ada Jones and Billy Murray, March 1905 Victor Records supplement

Announcement of Jones' first Victor release, March 1905. Billy Murray, her
recording partner-to-be, was already well-established as a Victor artist.
(John R. Bolig)

Edison and Victor tied in releasing their first Jones records, in March 1905 — Edison with “My Carolina Lady” (8948), from an unknown date, and Victor with “Mandy, Will You Be My Lady Love?” (4231), from the December 29 session. Perhaps tellingly, Columbia — the company for which Billy Murray claimed Jones made her first recordings, at his suggestion — lagged far behind Edison and Victor in issuing its first Jones record. Columbia finally released “Mr. and Mrs. Murphy,” a comic sketch with Len Spencer, on disc #3108 in May 1905. Her first Columbia cylinders, a duet with Spencer of “E’vry Little Bit Helps” (#32730) and a solo of “My Carolina Lady” (#32731), were not released until June.     


Notes

1 Jones’ year of birth is given as 1873 in most published works. The New York Times obituary gave her age at death as 46, apparently in error.

2 “Running Wild.” New York Times (1/22/1889), p. 5.

3 Norton, Richard C. A Chronology of the American Musical Theater, p. 445. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).

4 “What’s Going On.” New York Times (2/17/1889), p. 16. Jones' interest in participating in a program of readings — as well as specimens of her written signature on contracts and other documents, and her hobby of telegraphy — casts serious doubt on the unsubstantiated claims seen in some hobbyists' writings that Jones was illiterate.

5 “Amusements.” New York Times (9/7/1890), p. 7.

6 Norton, op. cit., p. 472.

7 “Theatrical Week.” New York Times (11/3/1895), p. 12.

8 “The Theatres.” New York Times (2/9/1896), p. 10.

9 “La Loie Talks of her Art.” New York Times (3/1/1896), p. 10.

10 “Notes of the Week.” New York Times (11/19/1899), p. 18.

11 “Theatres and Music Halls.” New York Times (5/1/1900), p. 10.

12 Jones continued to perform sporadically in Huber establishments into mid-1905. Her last documented appearance was on June 18, 1905, at Huber’s Casino.

13 Edison studio cash books (4/190412/1904 and 1/19056/1906). Edison National Historic Site, Orange, NJ.



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