1873 – 1922
You youngsters can have your Ladies Gaga and Pinks and Katy Perrys. Give me the great Ada Jones. Ada was the first—and for ten years, the only—female superstar of the early record industry.
A hard-working but unsuccessful musical-comedy actress in the 1880s and ’90s, Ada was reduced to playing New York’s notorious Hubert’s Museum and Freak Show by the turn of the 20th century. Ada had a voice for recordings–and she had a face for them, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ada was just plain homely. Even in the days of zaftig comic singers like Sophie Tucker, May Irwin and Marie Cahill, Ada was plump, toothy and long of nose. But she had the voice of an angel. A funny angel.
She was just past 30 when singer Billy Murray—himself a rising star in the business—saw her potential and recommended her to Columbia Records (she had already made some recordings in the 1890s). Beginning in late 1904, Ada cut hundreds of records for early companies, both well-known and respected (Columbia, Edison, Victor) and fly-by-nights who opened and closed like suitcases in those days (Busy Bee, Radiex, Square Deal, Zon-o-phone).
From 1905 through the mid-1910s, Ada Jones was, literally, unrivaled as a recording star. Though other women recorded in those years, none of them stuck. She even surpassed Broadway stars May Irwin (who made a handful of records in 1907) and Nora Bayes and Sophie Tucker (neither of whom really took off in records till the later 1910s).
Ada’s voice was clear and her enunciation crisp (important in those singing-into-a-horn days), and her style light and chipper. She refused to learn her songs till she got to the studio that day, resulting in an impromptu, loose style (though often jangling the nerves of her coworkers and causing her to flub lyrics). She sounded—still sounds—like she was having fun. She sang both solos and duets (mostly with Billy Murray and vaudeville star Len Spencer), specializing in the sort of light, catchy comedy tunes that came to define the pre-War, Edwardian era.
She sang still-classic pop tunes (“By The Light of the Silvery Moon,” “How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm,” “By the Beautiful Sea,” “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine”). She sang dialect songs (Jewish, “Dutch,” Irish, and the now-reviled “coon songs”). She sang hilarious, ephemeral novelties (“He Lost Her In the Subway,” “O’Brien Is Tryin’ To Learn To Talk Hawaiian,” “The Pussy Cat Rag,” “If I Catch the Guy Who Wrote ‘Poor Butterfly’”).
Despite her success, Ada Jones had a challenging life and career. She never became a stage star, though she toured in concerts and vaudeville right up till her death. She suffered from epilepsy and kidney troubles (neither really treatable at the time). Her husband—dancer Hughie Flaherty—did not bring in enough money to support their Long Island estate and their daughter. So Ada worked: in an era before Social Security and medical benefits, she freelanced for various record companies—none of whom paid well or regularly—and toured in vaudeville. By the late 1910s, other women were finally breaking into the business and younger singers (including blues and jazz artists such as Marion Harris, Marguerite Farrell, Isabelle Patricola and Aileen Stanley) were taking on her work. She died on tour, age 48, in 1922—just before the jazz age and the switch from acoustic (horn) to electric (microphone) recording.
I leave you with some of my favorite Ada Jones recordings, the delightful “He Lost Her In the Subway” (made not long after the New York subway opened), the catchy “Pony Boy” and the hilarious “She Forgot to Bring Him Back” (by the way, “turning tricks” did not mean then what it means now!).