Ada Jones, Female Recording Pioneer
by Tim Gracyk
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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.