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Sissieretta Jones

"The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868-1933

Maureen D. Lee

Publication Year: 2013

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, whose nickname the "Black Patti" likened her to the well-known Spanish-born opera star Adelina Patti, was a distinguished African American soprano during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Performing in such venues as Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, Jones also sang before four U.S. presidents. In this compelling book-length biography of Jones, Maureen Donnelly Lee chronicles the successes and challenges of this musical pioneer. Lee details how Jones was able to overcome substantial obstacles of racial bias to build a twenty-eight-year career performing in hundreds of opera houses and theaters throughout North America and Europe. Serving as a role model for other African American women who came after her, Jones became a successful performer despite the many challenges she faced. She confronted head on the social difficulties African American performers endured during the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Throughout her career Jones was a concert singer performing ballads and operatic pieces, and she eventually went on to star in her own musical comedy company, the Black Patti Troubadours. Critics praised Jones as America's leading African American prima donna, with some even dubbing her voice one in a million. Lee's research, utilizing many black newspapers, such as the New York Age and the Indianapolis Freeman, concert reviews, and court documents brings overdue recognition to an important historical songstress. Sissieretta Jones: "The Greatest Singer of Her Race," 1868–1933 provides a comprehensive, moving portrait of Jones and a vivid overview of the exciting world in which she performed.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5

Dedication Page

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pp. 6-7

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Some biographers claim their subjects choose them. Such was my experience with Sissieretta Jones. I first heard about her while visiting family in my native state of Rhode Island. My brother, George Donnelly, was working with others in Providence to create a unique Rhode Island history exhibit called “Rhode Island Treasures.” ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

In the nine years I have worked on this biography of Sissieretta Jones, I have had the good fortune to receive assistance from many people. The first person I want to thank is my husband, John, for his constant support and encouragement. Without it I would not have finished this biography. ...

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pp. 1-3

Slowly Sissieretta Joyner walked toward the taxi parked in front of her nine-room home on Wheaton Street high above the capital city of Providence, Rhode Island, in the area now known as College Hill near Brown University. She had a dollar in her purse, borrowed from her friend and benefactor, William P. Freeman, to pay for the cab ride ...

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1: Rhode Island

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pp. 4-13

Sissieretta was born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner on 5 January 1868,1 three years after the close of the Civil War and seven months before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave black Americans the rights and privileges of citizenship and provided them equal protection of law. ...

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2: West Indies and South American Tours

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pp. 14-29

As Sissieretta boarded the steamer Athos in New York with her husband to begin their journey on 2 August 1888 to Kingston, Jamaica, she likely wondered what to expect of her upcoming tour as the star of the Tennessee Jubilee Singers. She had never ventured too far from the East Coast of the United States and was probably traveling by ship for the first time. ...

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3: “I Woke Up Famous,” 1892

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pp. 30-52

With the success of two West Indian and South American tours behind her, Sissieretta returned to New York in July 1891, more experienced and eager to advance her concert career in the United States. She rejoined Flora Batson Bergen to sing with her in a few Bergen Star Concerts managed by Batson’s husband, John. ...

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4: Trouble on the Horizon, 1893

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pp. 53-78

As Sissieretta’s fame grew, critics began to take more notice of her and hold her to higher standards than when she first began performing. Nowhere was this more evident than following her Chicago debut in January 1893. Her first appearance in the country’s second largest city was at the Central Music Hall under the auspices of the (white) Star Lecture Course, ...

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5: The Road to Europe, 1894–1895

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pp. 79-94

Shortly after Sissieretta’s twenty-sixth birthday in early January 1894, she was invited to sing at a prestigious charity concert in New York directed by the famous Bohemian composer Antonin Dvořák, who had been teaching and coaching African American students since 1892 as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. ...

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6: A New Career: The 1896–1897 Theatrical Season

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pp. 95-115

On New Year’s Day 1896, Sissieretta, who had been quite successful singing at Proctor’s Plea sure Palace in December, made her first appearance at Proctor’s Theatre on Twenty-Third Street in New York City. Once again she was singing in a vaudeville house rather than on a concert stage. ...

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7: The Black Patti Troubadours, Early Years, 1897–1900

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pp. 116-135

Sissieretta’s triumph as star of the Black Patti Troubadours’ opening season was the first of many successes she would experience over the next twelve years as star of the African American touring company owned and managed by Rudolph Voelckel and John Nolan. The shows would change from year to year, as would the music, ...

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8: The Black Patti Troubadours, 1900–1906

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pp. 136-167

As the world adjusted to life in the twentieth century, Sissieretta and the Troubadours prepared for the opening of their fifth consecutive season, scheduled to run from August 1900 until May 1901. During this time President William McKinley, twenty-fifth president of the United States, was reelected for a second term ...

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9: The Final Troubadour Years, 1906–1909

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pp. 168-190

As the owners and managers of two shows—the Black Patti Troubadours and the new Dandy Dixie Minstrels—Voelckel and Nolan had their hands full as they began rehearsals for the 1906–7 season. Nolan began practice for the Dandy Dixie Minstrels on 23 July 1906 in Washington, D.C., at the black-owned Majestic Theater, ...

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10: The Black Patti Musical Comedy Company, 1909–1914

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pp. 191-224

As the summer of 1909 came to a close, Rudolph Voelckel began making arrangements for the 1909–10 theatrical season. Voelckel, now sole manager of the Black Patti Company, signaled that fact by changing the name of the Black Patti Troubadours to the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. ...

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11: The Last Tour, 1914–1915

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pp. 225-233

While Sissieretta was relaxing in Rhode Island during the summer of 1913, Voelckel sent press releases in July to the New York Age and the Indianapolis Freeman announcing that the eighteenth season of the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company would open on 8 September in Goshen. Plans called for a forty-week tour in the South and Midwest, ...

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12: Retirement and Tributes

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pp. 234-244

A weary, and likely discouraged, Sissieretta arrived back in Providence in January 1915 and went to her home on Wheaton Street1 to recover from the contentious breakup in Memphis of the Black Patti troupe as well as to care for her mother, who was in ill health. It appears, given available press reports, that Sissieretta did not perform on stage again until ...

Appendix A: Sissieretta Jones’s Selected Repertoire

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pp. 245-248

Appendix B: 1901–1902 Black Patti Troubadours’ Tour

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pp. 249-254


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pp. 255-282


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pp. 283-288


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pp. 289-295

E-ISBN-13: 9781611172812
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611172805

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2013