This is the thirty-eighth entry in the series Honoring Black History.
When I learned of Sissieretta Jones (a.k.a., Madame Jones), and began reading up on her, I noticed several parallels between her career and Beyoncé’s.
Madame Jones was an opera singer born in 1869. Her father, Jeremiah Malachi Joyner, was a formerly enslaved minister who was both educated and literate (which was very uncommon for the time). Her mother sang in church choir and was a washerwoman. She sang from a young age, but mostly around the house. When her family relocated from Portsmouth, Virginia to Providence, Rhode Island, she began singing at her father’s church. In 1883 she began to formally study music at Providence Academy of Music before moving on to the New England Conservatory of Music and the Boston Conservatory. Clearly gifted, she began giving solo public performances two years later.
Madame Jones’s voice, much like Beyoncé’s, was phenomenal. “Her notes are as clear as a mockingbird’s” wrote the New York Echo when she became the first black performer to sing at the Music Hall (later renamed Carnegie Hall) in 1892. Jody Rosen of the New York Times called Beyoncé’s voice “one of the most compelling instruments in popular music” in 2014. Yep, and Beyoncé also played Carnegie Hall numerous times, both with Destiny’s Child and solo.
Madam Jones also performed at Madison Square Garden in 1892, before an audience of 75,000. Beyoncé first played Madison Square Garden in 2005 with Destiny’s Child, but interestingly it wasn’t the same venue anymore and the maximum capacity was 20,000. The Madison Square Garden Madam Jones performed at was actually the second to bear that name, the one Beyoncé performed at was the fourth (and current) incarnation.
In 1892, Madame Jones also gave her first performance at the White House (for President Benjamin Harrison). She performed there for four consecutive presidents—Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, and Roosevelt—though she had to enter through the back door for all of them except Roosevelt. Beyoncé took numerous trips to the White House as well and, while I couldn’t find any record of her performing there, I’m she she carried a tune once or twice. Plus she did perform an amazing cover of Etta James’ “At Last” at President Obama’s Inauguration Ball in 2008 and sang the National Anthem at his inauguration ceremony in 2013. Close enough.
By 1895, a decade into her career, Madame Jones had become the most well-known and highly paid black performer of her time. In 2014, Beyoncé became the highest-paid black musician in history and she made Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list for the second year in a row.
This is where Madame Jones’ and Queen Bey’s careers diverge, however: Even when she was billing top dollar, Madame Jones was making pittance compared to her white counterparts. Adelina Patti, an Italian opera singer to whom Madame Jones was often compared, was making $4,000 a night in 1829, compared to Madame Jones’ $2,000 a week. Beyoncé is tied with Madonna as the only female singer to earn over $100 million in a single year… twice.
Sadly, Madame Jones’ first husband—also her manager, whom she divorced in 1899—mishandled and gambled away a lot of her money. When her mother fell ill in 1915, she retired form performing and returned to Rhode Island to care for her. She spent the rest of her life caring for her mother, two adopted children, and several homeless children. She survived on her earnings for a time, but eventually had to sell nearly everything—jewelry, medals, three of her four homes—to cover her expenses. In her final years, it’s said that the local head of the NAACP helped her pay her bills and even provided her with fuel to heat her home.
Madame Jones eventually developed cancer and died in poverty in 1933. She didn’t even have the money for a headstone. A 2018 GoFundMe campaign paid tribute to Madame Jones by purchasing a headstone for her.
- Sisseretta Jones Biography BlackPast, 2007.
- “From Opera, Minstrelsy and Ragtime to Social Justice: An Overview of African American Performers at Carnegie Hall, 1892–1943” BlackPast, 2007.
- Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Anthony Appiah. Basic Civitas Books, 1999.
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