Isham Jones and His Orchestra

Seems late in the game to be adding Isham Jones (1894-1956) to our roster of successful vaudeville veterans (he’s the 1,790th figure we’ve added to the series) but while I really do love the music of a century ago, it lags somewhere behind many other performance categories in terms of the amount of time I’ve spent exploring it. There’s so much non-vaudeville music competing with it! But we redress the omission today.

Jones was (unsurprisingly for a Jones) of Welsh coal-mining stock, born in Coalton, Ohio and raised in Saginaw, Michigan. His father was a miner who played violin at social events until the mines played out, at which time he focused on music. Isham worked for a short while in the mines as well, but got a break at a local vaudeville theatre in his late teens when there was an emergency need for a piano player in the orchestra pit. By the time he was 20 he had moved to Chicago, and was playing the circuits with his own orchestra, which he fronted on saxophone. For many years his was the house band at Fred Mann’s Rainbo Gardens. Benny Goodman and Woody Herman both started out with his band, and over the years Isham’s Orchestra backed and recorded with such singers as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, The Three X Sisters, et al. His band was a respectable rival to those of Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring, Ted Lewis, and others of the early big band period.

Jones was a composer as well as bandleader. One of his best known songs was one of his first, the World War One era hit “We’re in the Army Now”, co-written with Ole Olsen of Olsen and Johnson, and Tell Taylor (who wrote “Down by the Old Mill Stream”). With Gus Kahn, he penned such tunes as “It Had to Be You” (1924) and “I’ll See You In My Dreams” (1925). He also had hits with others folks’ songs such as “Wabash Blues” (1921), “California Here I come” (1924), “Sweet Georgia Brown” (1925), “The Charleston” (1925) and “Stardust” (1930). His popularity continued straight through the early years of the Depression. In 1934 and 1935 he appeared in several Hollywood movies. In 1936 he handed over his original band to Woody Herman, although he play and record with other musicians for a few years after that.

Those wishing to check out Jones’ music are cheerfully advised to check out Happy: The 1920 Rainbo Orchestra Sides, released by Archeophone Records.

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.