Fernando (Sonny) Jones

Fernando (Sonny) Jones was an intriguing, if somewhat elusive, black performer who made his life and career in Europe and especially in Paris in the 1920s.  He was an accomplished dancer and made it big headlining in the Palace Theatre show Paris Voyeur in Paris in the 1925-1926 season. Throughout his career he was closely linked to Louis Douglas, another high profile black artist.

Variously named Fernando, Fernande, Fernandes, Sonny, Sunny and even Ferdinand or Freddie, was born on 24thNovember 1892 in Chicago.  For our purposes I will call him here Sonny Jones (infrequently mis-spelt Johnes).  His father was Henry Jones (born in Texas) but must have died when he was young. Interestingly, in 1916 Sonny listed Annie Snell, of 6361 Lasalle Street, Chicago as his personal contact in America. Previously in 1903 he had listed her as his mother.

Max Berger and Sonny Jones in the revue Paris Voyagers at the Palace Theatre, Paris, 1925-26
Max Berger and Sonny Jones in the revue Paris Voyeurs at the Palace Theatre, Paris, 1925-26

One must assume that although he listed his mother in effect he was an orphan (perhaps his mother abandoned him or gave him up) and in later passport applications he said his residence in America was 6117 South Ada Street, Englewood, Chicago. A Susan George (widowed and born about 1850) and a George C. Murphy (6118 Ada Street and born about 1877) were listed as references and might suggest that this was where he lived during his early years. 

In June 1901 he arrived in Southampton from New York with Irving (Sneeze) Williams aged 9, accompanied by Belle Davis (aged 39). He was described as being 7 years of age but in fact he was also 9. Belle Davis was an Afro-American song and dance artist, entertainer and choreographer who became a music hall star of Victorian and Edwardian England and Europe. Tall and beautiful with a light complexioned, she had established herself in the USA as a singer in touring shows before 1901. However, she developed her act by being accompanied by young black boys who danced and were described as ‘piccaninnies.’

The Afro-American trumpeter Arthur Briggs described Belle Davis as a dancer-organiser. At the time it was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted and exploited for these kind of shows, but Briggs suggested that Davis was different. I believe the facts negate this, since she had clearly trained and then bought two young boys (Jones and Williams) under the age of 10 to the UK to perform with her and continued to groom other young boys like Louis Douglas. This, as far as I am concerned, was underage exploitation.  

In later passport applications, Belle Davis said that she was also based at 6117 South Ada Street, Chicago, like Sonny Jones and at various times claimed she was born in New Orleans, Chicago and Texas in 1874.

Two passport photographs of Fernando 'Sonny' Jones
Two passport photographs of Fernando ‘Sonny’ Jones

According to later passport applications Sonny Jones stated that he toured the UK and some parts of Europe from 1901-1906 in a variety act with Belle Davis with one strange voyage back to America in July 1903 and an immediate return where Sonny was listed as Freddie Jones. In February 1904 they were at the Alhambra in Paris, March 1904 they were at the Orpheum in Vienna, September 1904 at the Dusseldorf Apollo, May 1905 at the Berlin Wintergarten, June-July 1905 at the Alhambra Paris, October 1905 at the Amsterdam Circus Carre and Rotterdam Circus Variete.  Through the rest of 1905 and 1906 they were again in the UK and then in September 1906 at the Hanover Mellini, the Berlin Circus Busch and Den Haag Scala, October and November at the Paris Alhambra and then December 1906 through January 1907 at the Apollo Vienna.

During this time two silent films were released in Paris by Pathe in 1906  featuring the antics of three negro boys and Belle Davis. One of the three boys dressed as a girl to perform a cakewalk parody with another boy dressed in high hat and tails.  Of significance a series of 10 postcards dated 31stMay 1903 and identified as ‘Les Enfants Negres. Danse au Nouveau Cirque’ were released showing exactly the same pair in the same outfits.

An early postcard that might feature Sonny Jones @ 1903-1905
An early postcard that might feature Sonny Jones @ 1903-1905
An early postcard that might feature Sonny Jones @ 1903-1905
An early postcard that might feature Sonny Jones @ 1903-1905

Another similar series of postcards identified as ‘Sans Souci’. Given the similarity to the Pathe films it is not hard to believe that both series of postcards related to Belle Davis ‘Piccaninies’ and Sonny Jones and Irving (Sneeze) Williams.

An early postcard that might feature Sonny Jones @ 1903-1905
An early postcard that might feature Sonny Jones @ 1903-1905

Since Sonny Jones did not list being in Europe after 1906 and up to 1912, presumably he returned to America, but it is not inconceiveable that he simply carried on touring with Belle Davis. However, he did say he left America on 15thJune 1912 and had a contract to embark on theatrical business for Moss Empires.  He had formed an act called ‘Black and Jones’ described variously as ‘the Happy darkies dancers of the ragtime’, ‘eccentric Negro dancers,’ ‘coloured comedians’ and ‘American dancing comedians’ and toured the UK through late 1912, part of 1913 and 1914 appearing at various Moss Empires venues. The tour culminated at the Paris Alhambra from 16-30 April 1914. The identity of his partner ‘Black’ was not disclosed.

Later, Jones would declare that he was travelling in the UK and European countries between 1912-14, travelling in England between 1914-1917 and travelling in France and Germany between 1917-1920.  Sadly, exact details of what he was doing in the period 1914-1916 are elusive. He may well have returned to America in 1913 but said he returned to Europe in October 1913 and by July 1914 was requesting a passport to travel to Russia to fulfill an engagement.

The author Jonathan O. Wipplinger stated that in 1917 Sonny Jones performed as a dancer in drummer Louis Mitchell’s band called The Seven Spades. Afro-American Louis Mitchell criss-crossed the Atlantic during World War 1 and had performed with a band at the Piccadilly Hotel in 1914. In April 1915 he once again crossed the Atlantic and was the drummer in Dan Kildare’s band that play Ciro’s nightclub in London. In 1916 Mitchell must have left Ciro’s and played in variety. When Ciro’s nightclub closed in early 1917, Mitchell took the five members of Dan Kildare’s band to form the Seven Spades and embarked on another variety tour. The seventh spade was described as a ‘mad dancer’ and this was Sonny Jones.

The Seven Spades toured from April 1917 through the UK and were described as a coloured combo of ragtime instrumentalists, singers and dancers. Louis Mitchell was called the world famous trap drummer and they were collectively called the famous band from Ciro’s supper club. The band then played the Alhambra in Paris during December 1917 and the Olympia in February 1918. Thereafter, Mitchell formed a band to play at the Casino de Paris and Perroquet nightclub.

Sonny Jones’s activities in 1918 are not known but at this time he claimed to be living at 4 Rue Crussol, Paris, just North of the Marais and not far from the Ba-ta-Clan in the 11th arrondissement. In July 1919 it was announced that he would be presenting a repertoire of varied and excentrique dances at the salubrious Restaurant du Casino in Deauville, throughout the busy August period. One of his applauded dance numbers was called ‘Skaznazim’.  To gain entry and perform in what was, at the time, one of the high temples of European high society was quite an achievement.

In 1920, now aged 26, Sonny was 5ft 8” tall with brown eyes and curly black hair and he joined forces with Louis (Lewis) Douglas, another Afro-American dancer. At the time in a passport application Sonny listed Douglas as a referee and he said he had known him for 17 years, which suggests they had met in 1903. Douglas had been brought to the UK in 1903 by the black artists’ George Walker and Bert Williams but shortly afterward joined Belle Davis’s Piccaninies where he must have met Jones. He later thrived in Europe as a dancer, choreographer and producer. Given their closeness, perhaps Jones was involved in some of Douglas’s myriad activities during the period 1910-1920.  For example, in early July 1914, Jones applied for a passport in London to visit Russia and at that time Douglas organized a troupe to visit Russia but after two weeks war broke out and they were forced to return to England.

However, in April 1920 they formed a duo and appeared in a variety act called The Shurley Girl, presented by the agent and producer George Shurley. The act described as ‘singing, dancing, comedy and syncopation in three scenes’ featured Douglas (black faced comedian) and Jones (an eccentric master in the art of merriment) with the 12 Shurley girls and toured the UK throughout 1920 and ended up in December 1920 at the London Palladium. Both Jones and Douglas were viewed as  ‘clever dancers of the eccentric type,’ ‘wonderfully funny’ with good patter.

Another UK variety tour took place from June 1921 through 1922 but this time just Douglas and Jones billed as black-faced comedians who talked, sang and danced.  At the London Coliseum in September 1922, they were joined by Ernest Hastings in sketches at the piano. The duo were thought to have ‘rare skill particularly as regards eccentric dancing’ and their brisk act was cordially approved, Finally they took the act to Paris and appeared at the Alhambra (December 1922) and the Olympia (January 1923) along with a stint in cabaret at the Embassy Club, 25 Rue de Pentheirvre.

Shortly afterward in February 1923, both Douglas and Jones joined the new Madame Rasimi revue at the Ba-ta-clan called Bonsoar! Along with Missia and acrobats John and Alex. Douglas and Jones were described as two coloured boys ‘who sing and dance with a joyous verve and rhythm that reminds one of the nights of Shuffle Along.’

Subsequently Rasimi organized a troupe to tour South America leaving from Lisbon for Argentina in mid April with a cast headed by Mlle Parisys, Mistinguett and Earl Leslie, along with Fernande Diament, Germaine Lambell, Nan Stuart, Jeanne Aubert, the acrobats John and Alex and the dancers Marion Cook (Louis Douglas’s wife) Louis Douglas and Sonny Jones, plus the 16 John Tiller Girls. The troupe visited Buenos Aires in May-June, Montevideo (Uruguay) in June and Rio De Janeiro (Brazil) in July-October, before taking a boat to New York City and returning to Paris.  According to Mistinguett, the tour was a disaster because the French impresario Jacques Charles had already sent another troupe in advance and they gained the full houses.

Back in Paris, in early 1923, Douglas and his wife Marion Cook, were appearing at the Embassy Club (Garden de Ma Soeur) with the International Five dance band, and perhaps Sonny Jones was included in the show. In February 1924 Douglas and Jones formed part of an extensive programme for the annual charity event Le Bal des Petits Lits Blancs at the Paris Opera.

A portrait of of Fernando 'Sonny' Jones, Paris, mid-1920s
A portrait of of Fernando ‘Sonny’ Jones, Paris, mid-1920s

For the Independence Day Grand Soiree Gala on 4thJuly 1924 at the newly opened Seymour’s cabaret (25 Rue Mogador behind the Mogador Theatre) Palmer Jones and Louis Douglas presented a show called Midnight Shuffle Along.

Seymour’s opened in mid-May 1924 with a midnight cabaret show headed by the famous Dolly Sisters (after their nightly performance at the Palace Theatre)  along with the Sonora jazz band with Bobbie Hind. At the time, Jenny Dolly, one of the Dolly Sisters, was in the midst of a ‘liaison’ with David Prince of Wales that continued through the summer and in New York.  

The Independence Day show was described as ‘the first appearance of a real all coloured midnight show in Paris’ and starred the legendary Afro-American singer Miss Florence and 20 other coloured artists including Louis Douglas, Marion Cook and Sonny Jones plus the International Five Jazz Band (Arthur Briggs on trumpet, Earl Granstaff on trombone, Palmer Jones on Piano, Opal Copper on banjo and Harvey White on drums).

Miss Florence had her own club called Chez Florence, in the Rue Pigalle and was described by Vogue as  ‘a famous Parisian character with a certain dusky allure’ who sang delightfully and had ‘a more than diplomatic appreciation of the merits of her clientele.’ Either during the Independence Day soiree, or during the run of the show thereafter at Seymour’s, Vogue said that David, Prince of Wales was given ‘one of the most delightful informal evening’s amusement any young man could wish to have’ when he ‘slipped away from officialdom’ and went with a party of friends (most likely the Dolly Sisters) where he was entertained by Miss Florence and the other black performers.

However, it was nearly a year later that Sonny Jones re-appears in listings with a major part in the Oscar Dufrenne and Henri Varna Ambassadeurs revue Sans Chemise that was staged from July 1925 with Harry Pilcer, Gina Palerme, Marie and Christiane Guy, Christine Dorgyl and Corona, Jane Aubert, Max Berger, Marcelle Rahna, and the 32 Fisher Girls. At the time Louis Douglas was busy staging what was to be one of the most influential shows in Paris – La Revue Negre – at the Champs Elysees Music hall that launched the career of Josephine Baker in Paris. Dufrenne and Varna then moved some of the cast of Sans Chemise into their new winter revue at the Palace Theatre entitled Paris Voyeur from September 1925 that ran through early 1926 with a second edition staged from  July 1926. The show starred the Swiss musical clown Grock along with the Guy Sisters, Max Berger, Jane Aubert, Marcelle Rahna and Sonny Jones, who was given particular prominence .

Sonny Jones with other member of the cast in the finale of the revue Paris Voyagers at the Palace Theatre, Paris, 1925-26
Sonny Jones with other member of the cast in the finale of the revue Paris Voyeurs at the Palace Theatre, Paris, 1925-26

On 30thOctober 1925 Sonny Jones was one of a number of a number of performers – some from the Paris Voyeur show – including Jane Aubert, Marcelle Rahna, the Sisters Guy, Renée Tamary, Hermanova, Darewski, the Ginos and Lolette, who appeared at the La Soirée et le Bal de Gala. Jones was described as being an ‘extraordinary one-stepper’ who was  ‘a picturesque and sensational vision.’  He was elegant and thin with dazzling white teeth and presented an impeccable silhouette in his tuxedo, with a striking white breastplate, collar and cuffs that emerged like foam on his wrists. It was thought he presented ‘a symphony in black and white as he danced wildly as if he were articulated with humorous precision!

Sonny Jones with two other members of the cast in the the revue Paris Voyeurs at the Palace Theatre, Paris, 1925-26
Sonny Jones with two other members of the cast in the the revue Paris Voyeurs at the Palace Theatre, Paris, 1925-26

Sonny Jones must have continued under the direction of Dufrenne and Varna because in February 1927 he was in their regional show Vive La Femme (a reprise of the Palace Theatre show before Paris Voyeur) at the Capitol, Marseilles. The headliners were Max Berger and Marcelle Rahna, with the Pelissier Sisters and Fernando Jones and the black Lungla sisters.

Back in Paris Sonny Jones rejoined Louis Douglas in a variety show at the Empire Theatre in May 1927 along with Jim and Jack, Mutt and Jeff and Greene and Dayton.  For the summer of 1927 from 21st August for a short season, he was in the delightful surroundings of the Casino at Vichy in a show that also featured Eve Fazil, Jane Aubert and the Ustica Jubillee Singers. Jones danced with Rena in a number emulating Josephine Baker.

In August 1927 it was announced in Vienna and that he had been appointed dance-master by Viktor Eckhardt at the Apollo Theatre.  The first show he choreographed was an international variety show called Lady X described as ‘an American Jazz Opera’ that had a premiere on 17thSeptember. Sonny Jones was one of the stars with Sisters Marquita, Marthe Kruger, Ladislav Karnecki and Emmy Sturm.  He also appeared in a second show called Ma Grosse Show with Gretl Martin, Dely Dexter, More Aldor and the 16 Apollo Girls.

The author Jonathan O. Wipplinger, suggested that Sonny Jones appeared in Herman Haller’s spectacular revue Wann Und Wo at the Admirals Palast, Berlin. He claimed that a photograph of a scene from the show featuring a black dancer and a white woman was in fact Sonny Jones and Marcella Rhana.  The Haller show was launched in early September 1927 and ran through mid March 1928 with Helen Wherle from George White’s Scandals, the Lorraine Sisters, June and John Roper, Thelma de Lores from the Ziegfeld Follies, Earl Franklin and Marcella Rhana. The show then transferred with the same cast to the Apollo Theatre in Vienna for a month from late March to late April 1928.  Currently I can find no verification that Jones was in the show. Indeed, he could not have been in the launch of the show because he was appearing in Ma Grosse in Vienna. However, despite these facts perhaps he was added to Wann and Wo and simply does not appear in the credits. Significantly, it is not known what Sonny Jones was doing in the first half of 1928.

By August 1928 he was appearing in a show featuring Negro dances called Wissen Sie Schon? Along with Louis Douglas, Bobby Vincent and Louise Warner that was staged at Breslau Schauspielhaus.  Oddly, the show had been launched by Emil Schwarz at the Theatre des Westens, Berlin in March 1927 with Ruth Bayton doing the black bottom. It was thought by Variety to be the best revue that season in Berlin, but made it clear that it had been planned as a touring revue, so perhaps it did indeed tour Europe. However, by February 1929 Sonny Jones was in Paris and was part of a benefit programme for the Bal des Petits Lits Blancs, a gave ‘Danse Noire’ alongside the Tosh Twins, Earl Leslie, Edmonde Guy, Van Duren, Harry Pilcer, Hal Sherman and Jane Marnac. Thereafter, for the first part of 1929, there are no clues as to what Jones was doing until September when he joined another Louis Douglas touring company.

The revue ‘Louisiana’ was first staged by Louis Douglas in Berlin in July 1929 with a cast of 46. Douglas’s wife Marion Cook played the lead role and Sonny Jones played the part of the Dandy of New York. It was designed as a European road show and it was claimed that it was assembled from the Blackbirds company in Paris, but what this meant is unclear. The last Blackbirds show had been staged at the Moulin Rouge from June 1929 but ran through July. The show toured in an unusual arrangement managed by the Billy Arnold agency on $450 per day against a 70-30 percentage arrangement. ‘Louisiana’ played Barcelona, Biarritz and Bordeaux in September 1929 and then visited Copenhagen and Hamburg in October and allegedly Paris in November. By Christmas 1929 the troupe played the Kursaal, Cairo followed by Alexandra then Smyrna, Constantinople, Athens, Bucharest, Budapest, Trieste and Vienna and back through Italy to Paris for a spring and summer run. The extent of the tour was defined by Variety who said ‘coloured talent is greatly in demand on the continent and the further away from Paris, where the vogue started, the greater the demand.’

It would appear that ‘Louisiana’ may not have been staged in Paris as it was on the tour but was morphed into another show entitled ‘Blackflowers’ perhaps with new member of cast including Margaret Beckett and Valid Snow. It was staged at La Porte Saint Martin theatre in June 1930 and it was noted that Sonny Jones had lost none of his choreographic virtuosity and comic sense.  Like ‘Louisiana’, ‘Blackflowers’ went on tour (with Sonny Jones) and in late 1930 travelled to Sweden, Venice, Milan, Florence and Naples and then in 1931 to Egypt, Turkey, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Germany, Riga and in late 1931 Holland. Seemingly the show continued to Belgium, France and Spain.

Thereafter there are no references to Sonny Jones anywhere. This is strange and may suggest that during the tour something untoward happened to him.

If you have any further information about Fernando (Sonny) Jones, particularly about what happened to him after 1930 or 1931 please let me know.

 

 

Sources

Ancestry.com passenger lists, passport applications and census
British Newspaper Library
Gallica.bnf.fr
Retronews.fr
Lantern.mediahist.org
Le Lanterne 16/2/04
The Stage 16/4/14
Sheffield Independent 19/2/14
The Daily Record 10/2/14
Scottish Referree 28/6/12
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The Stage 19/9/12
The Stage 26/9/12
The Era 10/10/13
Surrey Advertiser 20/12/13
The Era 7/1/14
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The People 15/4/17
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The Stage 15/12/21
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L’Action 9/12/22
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Bonsoir 24/2/23
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Chicago Tribune 3 /7/24
Vogue US 15 May 1925
Variety 15/7/25
Comoedia 10/7/25
Comoedia 9/9/25
Variety 14/10/25
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Le Sémaphore de Marseille 20/2/27
Comoedia 12/5/27
Neues Wiener Journal 21 August 1927
Jahresubersicht 15/9/27
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Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung 25/3/28
Der Artist 17/8/28
Variety 11/5/27
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Variety 30/10/29
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La Gazette de Biarritz-Bayone et Saint Jean de Luz 25/9/29
L’Ami du People 8/6/30
John Jarrott Locke Collection envelope 829 / New York Star 27/6/14
The Jazz Republic: Music, Race, and American Culture in Weimar Germany by Jonathan O. Wipplinger
Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of The Recording Industry 1890-1919 by Tim Brooks
Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern by Jayna Brown
Black People: Entertainers of African Descent in Europe and Germany by Rainer E. Lotz
The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz Age by Gary Chapman
Souvenir brochure for Paris Voyeur at the Palace Theatre in author’s collection
https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/1049
http://www.arsc-audio.org/journals/v25/v25n2p178-191.pdf
https://nationaljazzarchive.org.uk/explore/journals/storyville/storyville-1996-1997/1265633?q=jazz%20news
https://philadancehistoryjournal.wordpress.com/tag/louis-douglas

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