The Bizarre Story of the Imitation Queen of Soul
Celebrity impersonators are nothing new and with the odd exception, the majority of them fail to measure up to the talent or skill of the person they’re trying to emulate. The same can’t be said of a woman who went by the name of Vickie Jones- a singer who sounded so much like Aretha Franklin that a judge tasked with deciding whether or not she was illegally impersonating the legendary Queen of Soul more or less shrugged and let her get away with it because neither he, nor anyone in the court at the time, could tell the difference between Jones and the Real McCoy.
Born Mary Jane Jones, Mary adopted the stage name of Vickie Jones when she began performing soul music in some rather seedy nightclubs in the 1960s. As to why the stage name, Jones was a deeply religious woman and a respected member of her local church choir, The Great Gate, in West Petersburg, Virginia, which is how she earned a living with her cut of donations from performances when the choir toured around.
At the time, Jones was a single mom lacking even a high school education, with her first husband, who she married at 19, sadly dying and leaving her with 1 young son to take care of. Shortly thereafter, she married again and had 3 boys with her new husband, who unfortunately proved to be a violent alcoholic, with Jones ultimately leaving him to escape the abuse.
Unsurprisingly from all this, she was barely scraping by and needed an alternate income she could earn while her boys were sleeping. Thus, she turned to singing at various clubs around, earning around $10 per performance ($80 today) singing “the Devil’s music”. To further help ensure nobody discovered what she was doing lest she be ostracized, Jones performed in a giant wig while wearing an excessively flamboyant dress.
Despite her efforts to hide her side hustle as a soul singer in smokey nightclubs, the head of the aforementioned Great Gate choir she also sang in, one Rev. Billie Lee, did eventually find out what she was up to after hearing a rumor and sneaking into a club she was performing at to see for himself. However, knowing she needed the money to put food on the table for her children and being extremely impressed by her performance, the good Reverend chose not to out her to her local church. He did, however, worry about her safety at clubs like that without any sort of escort, stating, “When she goes into these situations, things could get out of hand.” But he decided, to quote him, “Don’t lecture her, don’t preach to her.” And simply prayed that she’d be all right, occasionally clandestinely going to her shows in case she got into trouble, though he states she never knew he was there.
As for how she became such a great singer, Jones stated, “I don’t know one note from the next… What talent I got, I got from God.” The Rev. Lee concurred, stating, “I had to teach most of the folk in my groups. But that was one young lady I did not have to teach soul.” He further went on that given all she’d been through in her life, soul music was a perfect fit for her, recounting a time he saw her singing Comfort Me, by Shirley Caesar, with tears flowing from her eyes.”The song was about going through trials and tribulations. She felt that song.”
As for how she came to become such a fan of Aretha Franklin, Jones saw a kindred spirit in the Queen of Soul- both were singers in church choirs, both had been in abusive relationships, they were the same age, and had otherwise similar backgrounds, etc. Jones love of Franklin coupled with her singing ability naturally saw her fold a number of Franklin’s biggest hits into her repertoire of songs, with Jones usually bookending performances with a Franklin song, which was always a crowd pleaser.
This all culminated in a performance on January of 1969 which would change her life forever. While performing at the Pink Garter, Jones, as she’d done many times before, performed the Franklin staple Respect. Her spot on imitation of Franklin was witnessed by a fellow performer that night, 24 year old Lavell Hardy. Hardy was a rather successful James Brown impersonator, who on the side occasionally attempted to pass himself off as the real McCoy when he could get away with it.
Hardy later approached Jones and told her that he was slated to tour with the actual Aretha Franklin in Florida, and that he wanted to book Jones as an opening act in the shows. Jones initially refused Hardy’s offer, not because she didn’t believe him, but rather because she quite literally didn’t have enough money for bus fair to get to Florida. However, after Hardy explained that Jones would be paid $1,000 (about $8,000 today) for a stretch of six nights of performing with the Queen of Soul, she took out a loan with a local money lender for the price of a bus ticket.
When Jones arrived in Florida without a penny to her name, however, Hardy explained he’d been lying and that she wouldn’t be opening for Franklin at all, but would be pretending to be her. An irate Jones told Hardy that she’d do no such thing… The problem was she was now stuck in Florida without money to get home. At this point, beyond dangling the promise of a lot of money if she went along with it, Hardy also allegedly told her that he’d kill her and toss her body in the ocean if she refused to comply with his request.
Driving a hard bargain, Jones accepted his offer, and Hardy subsequently went about approaching a number of small Florida club owners claiming to represent Franklin. These owners were understandably unconvinced that the very young Hardy represented THE Aretha Franklin, with some going so far to laugh in his face.
Changing tact somewhat, Hardy ultimately dressed Jones in the most diva-like attire he could find and began bringing her to these meetings with club owners, leveraging her vague physical resemblance to Franklin and her spot on singing imitation to help convince them. Amazingly, this gambit paid off and Hardy was able to score a string of gigs for imitation Franklin, charging a fraction of the $20,000 (about $160,000 today) per performance the real Franklin usually earned at the time. As to how Hardy passed off the rather sizable discount he was giving in order to make the shows affordable to the small club owners, he simply told them that Franklin was on vacation, and was taking a few select gigs in clubs to earn some quick play money for while vacationing.
Doing her part, at each show, Jones was able to convince the crowds that she was, in fact, Aretha Franklin, with her performances, something Hardy parlayed into more shows as news that Franklin was performing for a fraction of her usual fee spread amongst Florida club owners.
Not wanting the gravy train to stop rolling, Hardy naturally didn’t give a dime to Jones, lest she have the means to leave. And to double down on this, he also took to locking her in a hotel room anytime he needed to leave her alone for a bit to go book deals and the like. As for food, she would later recount he only gave her two hamburgers per day to eat.
After fooling the smaller crowds, Hardy set his sights higher- specifically, the High Hat Club in Fort Meyers. As he’d done with smaller clubs across Florida, he was able to convince the owner of the 1,400 seat venue, Clifford Hart, that Jones was Franklin, and booked the performance for $7,000 (about $56,000 today).
On the night of the performance, which was sold out, Hart began to suspect something was amiss when he saw Jones up close and noticed that she didn’t quite match up to the pictures of Franklin he’d seen- a sentiment that was echoed by regulars in the club who’d seen the real Franklin perform. In fact, as Jones nervously shuffle toward the mic, murmurs reportedly spread in the crowd. Things changed, however, when Jones began to sing, with the atmosphere in the club completely shifting. At the end of her performance, Jones quietly thanked the crowd and was given a standing ovation.
The ruse was only discovered when the real Aretha Franklin’s legal team read glowing reviews of the show. They then contacted a Floridian prosecutor called Gus Musleh and demanded the imposter be immediately arrested before she could perform again.
Musleh subsequently contacted a detective called Towles Bigelow and ordered him to make arresting the imposter his top priority. Bigelow and his partner Martin Stephens moved quickly and arrested Jones and Hardy as they were set to perform at the Ocala’s Club Valley.
Upon being arrested, Jones told her story, which the hard-nosed detectives were initially hesitant to believe, reasoning that she was simply trying to shift the blame to Hardy. However, they ultimately changed their mind after getting the stories from both individuals and, among other things, noting that while Hardy had been found with several thousand dollars on his person, Jones was penniless.
Unable to afford legal representation, Jones asked to plead her case directly to the prosecutor Musleh- something most legal experts would perhaps advise against, but in this case it all worked out. During their meeting, Musleh also expressed doubt about the details of the case at first, but ultimately believed her story, stating, “She didn’t have a red cent. She had four children at home and no way to get to them. We were thoroughly convinced that ‘Vickie’ was forced into being Aretha Franklin… I wanted to protect this girl. It was obvious she was a victim.”
In the court itself, to further help her cause, beyond outlining what he believed had happened for the judge, Musleh asked Jones to sing. To a rather stunned court audience and the judge, Jones sounded so much like Aretha Franklin that said judge decided to let her off owing to the fact that while technically she had taken part in defrauding spectators at the various performances, her actual performance was indistinguishable from Aretha Franklin. Thus, the people more or less got their money’s worth, so no harm done. The case was dismissed and Jones, and Hardy as it turned out, were allowed to go their merry ways.
As for the whole quasi-kidnapping thing, Hardy simply claimed, “There wasn’t anybody standing over her with a gun and a knife. She wasn’t forced to do anything. And about those hamburgers—we all ate hamburgers, not because we had to, but because they taste good!”
Musleh didn’t really buy it, but after discussing the matter with Hardy’s lawyer, Don Denson, he decided to let the matter drop. As to why he chose to let Hardy off so easy, he states Denson told him, “Gus, I’m representing Lavell Hardy and he’s already been punished because he paid my fee! We pretty well cleaned him out!”
After convincing Musleh that Denson had indeed milked Hardy for every dime he’d earned from the performances, and as Jones was now free of Hardy, Musleh saw no reason to pursue further punishment so long as Hardy agreed to leave Florida promptly and not come back.
As for Jones, she told reporters awaiting outside the courthouse after the ruling, “I know I can use a little training in singing jazz and the blues, but I feel I can go all the way. I don’t believe there is such a word as can’t…. I’ve got my own bag. The way I feel is that people can buy Aretha for Aretha, and they can buy Vickie Jane for Vickie… It’s going to be hard, but nothing’s going to stop me from making it as a singer…”
Musleh then doubled down on helping Jones, facilitating an introduction with Duke Ellington- yes, THE Duke Ellington. At the same time, she was introduced to millionaire Ray Greene, who gave her $500 on the spot (about $4,000 today) and set her up with a place to stay. He then booked for her what would end up being a sold out tour with Duke Ellington, initially earning Jones $450 per performance, which within a few weeks was boosted to $1500 a show (about $12,000 today).
Jones used the money to support her young family and became something of a celebrity in her own right, appearing on the cover of the same magazines she’d read religiously for their coverage of Franklin, including Jet.
In fact, as her fame grew, it ironically emerged that someone in Virginia was impersonating Jones in performances. Said Jones of this, “She’s stopped now, but I don’t hold anything against her. I know how it was to be hungry, without any money, supporting a family…”
Jones ultimately very abruptly gave up her career with her star still rising when she learned her mother, who took care of her four boys while Jones was touring, had been unable to handle them and sent them off to live with Jones’ abusive ex-husband. Being the quality individual he was, he told the boys their mother had abandoned them and was never coming back. When she heard of all of this, she promptly went home and told her boys she wouldn’t leave them again. She stuck to her word, giving up her dream and retiring from professional singing. She followed that up by earning her high school diploma as had been one of her other dreams.
Her sons would later note, while she didn’t perform publicly anymore, she did frequently sing for them, as well as kept a clipping of herself on the cover of Jet on the mantle to help encourage them that no matter how big their dreams or how impossible it may seem, they could achieve theirs as she briefly had hers. Jones ultimately lived to the age of 58, passing away in 2000.
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