When little more than a lad, Isham Jones for a time tried to grub out a paycheck in a murky Saginaw County coal mine. He left it and not many years later was mining the entertainment bigtime as an orchestra leader and song writer famous the world over and paid in big figures to match his reputation.
Saginaw was the home, at least for a time, of some of the musical greats of the nation. But no name ever glistened so brightly as that of Isham Jones. His big-sound bands throbbed and made their melody in the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 1930s. He had imitators but none came up to the original. Jones had his own style. Jones was a composer, pianist, saxophonist, conductor, and recording artist.
The songs for which he is best remembered, still danceable and singable, are “Swinging Down the Lane,” “Thanks for Everything,” “It Had to Be You,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “On the Alamo,” “The Wooden Soldier and the China Doll,” “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else” and “You Got Me Crying Again.”
Jones attained the peak of the popular music world during his stand in the 1920s at the College Inn, Chicago. His band later also was a hit in Europe, including a lengthy engagement at London’s Kit-Kat Club.
Born in Coalton, Ohio, January 31, 1894, Jones came from a musical family. His father was a coal miner in Coalton and also much in demand to play at local weddings and other festivities. The Jones family lived in Coalton until 1900 when they moved to Saginaw with a group of fellow miners and their minister. The elder Jones worked in the Saginaw area coal mines until they began to play out, then turned to his natural talent for music. For several years he taught instrumental music and was manager and leader of his own dance band.
When Isham Jones was in his early teens, he also worked in a Saginaw coal mine. He drove a mule hauling a string of coal cars. He worked long hours in a Saginaw coal mine for meager pay. One day while driving his mule and string of cars, he was daydreaming of a time when he would earn a living as a musician. He blundered and the train crashed into a mine shaft door. Neither young Jones nor the beast was injured, but young Isham was so frightened that he fled to the mine entrance, clambered up the ladder, ran home and vowed never to go near a coal mine again.
Isham got his first big chance when 17 years old. The setting was the old Jeffers-Strand vaudeville theater where many other Saginaw musicians and entertainers got their start toward national fame. Jones was in the Jeffers-Strand one evening watching the show and sitting in the front row where he could study the musicians in the orchestra pit. Not long after the show began, the piano player suffered a stroke and had to be carried from the pit. The show went on, but loss of the piano player handicapped the orchestra. Finally, Isham jumped into the pit and began to play with the orchestra, much to the surprise of the other musicians. The show then went on without a flaw.
After the performance, the director of the stage company told the theater manager he ought to hire Isham as leader of the pit orchestra, saying “that boy is the finest musician I have seen in years.” Not long after, Jones started his own orchestra which proved popular almost from its first appearance. Friends said he might not have left Saginaw as early as he did had it not been for an automobile accident in 1914, when the automobile in which he was riding with five other young men, all friends, was struck in Saginaw by a passenger train. Two of the young men were killed and the others all injured. Jones suffered a broken leg.
Jones was deeply anguished over the accident and left Saginaw in 1915 for Chicago. Jones went to Chicago in company with Ole Olson as a songwriting team. During the 1920s, Isham, fronting his popular band on the saxophone, reportedly made $800,000 in four years. Sales of his phonograph records soon made him a millionaire.
As a vaudeville headliner, Jones and his band toured the United States and Europe. They were acclaimed as the spirit of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. His last appearance in Saginaw was for a fraternity dance in 1936.
In the late 1930s, Isham forsook the musical spotlight and retired to a ranch in Colorado. Jones and his wife, Marguerite, were married in 1919. She had been a pretty nightclub singer. She was with Jones in the soaring days of his fame in the 1920s and 1930s. The Joneses were occasional Saginaw visitors. They had a son, David Richard.
Mrs. Jones said Isham’s favorite tune among his works was “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” She recalled her husband’s habit was to sit at the piano for hours composing when the mood was with him.
“Ish,” she said, “composed only when he was in the mood then he would stay with it for hours and hours until he thought he had something good.”
Jones died of cancer in 1956 when he was 63.