The Counterfeit Aretha Franklin

While the music world mourns the death of Aretha Franklin, I was reminded of a recent story about a woman who was lured into impersonating the Queen of Soul.

Mary Jane Jones of West Petersburg, Virginia was blessed with a remarkable voice and cursed with a difficult life.  Married at 19, her first husband died and her second turned violent.  Divorced at 27 with four sons, she got by on government assistance and donations to a gospel group she joined.  Then she began making $10 per night in a Motown tribute act.   And all the while, Aretha Franklin was Jones’ idol; she copied the star’s look and sang the same songs.

The resemblance led to an offer to tour Florida as an opening act for the real Aretha.  It was an offer too good to pass up.  With borrowed bus fare, she arrived in Florida to realize the truth — she would not be opening for Aretha Franklin, she would be impersonating her.  Stranded and threatened with bodily harm, she had no choice but to play along.  And it worked; she was that good.

She was eventually arrested of course, along with her promoter, a fast-talking hairdresser-musician named Lavell Hardy.  But Hardy was able to talk his way out of a conviction on the grounds that no real harm had been done and lawyer fees had wiped him out anyway.  He was released with orders to leave the state of Florida.

The county prosecutor also believed Mary Jane Jones had been duped (especially after she sang for him in his office); she was set free.

That’s when her fortunes changed.  The publicity got her a legitimate singing career, even appearing with bandleader Duke Ellington (note the Jet magazine cover).  In an ironic twist, she became so popular that someone tried to impersonate her.

So why haven’t you heard of Mary Jane Jones?  In one final twist, after a year of touring she abruptly left show business to resume caring for her sons.  She never performed professionally again.


Those are just the highlights.  Read the details of this remarkable story in “The Counterfeit Queen of Soul: A strange and bittersweet ballad of kidnapping, stolen identity and unlikely stardom” by Jeff Maysh in the July-August 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine, or at .  The illustrations came from that website.

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