In movies, the music industry’s shady opportunists are often cast as overly tan white men with heavy gold chains, who wear their dyed hair teased high. In 1969, a shady opportunist with an actual six-inch pompadour fooled singer Mary Jane Jones into playing what she believed would be a string of shows opening for Aretha Franklin. Instead, this man forced her to perform as Aretha Franklin.
For Smithsonian, Jeff Maysh tells the dramatic story of this wildly talented mother of four and how she fit into the once thriving economy of celebrity impersonators and legitimate soul singers. I don’t mean impersonators hired to perform like celebrities at parties or corporate events. I mean people hired to fool large audiences by acting like the real thing. Even though Jones’ career got sidetracked slightly, her talent offered her redemption. The original scam seems too preposterous to have worked. But it did for a little while. How?
According to newspaper reports, Hardy’s “Aretha Franklin Revue” played three small towns across Florida. After every performance, “Aretha” dashed to her dressing room and hid. On the strength of these smaller shows, Hardy eyed bigger towns and talked of scoring a lucrative ten-night tour. Meanwhile, he fed Jones two hamburgers a day and kept her locked inside a grim hotel room, far from her boys, who were being cared for by her mother. Even if she’d been able to steal away to call the police, she might have felt some hesitation: In nearby Miami just a few months earlier, a “blacks only” rally had turned into a riot where police shot and killed three residents, and left a 12-year-old boy with a bullet hole in his chest.
In Fort Myers, the promoters booked the 1,400-seat High Hat Club, where the $5.50 tickets quickly sold out. Hardy’s impostor had fooled a few small-town crowds, but now she had to convince a larger audience. He dressed Jones in a yellow, floor-length gown, a wig and heavy stage makeup. In the mirror, she looked vaguely like a picture of Franklin from the pages of Jet. “I wanted to tell everybody beforehand that I was not Miss Franklin,” Jones insisted later, “but [Hardy] said the show promoters would do something awful to me if they learned who I really was.”
When Jones peered out from backstage she saw an audience ten times larger than those she’d seen at any church or nightclub. “I was scared,” Jones recalled. “I didn’t have any money, no place to go.”
Through the fog of cigarette smoke and heavy stage lighting, Hardy hoped his hoax would work.