Music. It soothes the soul and tames the savage beast. Tell me if you’ve ever been in the funkiest of funky moods until “your jam” came on. Can I get a witness? Or if you have ever felt as if your life and the life of your favorite artist (through their music) somehow ran parallel? Please don’t mistake what I’m talking about with stalking and being delusional, I mean do you sometimes FEEL the sentiment coming through the song? For me, one such artist is Mary J. Blige. We are just about the same age.
After gaining some popularity, she began to hit fame’s rough patches. This was right around the time I was rising like a phoenix from some of the nonsense that I had been through. I couldn’t help but root for Mary because in a way it was like I was rooting on myself. She turned the corner on a lot of her issues in the early 2000’s- right about the time I was getting up on my feet. I matured with Mary. We were alike in many, many ways, except I can’t sing a lick!
Well, today’s story is kind of similar to that feeling of familiarity with a rising star. Set in the 1960s, the journey begins at a time of civil unrest in the United States. The Black population, mostly descendants of slaves, continued to face persecution and discrimination. A lot has been overcome since then, although we still have quite a bit of work to do. But this is a story of a people rising above inequality by any means necessary. This is about women using their God-given talent as a means to bring the nation together. It’s about kidnapping. It’s about fraud. And it’s about redemption. Spoiler alert- nobody dies but one woman learns what it means to live.
In 1967, we found two 27-year-old women on separate trajectories in life. Both became mothers at a very young age. Both married young and experienced violence at the hands of their husbands. Both were brought up in the Baptist church. And both had AMAZING singing voices. The similarities kind of end there, because one of these women was Aretha Franklin. This year, with her Baptist minister father’s full support, Aretha would make the jump to secular music. By 1969, she was a world-renowned artist, sold millions of records, and had already won four Grammys.
The subject of our story is the OTHER woman, Mary Jane Jones. I gave you the cliff notes version of Mary Jane’s life story but now I’ll fill in some blanks. She got married at 19 and soon after had a son. This wasn’t the abusive situation- in fact, it may have been a fairytale life for Mary had her husband not passed away. After life handed her this enormous heartache, she soon married again. This wouldn’t be a fairytale either- her new husband was a raging alcoholic with whom she had three more children. Eventually, Mary Jane and her children escaped their abuser leaving her to care and provide for the kids on her own.
Mary had less than a high school education and finding work to support her family didn’t come easily. But, she was a woman of faith. Raised to use her dynamic voice to praise God, for six years she was able to tour with her church choir, led by the Reverend Billie Lee. She and her children survived on government assistance and donations the choir received while traveling.
It became obvious that she would have to supplement her income somehow. She began performing Motown hits in local nightclubs under the stage name “Vickie Jones”. For each night, she received $10. That’s equivalent to about $80 per day in 2020. That is just about twice the amount United States citizens received as coronavirus relief aid recently. Once. Wasn’t much then and it’s not much now. But it was something and last Mary checked, something was better than nothing.
Mary Jane had to use the stage name so she wouldn’t jeopardize her standing with the church. Those Motown hits were considered the devil’s music. It was thought that the money and fame that came along with secular music was a satanic payoff to get people to turn their backs on God. She also disguised herself with wigs and heavy makeup as part of her onstage persona.
Her favorite artist at the time was Aretha Franklin. They were the same age, and like I previously described, their life-stories were similar. Mary Jane scoured the pages of popular Black magazines like Ebony and Jet to learn the trending fashion, makeup, and entertainment news.
It was in these magazines that she got an up-close and personal look at Aretha. She would recreate the various looks for her performances. Mary Jane would also open and close her set with Aretha’s hits. It has been said that Mary Jane indeed sounded remarkably similar to Aretha.
In the 1960s, very few people had the opportunity to see the hitmakers in full color. Most homes still had old black & white televisions that were far from high definition. When Mary Jane would appear at the Pink Garter nightclub, the audience would be just drunk enough to mistake her for Aretha. Nobody sang that mix of blues and gospel like Aretha- except maybe Mary Jane.
At the Pink Garter, Mary Jane performed alongside a James Brown impersonator named Lavell Hardy. Hardy made $200 a night with his act. He was awestruck by Mary Jane’s performances even stating, “She’s identical from head-to-toe. She’s got the complexion. She’s got the looks. She’s got the height. She’s got the tears. She’s got everything.”
After following her act at several nightclubs, Lavell asked Mary Jane to tour with him in Florida. Mary Jane refused. She had children to care for and, furthermore, couldn’t afford a bus ticket. Then Lavell held out his carrot- she would be opening for Aretha Franklin and would be paid $1000 for 6 shows. That’s equal to about $7200 in 2020. Needless to say, Mary Jane made arrangements for her mother to take care of her kids and borrowed money from anyone she could for a ticket to Florida. That salary would change her family’s life and she would be able to meet her musical inspiration, Aretha. She left Mary Jane behind. When she boarded that bus she was Vickie.
After hours of travel, Vickie arrived at the venue in Melbourne, Florida. Marquees announced “Aretha Franklin Performing Tonight”. When she met with Lavell, wondering when she could see Aretha, he dropped a nuclear-sized bomb on her. SHE was Aretha. He had tricked her into coming all this way to IMPERSONATE Aretha Franklin.
Vickie was shocked and understandably pissed that she had been lured away from her family under false pretenses. She refused to perform. Lavell reminded her that she was miles away from home. He also threatened to feed her to the gators if she didn’t cooperate. Vickie would sing as if her life depended on it because it did.
Because of the times, the ruse worked! Vickie sounded so much like Aretha Franklin that, to concert attendees who had never seen her in person, no one doubted their ears. Fake Aretha would finish her sets and rush offstage to her dressing room. Then, it was likely off to the next city to do it all over again.
Between shows, Vickie was locked in hotel rooms. She was fed two hamburgers a day. In the meantime, Lavell Hardy was booking more shows. She was held there, far away from her family, against her will. Even in the 60s, Florida was still Florida. She didn’t dare call the police for help. Just a few months earlier, Florida police had shot and killed three Black residents when a rally turned into a riot. Some things never change.
Lavell booked a 1400 seat venue in Fort Myers called the High Hat Room. The show sold out quickly, even with tickets costing $5.50 a pop (equal to about 40 bucks in today’s money). This was too many people to fool- Vickie wanted to tell the truth, but Lavell continued to threaten her into silence. The packed house saw Fake Aretha and some felt like something wasn’t right. There was something about the look. But when the band started and Vickie belted out “Since You’ve Been Gone” the audience shook away all doubt. That HAD to be Ms. Franklin!
This was Vickie’s dream. To sing in front of a packed house of adoring fans. But she realized that this was a counterfeit version. These people weren’t there to see Vickie Jones, they were there to see Aretha Franklin. This wasn’t HER dream. It was Aretha’s- and here she was stealing it from her.
It could have been Stockholm Syndrome that kept Vickie cooperating city after city. She may have subconsciously enjoyed being the center of attention. It didn’t matter much, because soon the jig was going to be up. See, while Fake Aretha was touring Florida, Real Aretha was heading there to wait out her divorce from her abuser, Ted White. While there she received some much-needed therapy and even booked a few shows. In today’s internet age, Lavell would have known that Real Aretha was heading their way. He may have been able to get a head start out of Florida. Twitter and Instagram were nearly 40 years away, though. Lavell had booked a 4200 seat venue for “Aretha Franklin” while the real Aretha was booking her own concert in Florida.
Just like all the shows prior to this one, the one in Ocala, Florida sold out. This was the biggest venue yet. I’m sure Lavell was licking his chops, thinking of the huge payday he’d receive at the end of the night. I say that “he’d” receive because Vickie didn’t get one dime of the money that was swindled from unsuspecting audiences. Lavell figured that if he gave her money she may attempt to get back to Virginia- back to her kids. So, he didn’t give her anything but two hamburgers a day and enough threats to keep her compliant.
What Lavell didn’t count on was Aretha’s team getting word that “she” would be performing in Ocala. Her attorneys reached out to authorities, some of whom had tickets to that evening’s show. When “Fake Aretha” and her small entourage arrived at Southeastern Livestock Pavilion they were greeted not by legions of fans but by police, who quickly took the pair into custody.
The world was finding out about the fraud these people had perpetrated in the name of Aretha Franklin. To be honest, I’m not sure how they pulled it off for so long. Vickie didn’t look enough like Aretha to fool all these people. SOMEBODY had to know that she was fake- but money talks, right? Lavell was trying to fast talk his way out of ending up in prison. He didn’t see what the big deal was. Vickie didn’t tarnish Aretha’s reputation- she actually represented Re-Re well!
While Lavell attempted to con the authorities, Vickie was singing a different song. She had no money, so she couldn’t hire an attorney. She pleaded her case with the prosecutor of Marion County, Gus Musleh. She told him of the threats, of being locked in those grimy hotel rooms, and of those god-awful hamburgers. She didn’t want to pretend to be Aretha Franklin- she loved Aretha! She only wanted to get back home to her family.
Lavell had $7000 on his person at the time of his arrest. He hired an attorney who assured Gus Musleh that Lavell had learned his lesson. See, this attorney took Lavell for every cent he had. The courts let him go under the condition that he get the fuck out of Florida.
Gus now had to figure out what to do with Vickie. He listened to her story about basically being kidnapped. The lady didn’t have any cash, unlike her “manager”- and I use that term very loosely. She had no way to get back to her children in Virginia. Still, he wanted to know how she fooled so many people.
Gus asked her to sing right there in his office. And sing she did. She felt as if she were singing for her freedom, and her voice reverberated through the courthouse. Everyone within earshot was mesmerized by her song. And Gus let her go. He was 100% convinced that the voice he heard was Aretha Franklin’s even though he KNEW it wasn’t.
Aretha herself held no ill will towards Vickie. She wanted Lavell to pay for forcing this young woman, so much like herself, to participate in the charade. This didn’t happen in the court of law, but Lavell was now seen as just a washed up James Brown impersonator. Just like that his career was over.
When Vickie left the courtroom, there were throngs of people waiting for her on the courthouse lawn. Among them was Ray Green- a white guy- who was an attorney and entrepreneur. He signed her on the spot and gave her $500 to get back home to West Petersburg. Vickie was soon reunited with her family having survived her ordeal.
Oh, yeah- I promised fraud, kidnapping, and redemption. There was redemption. See, Vickie went on to tour various cities, singing for huge crowds that were there to see HER. She was accompanied by Duke Ellington and his band. There’s even a picture of her and Duke on the cover of Jet Magazine.
She once admired the style and beauty of Aretha Franklin on its pages, now she was on the cover! She traveled on planes instead of buses. She ate steak instead of hamburgers, She even had her own impersonator who was quickly caught. Just like Aretha, she forgave the young singer.
She was able to send thousands of dollars back to her family. Unfortunately, her mother had sent her children to their father when she became unable to care for them any longer. He hadn’t changed one bit. He told the kids that their mama wasn’t coming back for them. Once Vickie found out what he had been filling their heads with, she left the limelight. She wanted to rescue her babies.
This time, she left Vickie Jones behind. She returned to West Petersburg as Mary Jane Jones, mother of four. She had the memories and the stories- good and bad- and no one could ever take that away from her.
That’s it, that’s all for That Time Aretha Franklin Wasn’t Aretha Franklin. Please- let me know what you thought about today’s episode. I’m dying to hear from you! You can send me an email at email@example.com! You know I’m tcbytb on all of the things including the website, tcbytb.com. I’m looking for art- do I have any artists out there? If so, sketch me a pic. I’d love to see what you come up with and I may feature it on a t-shirt or coffee cup. As always, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts- those reviews really help the podcast get discovered and they make the host feel good! Next episode we’ll get back to murder and mayhem so get your minds right. I thank you all for hanging out with me and until next week- stay outta the shadows. Peace.