Jones, of Welsh ancestry, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Pennsylvania. His father and grandfather were coal miners, and he worked in coal mines early in his adult life. He left that occupation to study voice at New York University. In an interview in 1973, Jones recalled that his father and grandfather were musically talented: “My father had a beautiful tenor voice. So did my grandfather. … Grandfather taught violin, voice and piano when he could. My father sang every chance he could get and realized his ambition through me.” Jones appeared on Broadway a few times, including 1933’s Roberta and the short-lived 1934 revival of Bitter Sweet after debuting in Boccacio in 1931. Jones starred in many film musicals during the 1930s and 1940s. The best-known of these were Show Boat (1936), and The Firefly (1937) in which he sang “Donkey Serenade.” It became his signature song. He is now best remembered, however, as the romantic lead opposite Kitty Carlisle and Maureen O’Sullivan respectively, in the first two films the Marx Brothers starred in for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer : A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
On the strength of his appearance in A Night at the Opera, he won the coveted role of Gaylord Ravenal in the 1936 film version of Show Boat (opposite Irene Dunne) over such screen musical favorites as Nelson Eddy and John Boles. It would be Jones’s most distinguished screen role in which, under the direction of James Whale, he displayed dramatic acting ability, as well as musical talent. He made a brief appearance in the 1936 Nelson Eddy – Jeanette MacDonald film Rose Marie, singing music from Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, but according to Merchant of Dreams, Charles Higham’s biography of Louis B. Mayer, Eddy, who apparently considered Jones a rival and a potential threat, asked that most of Jones’s footage in Rose Marie be cut, including his rendition of the great Puccini aria E lucevan le stelle – and MGM agreed to Eddy’s demand. In 1940, he moved to Universal for two musicals, both with scores by immortal composers: The Boys from Syracuse, with the stage score (severely cut) by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and One Night in the Tropics, with an original score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields which produced no hit songs. Following those, he slipped to leads in B musicals, two at Paramount, then eight at Universal, including a re-teaming with Kitty Carlisle in Larceny with Music (1943). The same year, he briefly returned to A’s by guesting, as himself, in the Olsen and Johnson musical Crazy House, where he again performed “Donkey Serenade.”
Jones’ recording of Donkey Serenade ranks third among all-time sales of single records produced by RCA Victor. In the mid-1940s, Jones and pianist Frankie Carle starred in the Old Gold Show on CBS radio. Jones was never a dentist, as many websites report. He had an active singing career in movies, television, on the stage, and in nightclubs from 1929 until his retirement. Jones continued to perform in his 60s, starring in stage productions of Man of La Mancha, Paint Your Wagon, Guys and Dolls and Carousel. He also raised and bred horses on a ranch in California. Jones was married four times. His wives included Hervey and Maria Villavincie. Jones died of lung cancer at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City in 1992, aged 84.
- October, 14, 1907
- Scranton, Pennsylvania
- June, 27, 1992
- New York, New York
Cause of Death
- lung cancer