Richard Jose sings "Dear Old Songs," recorded on January 12, 1904, and issued on Victor 31170.
Richard Jose was first to be identified on records as a "countertenor" though he might not have been the first to make records. Harry Leighton is identified as an "alto" in a mid-1890s cylinder catalog.
The terms "alto" and "contra-tenor" were used more often in the 1890s than "counter-tenor."
On the cover of sheet music for Monroe R. Rosenfeld's "Remember Your Father and Mother" (1890) is this line: "Written for and sung by America's Most Famous Alto, Mr. Richard José."
Most of Jose's discs, including the earliest with Monarch and Deluxe labels (Victor used these words on early ten- and twelve-inch discs, respectively), identify him as "counter-tenor" though on some labels Jose is identified as "tenor." It appears that Jose was billed as a tenor, not a countertenor, in minstrel shows and vaudeville.
The origins of the term "countertenor" are not known for certain but it may have referred to a voice part ("against the tenor"). In the earliest organum were contratenor altus (high against the tenor) and contratenor bassus (low against the tenor). Countertenors are sometimes called altos because they originally sang alto parts, alto meaning "high." A countertenor's pitch is similar to the female contralto's.
Whereas nearly all modern countertenors rely on falsetto, which is a "head voice" with little or no chest resonance, Jose as well as recording artist Will Oakland achieved an unusually high range without reliance on falsetto, instead using full lung power. Each singer was a naturally high-placed tenor (another was Russell Oberlin, leading American countertenor of the 1950s and 1960s).
Jose could color his voice's tone in a way that is difficult for anyone using falsetto. No singer relying on falsetto could have produced the volume needed to fill concert halls, as Jose did. Newspapers at the time insisted that Jose had the voice of a boy, which may have been true in terms of tone. A difference is that Jose could project his voice and be heard throughout an auditorium as no boy soprano could.
The countertenor voice was much valued centuries ago (as was the castrato), especially in the 1600s and early 1700s. English composer Henry Purcell was reportedly a countertenor. Such singing went out of fashion for various reasons, and no singers of the nineteenth century won fame as countertenors with the exception of Jose at the end of that century.
His recording career was brief, from 1903 to 1906, but he had been popular on stage long before he made records, and he continued to give concerts after his recording career was over.
A slim book titled "Silver Threads Among the Gold" in the Life of Richard J. Jose was written and self-published by Grace M. Wilkinson four years after Jose's death. The book's copyright date is February 8, 1945.
Only once does Wilkinson refer to Jose as a countertenor: "His popularity in vaudeville as a contra-tenor was very much like that of Caruso in Italian grand opera." Almost nothing is said about Jose's singing techniques, but his range is noted: "Mr. Jose's compass was from D above middle C to E above high C." The book also notes that when he sang "Goodbye, Dolly Gray," Jose's principle "working note was high 'D,' two half?steps above the sacred high 'C' of Italian tenordom."
He was born in England in a Cornish village, Lanner. His birth certificate, according to British researcher David Ivall, shows that Jose was born on June 5, 1862. Various sources give later dates but these rely on statements by Jose or his wife, both of whom wished him to seem younger than he was.
Wilkinson refers to a home built in Lanner by Captain James Francis and writes, "In this home, all of Captain Francis' children were born. His daughter, Elizabeth...was now being courted by a young Spanish miner, Richard Jose. His ancestors had come from Spain to work in the tin mines at Cornwall."
Jose's baptismal record is dated September 17, 1862, and gives the surname as "Joce." This is a phonetic spelling.
Richard Jose senior was a copper miner who died in late 1876. The son, eldest of five children, traveled to Nevada to locate an uncle.
A reporter from Virginia City, one Alfred Doten, kept a detailed journal, and The Journals of Alfred Doten, 1849-1903, published in three volumes in 1973, refer several times to Dick Jose's early singing career.
Doten's journal entries suggest that Jose traveled in summer months. On July 4, 1887, two years after first mentioning Jose, Doten again refers to Jose, calling him "Reno's favorite tenor" and writes, "In response to encores and vociferous calls he sang 'Grandfather's Footsteps' in his clearest, sweetest, most sympathetic voice, and was rapturously applauded."
He made brown wax cylinders in the 1890s, such as "Poor Blind Boy," which I posted elsewhere on youtube.