Spike Jones

The late, great musician and bandleader, Lindley Armstrong “Spike” Jones sadly died 1 May 1965. He was born on December 14th 1879 and got his nickname from being so thin that he was compared to a railroad spike. At the age of 11 he got his first set of drums. As a teenager he played in bands that he formed himself. A railroad restaurant chef taught him how to use pots and pans, forks, knives and spoons as musical instruments. He frequently played in theater pit orchestras. In the 1930s he joined the Victor Young orchestra and thereby got many offers to appear on radio shows, including Al Jolson’s Lifebuoy Program, Burns and Allen, and Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall. From 1937 to 1942, he was the percussionist for the John Scott Trotter Orchestra, which played on Bing Crosby’s first recording of White Christmas. The City Slickers evolved out of the Feather Merchants, and made experimental records and performed publicly, gaining a small following. The original members included vocalist-violinist Carl Grayson, banjoist Perry Botkin, trombonist King Jackson and pianist Stan Wrightsman.Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s Spike Jones and his City Slickers enjoyed huge success, with their satirical arrangements of popular songs. Ballads and classical works, which after receiving “the Jones treatment” would be punctuated with gunshots, whistles, cowbells, and outlandish vocals and sounded absolutely hilarious.

Among the best known satirical recordings were humorous takes on the classics such as the adaptation of Liszt’s Liebesträume, played at a breakneck pace on unusual instruments. Others followed: Rossini’s William Tell Overture was rendered on kitchen implements using a horse race as a backdrop, with one of the “horses” in the “race” likely to have inspired the nickname of the lone SNJ aircraft flown by the US Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team’s shows in the late 1940s, “Beetle Bomb”. In live shows Spike would acknowledge the applause with complete solemnity, saying “Thank you, music lovers.” A collection of these 12 “homicides” was released in 1971 as Spike Jones Is Murdering the Classics. They include such tours de force as Pal-Yat-Chee (Pagliacci), Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, Tchaikovsky’s None but the Lonely Heart, Flight of the Bumble-Bee and Bizet’s Carmen. Then In December 1945 Spike released his version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, arranged by Joe “Country” Washburne with lyrics by Foster Carling.

Sadly The rise of rock-’n’-roll during the 1950′sand the decline of big bands hurt Spike Jones’ repertoire. The new rock songs were already novelties, and Jones could not decimate them the way he had lampooned “Cocktails for Two” or “Laura.” He played rock-’n’-roll for laughs when he presented “for the first time on television, the bottom half of Elvis Presley!” This was the cue for a pair of pants — inhabited by dwarf actor Billy Barty — to scamper across the stage. Jones adapted to changing tastes. In 1950, when America was nostalgically looking back at the 1920s, Jones recorded an album of Charleston arrangements. In 1953 he responded to the growing market for children’s records, with tunes aimed directly at kids (like “Socko, the Smallest Snowball”).In 1956 Jones supervised an album of Christmas songs, many of which were performed seriously.

In 1957, he revamped his own act for television. Gone was the old City Slickers mayhem, replaced by a more straightforward big-band sound, with tongue-in-cheek comic moments. The new band was known as Spike Jones and the Band that Plays for Fun. He also recorded a cover of “Dominique” with Spike Jones’ New Band in 1964, a hit by The Singing Nun, in which he not only plays part of the melody on a banjo but melds the melody successfully with “When the Saints Go Marching In!” The last City Slickers record was the LP Dinner Music For People Who Aren’t Very Hungry. The whole field of comedy records changed from musical satires to spoken-word comedy (Tom Lehrer, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg). Spike Jones adapted to this, too; most of his later albums are spoken-word comedy, including the horror-genre sendup Spike Jones in Stereo (1959) and Omnibust (1960). Jones remained topical to the last: his final group, Spike Jones’ New Band, recorded four LPs of brassy renditions of pop-folk tunes of the 1960s (including “Washington Square” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”). Jones was a lifelong smoker. He was once said to have gotten through the average workday on coffee and cigarettes. Smoking may have contributed to his developing emphysema. His already thin frame deteriorated, to the point where he used an oxygen tank offstage, and onstage he was confined to a seat behind his drum set. He sadly died on May 1, 1965 and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California.

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