Bandleader, drummer, music parodist
Spike Jones was “a man whose name was synonymous with laughter in America for more than a decade,” Dr. Demento wrote in the forward to Jordan J. Young’s profile, Spike Jones and His City Slickers. In the 1940s Jones and his City Slickers band became known across America as an outlandish group of musicians whose musical parody recordings, stage shows, and radio broadcasts frequently featured such “instruments” as the washboard, the cowbell, the auto horn, and the toilet seat, accompanied by the rhythmic punctuation of hiccups, Bronx cheers, and the sounds of various live animals. Jones and The City Slickers rose to prominence with the popularity of their hit “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” a World War ll-era radio favorite that featured a blatant “raspberry” musical tribute to German dictator Adolf Hitler. George T. Simon commented in Best of the Music Makers on the special combination that brought Jones to fame in the early 1940s: “He created a blend of ricky-ticky Dixie and the soothing sounds of talent night in a lunatic asylum, and it added up to just the kind of spunky irreverence the nation needed in 1942.”
Jones was born in Long Beach, California, and received the nickname “Spike” from his father’s employment with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Jones played the drums in high school, during which he formed his first band. That group, The Five Tacks, eventually found itself on radio programs. Jones attended college for a time after high school, but left in 1931 to pursue jobs in music. Throughout the 1930s he played a variety of gigs in clubs around Southern California, eventually becoming a regularon Hollywood singer Bing Crosby’s radio show. In the late 1930s Jones was active as a studio musician; he performed on recordings for Crosby and then-popular vocalists Judy Garland, Lena Home, and Hoagy Carmichael. Not satisfied with the back-seat role of studio musician, however, Jones wanted more autonomy and exposure in his music career. One of his hobbies was collecting junk items that made interesting noises. In the late 1930s he joined a group of musicians similarly disenchanted with their music careers and began rehearsing novelty songs, experimenting with sounds and doing parodies of musical classics and standards of the day. The band eventually emerged in the early 1940s as The City Slickers, with Jones as the leader.
The City Slickers gained wide recognition in 1942 with their rendition of “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” a musical spoof that became a favorite of radio disc jockeys and soon after, a national hit. On the crest of the song’s success, Jones and The City Slickers launched a nine-week “Meet the People” national tour in 1943, for which they added musicians and vaudeville performers to their lineup. “In addition to five or six shows a day,” Young noted, “the band played for bond rallies, toured factories and otherwise made a spectacle of themselves.” In 1944 The City Slickers traveled to Europe to entertain U.S. and Allied troops.
Among the band’s favorite hit parody recordings at this time were “Cocktails for Two,” which included a chorus of hiccupping, and “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” which listed a series of “hurts” that included shootings, hangings, and poisonings. Jones was renowned as “The King of Corn” and in 1946 launched a two-hour stage extravaganza called “The Musical Depreciation Revue,” which included jugglers, roller skaters, and other vaudeville acts. Throughout the 1940s Jones and The City Slickers were active making hit records, appearing on radio and in movies, and touring with their live act.
Young depicted the “sheer lunacy” of Jones’s “Musical Depreciation Revue”: “At the hub of the chaotic goings-on was Spike himself, manipulating an ensemble of homemade instruments he affectionately called ‘the heap.’ The contraption—which looked like nothing so much as the loot from a hardware store robbery-consisted of sleighbells, beer bottles, soup cans, a
Born Lindley Armstrong Jones, December 14, 1911, in Long Beach, Calif.; died of emphysema, May 1, 1965, in Trousdale Estates, Calif.; son of Lindley Murray (a railroad company depot agent) and Ada (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Armstrong) Jones; married Patricia Ann Middleton, September 7, 1935 (divorced, 1947); married Helen Greco (a singer; professional name, Helen Grayco), July 18, 1948; children: (first marriage) Linda Lee; (second marriage) Spike, Jr., Leslie Ann, Gina Marie. Education: Attended Chaffey College, Ontario, Calif.
Played drums in various club bands throughout the 1930s; studio drummer in late 1930s; formed comedy band The Feather Merchants in late 1930s, which evolved into The City Slickers; led The City Slickers, early 1940s-1965; City Slickers band members during the 1940s included Don Anderson (trumpet), Carl Grayson (violin), Frank Leithner (piano), Del Porter (clarinet), Luther Roundtree (banjo), John Stanley (trombone), and Country Washburne (tuba). Made numerous radio appearances in the 1940s and 1950s; had radio program The Spike Jones Show, CBS-Radio, 1949. Had four television series, all under the name The Spike Jones Show, airing on NBC-TV, 1954, and CBS-TV, 1957, 1960, and 1961; served as host of NBC-TV program Club Oasis, 1958; made numerous guest appearances on television in the 1950s and 1960s. Appeared in the film Thank Your Lucky Stars, 1942; music featured in other films in the 1940s.
telephone, a Greyhound bus horn, a locomotive whistle, a gong and other necessary props…. Jones, who sometimes accompanied his harpist on the latrinophone —a toilet seat strung with wire—got some of his best laughs by choosing the unlikeliest of batons. He conducted the band with a .38 caliber pistol, a mop, an umbrella, a nightstick, and frequently a toilet plunger.”
Although the 1940s were the heyday of Jones and The City Slickers, they continued to work through the 1950s, and even into the 1960s. In 1954 The Spike Jones Show aired on NBC television on Saturday nights with several new band members. The show, which enjoyed moderate success, featured Jones’s second wife, Helen Grayco, who had been a singer with the band since the late 1940s. In 1957 a reconfiguration of The Spike Jones Show aired on CBS television along with a new name for the Slickers: The Band That Plays for Fun.
Jones’s recordings continue to maintain a dedicated following and several have become collector’s items. Simon commented on the lasting impression of Jones’s talent: “His true genius had been revealed in his ability to make his countrymen smile when there wasn’t much to smile at.”
78s and 45s
Behind Those Swinging Doors, Bluebird, 1941.
Clink, Clink, Another Drink, Bluebird, 1942.
Der Fuehrer’s Face, Bluebird, 1942.
Cocktails for Two, RCA Victor, 1945.
The Nutcracker Suite, RCA Victor, 1945.
You Always Hurt the One You Love, RCA Victor, 1945.
William Tell Overture,, RCA Victor, 1948.
All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, RCA Victor, 1948.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, RCA Victor, 1952.
Spike Jones Plays the Charleston, RCA Victor, 1952.
Bottoms Up, RCA Victor, 1952.
Spike Jones Murders Carmen and Kids the Classics, RCA Victor, 1953.
Spike Jones Presents a Christmas Spectacular, Verve, 1956.
Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry, Verve, 1956.
Mr. Banjo, Verve, 1956.
Hi-Fi Polka Party, Verve, 1957.
Spike Jones in Stereo, Warner Brothers, 1959.
Omnibust, Liberty, 1959.
The Submarine Officer, Kapp, 1960.
60 Years of Music America Hates Best, Liberty, 1960.
Washington Square, Liberty, 1963.
Spike Jones’ New Band, Liberty, 1964.
My Man, Liberty, 1964.
The New Band of Spike Jones Plays Hank Williams Hits, Liberty, 1965.
Simon, George T., Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
Young, Jordan R., Spike Jones and His City Slickers, foreword by Dr. Demento, discography by Ted Hering and Skip Craig, Disharmony Books, 1982.
Newsweek, May 10, 1965.
New York Times, May 2, 1965.
Time, May 7, 1965.
—Michael E. Mueller
"Jones, Spike." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-spike
"Jones, Spike." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved November 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-spike
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