I have written before about my father’s record collection, and how as kids, we played his records (and played with them) before we had our own. It was from my father’s record collection that I learned about Spike Jones.
Before Weird Al Yankovic, before Allan Sherman, Spike Jones was America’s foremost musical parodist, although when his rise to fame began in the early 1940s, he was only one of several prominent practitioners of what was called “corn,” along with the Hoosier Hot Shots, Freddie Fisher and the Schnickelfritzers, and others. Such groups either re-imagined familiar songs or wrote their own, including humorous lyrics and funny sound effects, although corn bands could also play “straight.” Jones did: His concerts usually featured a song spot by his wife, Helen Grayco, and his band occasionally performed and recorded straight under the name of the Other Orchestra.
Jones was born in 1911; by the 1930s, he was a session drummer playing on records and radio shows. As a member of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra, he appeared on the original 1942 recording of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (not the one we hear today, which is a 1947 remake made after the 1942 master was irrevocably damaged). Jones formed his own band, the City Slickers, in 1941, scoring a major hit with “Der Fuehrer’s Face” late in 1942. Jones claimed that Adolf Hitler had heard the record and was not amused. America was, however, and for the next several years, Jones’ Musical Depreciation Revue was a smash concert attraction, eventually requiring several railroad cars to haul the orchestra between one-nighters. (The band once performed for 41 straight nights, a period during which nobody was able to bathe.) The shows were quite a spectacle, because all of the sound effects incorporated into the songs—cowbells, pistols, foghorns, and inventions such as the latrinophone, a toilet seat with guitar strings—were produced live on stage. What looked like chaos was actually meticulously rehearsed.
Jones starred in his own network radio show in the late 40s and moved over to television with several short series between 1954 and 1961. His last chart hit came in 1953, a version of the Patti Page song “I Went to Your Wedding” (which was one of my father’s 45s). In the end, his recording career was derailed by the rock ‘n’ roll revolution—Jones found the music hard to parody. Nevertheless, he stayed on the road with an edition of the City Slickers until 1960, and continued to record and to generate wild ideas, often unrealized, right up to his death in 1965 at age 53.
Several singers in Jones’ band became modestly famous. Carl Grayson, who could perform the band’s trademark “glug” sound effect like nobody else, was eventually fired in 1946 for excessive drinking, but not before he sang “Cocktails for Two,” the record that launched Jones’ postwar career. Red Ingle left the City Slickers to score a gazillion-selling hit of his own with a parody of Perry Como’s “Temptation” called “Tim-Tay-Shun.” George Rock could sing in a squeaky child’s voice, heard most famously on “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth),” a smash hit at Christmas of 1948. Doodles Weaver, already a semi-legendary comic when he joined the City Slickers, brought a routine to the band he had been doing for years in which he would call an absurd horse race. Jones set it to the William Tell Overture in the summer of 1948; it’s probably the greatest thing Jones and the City Slickers ever did, featuring the famous pastoral theme of the piece performed entirely in sound effects.
Jones and the City Slickers starred in several short films during the 1940s. In this version of “Cocktails for Two,” Grayson is the lead vocalist (and performs his famous “glug”); Jones is the bartender in the white jacket.
Highly recommended: Spike Jones Off the Record: The Man Who Murdered Music by Jordan R. Young, published in 1994 and recently updated, which tells the tale of the City Slickers through meticulous research and interviews with surviving members of the band. Also recommended: Cub Koda’s appreciative essay about Jones at Allmusic.com.