Musical Depreciation with
SPIKE JONES & HIS CITY SLICKERS
Original 1942-1950 Recordings
There were many recording artists who descri-bed their actsas zany and off-the-wall back in the golden era of popular entertainment thatbracketed the Second World War. But compared to Spike Jones and His City Slickers, they were all secondrun. Nearly 40 years after Jones'death, no one has come along to claim his group's title as \The Craziest Bandin the Land."
Born Lindley Armstrong Jones on 14December 1911, Spike'snickname was bestowed on him by the railroaders he grew up around as the son ofa Southern Pacific Railroad station agent in the desert towns of southernCalifornia. He displayed a musicalaptitude at an early age and - as if from the script of a Hollywood movie ofthe time - it was the black chef in one of the railroad station restaurants whotaught him how to beat out tunes with knives, forks and spoons. When Jones got his first set of drumsat age eleven, his career path had unknowingly been set. He played in high school bands anddemon-strated not only his natural talent, but also the personality traits thatwould be shielded from the public in future years. He was described as cold, moody, caustic, ambitious and evenruth-less when it came to promoting his own name.
When he graduated from high school in 1929 - right on thebrink of the Great Depression - he found work as a drummer with a succession oflocal dance bands. Within a fewyears, he was one of Hollywood's most employed studio musi-cians, playing asteady stream of radio shows and record dates. But he wasn't a name to the public, like Gene Krupa. He needed a way to stand out from therest of the musical pack.
In addition to his radio and record studio work, he playedregularly in theatre pit orchestras. There, he was able to study many of the novelty bands that came throughsouthern California. He believedhe could do better than all of them. A band he put together with other studio colleagues slowly picked updates (over and above his well-paying studio work) and evolved into the CitySlickers. Key to this metamorph-osiswas his acquisition of partners such as vocalist Del Porter and violinist CarlGrayson, both of whom had natural gifts for comedy and were bigger names withthe public. Each might have fairlyclaimed title to the band. Butwhen they had to sign a contract and someone had to be declared the head of theband, Jones had no problem stepping forward and putting his name on the dealand relegating the others to employee status.
The big break came in 1942. Jones' RCA Victor recording contract of 1941 produced threeinitial recording sessions that yielded some interesting sides that didn'texactly set the music business on fire. But the fourth session included a song written for the Walt Disneycartoon, Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, which poked fun at Adolph Hitler and theNazi scourge overrunning Europe. Take one ended with a trombone "schmeer" effect after the last mentionof der Feurher, but the second substituted a loud and rude "raspberry" effect,which more accurately summed up how most Americans felt about Hitler. It was take two that was issued and itwas Der Fuehrer's Face that made Jones a household name. Played repeatedly by several famousAmerican disc jockeys, it swept the country and soon spread abroad, reportedlyeven to Hitler's ears. It was thatlittle something extra that Jones needed to grab the public's attention.
Not even a strike by the American Federation of Musiciansover record royalties - which kept Jones and all other instrumental artists outof the recording studios for more than a year - could halt the band's growingpopularity thanks to radio, stage and film appearances and the continuation ofrecording on 16-inch transcription discs for air play, all of which were immunefrom the unions strike prohibitions. When the strike ended, the City Slickers went back into the studio tocatch up with the hits they had generated in these other media during theintervening months, including Cocktails For Two, which still lingers in theminds of many as the band's signature song. Jones had hit the big time.
The peak came with the creation of the Spike Jones MusicalDepreciation Revue, a touring show that was on the road for as much as tenmonths per year throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Jones now had it all: A stage show that packed audiences inacross the U.S. and Canada, million-selling recordings and a network radio showaired weekly from the cities along his tour route. And all of it under his name and ownership.
But comedic popularity is a mercurial beast and it was onlynatural that the Spike Jones phenomenon would peak. Changing tastes, the disappearance of the surprise factor inthe material, the high cost of travelling with a large cast and crew, andJones' decision to leave Victor after thirteen years all contributed to a slowdecline in the 1950s. But he nevergave up. Almost up to the time ofhis death from emphysema at 53 on 1 May 1965, he was still trying to recapturethe old magic.
That magic lives on in the recordings heard on this Naxoscollection. They cover the peakyears from 1942 to 1950. The bighits are here: Der Fuehrer's Face,Cocktails For Two, You Always Hurt the One You Love, the exploits of Feetlebaumin the William Tell Overture. So,too, are some rarities, such as the unreleased version of Riders in the Sky,the story of which typifies the reaction of a few less-than-amused artists whofound themselves within the crosshairs of Jones' comic shotgun.
Songwriters who had control of their works frequentlyprevented Jones from parodying their songs. Those who couldn't often seethed. Composer Jerome Kern was furious at Jones' version of hislate friend Gus Kahn's Chloe, which is heard here in a rare Armed Forces RadioService live performance, complete with introduction by Bob Hope. Kern thought the song was an insult toits lyricist and he urged Kahn's widow, Grace, to pursue the matter. She thought it was hilarious and waspleased that it breathed new life into the corny song, telling Kern nicely tomind his own business.
Not so good humoured was singer Vaughan Monroe, who was oneof Victor's top-selling artists in the late 1940s and a large stockholder. When Jones parodied his hit recordingof Riders in the Sky, it ended with: "I can do without his singing, but I wish I had hisdough." To satisfy Monroe andVictor executives, the record was withdrawn and a new ending fabricated in theNew York studios, with Spike nowhere in attendance. The original version stillturns up and is a prized collectors' item, and is included in this collection.In addition, Spike circulated copies of of the full parody to disc jockeys, countingon the controversy to create the kind of publicity he savoured.
Zany, off-the-wall, irreverent, inventive and, above all,funny. That was Spike Jones andHis City Slickers in their prime. That's what you'll find on this Naxos CD.
Greg Gormick 2003, Toronto, Ontario
Original monochrome photo of Spike Jones from Michael OchsArchives / Redferns