MUSIC PROFILES: Spike Jones
Lindley Armstrong "Spike" Jones (December 14, 1911 – May 1, 1965) was an American musician and bandleader specializing in satirical arrangements of popular songs—the Weird Al of his day. Ballads and classical works receiving the Jones treatment were punctuated with gunshots, whistles, cowbells and outlandish vocals. From the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, Spike Jones & His City Slickers made records and toured the United States and Canada with “The Musical Depreciation Revue”.
Jones' father was a Southern Pacific railroad agent. Young Lindley Jones got his nickname by being so thin that he was compared to a railroad spike. At age 11 he got his first set of drums. As a teenager he played in bands that he formed himself; Jones' first band was called Spike Jones and his Five Tacks. A railroad restaurant chef taught him how to use pots and pans, forks, knives and spoons as musical instruments. As a young adult, he had an unusual hobby of collecting junk that made odd, funny noises. This junk started him off on his wild career that would feature everything from cowbells to toilet plungers.
Spike began professionally as a jazz drummer. He frequently played in theater pit orchestras as the percussionist. In the 1930s he joined the Victor Young orchestra and got many offers to appear on radio shows as a session player, including Al Jolson's Lifebuoy Program, Burns and Allen, and Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall. He was a percussionist on the The Wizard of Oz (1939) soundtrack, among many other assignments.
However, Spike became bored playing the same music each night with the orchestras. He found other like-minded musicians and they began playing parodies of standard songs for their own entertainment. The musicians wanted their wives to share their enjoyment, so they recorded their weekly performances. One of the recordings made its way into the hands of an RCA Victor executive, who offered the musicians a recording contract.
The City Slickers' first record was "Der Fuehrer's Face" (also known informally as "The Nazi Song") in September 1942. The song parodied the Nazi anthem, the "Horst Wessel Song". It contains the rude sound effect of an instrument Spike called the "birdaphone", a rubber razzer (aka the Bronx Cheer) with each "Heil!" to show contempt for Hitler. (The so-called "Bronx Cheer" was a well-known expression of disgust at that time and was not deemed obscene or offensive.) The song—which had been written to accompany an anti-Nazi cartoon produced by Walt Disney during World War II—appeared on a record which sold 1.5 million copies. The recording became very popular, peaking at number 3 on the U.S. Charts. Its success made Spike Jones a household name.
The success of "Der Fuehrer's Face" inspired Spike to become the band's leader. He initially thought the popularity the record brought them would fade. However, audiences kept asking for more, so Jones started working on more comic arrangements. The romantic ballad "Cocktails for Two", originally written to evoke an intimate romantic rendezvous, was re-recorded by Spike Jones in 1944 as a raucous, horn-honking, voice-gurgling, hiccuping hymn to the cocktail hour. The Jones version was a huge hit.
Another parody was “You Only Hurt the One You Love” in the style of The Ink Spots (notice the ink spots on their jackets!).
His stage show was no less mind-boggling, needing a full railroad car just to carry the props alone, all presented without electronic gimmickry of any kind, with visuals that would make your eyes pop out of your head. Though he often downplayed his musical achievements, the fact remains that Spike was a strict bandleader and taskmaster, making sure his musicians were precision tight and adept in a variety of musical styles from Dixieland to classical, with a calibre of musicianship several notches higher than most big bands of the day that played so-called "straight" music.
And to end on a musical note, here's my favourite. It hit number 1 on the chart in 1948. I remember hearing it at Christmastime as a kid in the 1950s.
Spike had Top Ten hits on phonograph records and proved immensely popular on the stage, in movies, and on television (in addition to appearing on many shows, he had his own). He also made numerous Soundies (See my post about Soundies here: MUSIC HISTORY: Soundies - Black Music from the 1940s ). In fact, it became a badge of honour with pop musicians that you really hadn't tasted true success until Spike Jones & the City Slickers had destroyed your song.
He was awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood
Walk of Fame: for Recording at 1500 Vine Street and for Radio at 6290
Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
Thanks for listening. Hope to see you
again next time when we take a journey back in Music History.
(Information used in this post from Wikipedia, imdb.com, allmusic.com and biography.com)
Dominique "Nik" Petersen is an aficionado of old music and the author of Dr. Hook and Me: A Fan's Journal/Scrapbook. Read about it and her other books at the website: