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Spike Jones About Spike Jobes Spike Jones was born Lindley Armstrong Jones December 14, 1911, the son of a Southern Pacific railroad agent. Lindley got his nickname, Spike, by being so thin that he was compared to a railroad spike. At the age of eleven 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.[1]

The City Slickers band evolved out of The Feather Merchants, a music combo led by vocalist-clarinetist Del Porter, who took a back seat to Jones during the embryonic years of the group. They made experimental records for Cinematone Corp. and performed publicly in Los Angeles, gaining a small following. The original members of the band included vocalist-violinist Carl Grayson, banjoist Perry Botkin, trombonist King Jackson, and pianist Stan Wrightsman.

George Rock (trumpet and vocals from 1944 to 1960) was the backbone of the City Slickers, according to his contemporaries. Other prominent band members at various times during the 1940s included Mickey Katz (clarinet and vocals), Doodles Weaver (vocals), Red Ingle (sax and vocals), Carl Grayson (violin and vocals), Country Washburne (tuba), Earl Bennett (aka Sir Frederick Gas, vocals), Joe Siracusa (drums), Joe Colvin (trombone), Roger Donley (tuba), Dick Gardner (sax and violin), Paul Leu (piano), Jack Golly (trumpet and clarinet), John Stanley (trombone), Don Anderson (trumpet), Eddie Metcalfe (saxophone), Dick Morgan (banjo), George Lescher (piano), and Freddy Morgan (banjo and vocals). The liner notes for at least two RCA compilation albums claimed that the two Morgans were brothers (the 1949 radio shows actually billed them as "Dick and Freddy Morgan"), but this isn't true; Freddy's real name was Morgenstern.

The band's 1950s personnel included Billy Barty (vocals), Gil Bernal (sax and vocals), Mousie Garner (vocals), Bernie Jones (sax and vocals), Phil Gray (trombone), Jad Paul (banjo), and Peter James (vocals). James (who was sometimes billed as Bobby Pinkus) and Garner were former members of Ted Healy's vaudeville act and had replaced Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard as Healy's "stooges" in the 1930s.

Spike Jones's second wife, singer Helen Grayco, performed in his stage and TV shows. Jones had four children: Linda (by his first wife, Patricia), Spike Jr., Leslie Ann, and Gina. Spike Jr. is a producer of live events and TV broadcasts. Leslie Ann is the Director of Music and Film Scoring at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.

The name of Spike Jones became synonymous with wacky interpretations of music. While he enjoyed the fame and prosperity, he was annoyed that nobody seemed to see beyond the craziness. Determined to show the world that he was capable of producing legitimate, "pretty" music, he formed a second group in 1946. Spike Jones and His Other Orchestra played lush arrangements of dance hits. This alternative group played nightclub engagements and was an artistic success, but the paying public preferred the City Slickers and stayed away. Jones wound up paying some of the band's expenses out of his own pocket.

The one outstanding recording by the Other Orchestra is "Laura," which features a serious intro (played exquisitely by the serious group), and a manic second half (played hilariously by the City Slickers). Mickey Kaminsky sang with this group.[NPR interview with Mickey Kaminsky, 1978].

In 1940, Spike Jones had an uncredited bandleading part in the Dead End Kids film, "Give Us Wings," appearing on camera for about four seconds.

In 1942 the Jones gang worked on numerous Soundies musical shorts seen on coin-operated projectors in arcades, malt shops, and bars. The band appeared on camera under their own name in four of the Soundies, and provided background music for at least 13 others, according to musicologist Mark Cantor.

As the band's notoriety grew, Hollywood producers hired the Slickers as a specialty act for feature films, including Thank Your Lucky Stars and Variety Girl. Jones was set to team with Abbott and Costello for a 1954 Universal Pictures comedy, but when Lou Costello withdrew for medical reasons, Universal replaced the comedy team with look-alikes Hugh O'Brian and Buddy Hackett, and promoted Jones to the leading role. The finished film, Fireman, Save My Child, is a juvenile comedy that turned out to be Spike Jones's only top-billed theatrical movie.

Spike Jones, being a shrewd businessman, saw the potential of television early, and filmed two half-hour pilot films, Foreign Legion and Wild Bill Hiccup, in the summer of 1950. Veteran comedy director Eddie Cline worked on both, but neither was successful. The band fared much better on live television, where their spontaneous antics and crazy visual gags guaranteed the viewers a good time. Spike usually dressed in a suit with an enormous check pattern, and could be seen leaping around playing cowbells, a suite of klaxons and foghorns, then xylophone, then shooting a pistol. The band starred in variety shows such as NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951 and 1955[6] and their Four Star Revue in 1952 before being given his own slot by CBS, The Spike Jones Show, which aired from 1954 to 1961. In 1990 BBC2 screened six compilation shows from these broadcasts; they were subsequently aired on PBS stations as well.

The rise of Rock & Roll and the decline of big bands hurt Spike Jones's 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 midget Billy Barty, to scamper across the stage.)

Spike Jones was always prepared to adapt 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 the maestro, noting the TV success of Lawrence Welk and his dance band, 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," 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 was changing from musical satires to spoken-word comedy (Tom Lehrer, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, etc.). 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). Jones remained topical to the last: his final group, Spike Jones's 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). The smoking contributed to giving him emphysema. Eventually his already thin frame deteriorated, to the point where he was using an oxygen tank offstage, and onstage he was confined to a seat behind his drum set. He died on May 1, 1965 at age 53, and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California.


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