American bandleader and musical jokester Spike Jones was best known for his crazy sound effects and strange instruments. He had a keen ear for pop, jazz, and classical. and found popularity with his wacky novelty songs of the 1940s and ’50s.
Spike was a musical genius. Born Lindley Armstrong Jones on December 14, 1911, to Murray and Ada (née Armstrong) Jones in Long Beach, California. His father was employed as a station agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the family moved frequently due to his work.
Jones (the son of a railroad man, hence the nickname) had started as a jazz drummer. He began playing drums at the age of 11. As a teenager, he formed a band called Spike Jones and His Five Tacks. After he graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1929, he began playing percussion at nightclubs around Hollywood.
By the late 1930s, he was working as a session drummer for several Los Angeles recording studios and performing in bands on live radio shows and became a radio session player shortly thereafter working with top-drawer stars like Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, among others. (One of the more interesting bits of Jones trivia is that if you listen hard enough, that’s him gently working his wire brushes in the background on Bing’s “White Christmas.”)
But as in-demand as he might have been, musician union restrictions only allowed so many radio dates to be worked by one drummer. To this end (and to distinguish himself from the pack), Jones added a full set of tuned cowbells, guns, whistles, and sirens to his already existing drum set, thus insuring steady work as a both a drummer and small-scale sound effects man.To set himself apart from other studio drummers, Jones began adding unusual sound effects to his performances, using items like automobile horns, cowbells, door bells and kitchen utensils. He was soon being hired for his ability to produce unique noises, which added surprise and humor to recordings and radio programs.
At the beginning of the 1940s, in the wild and woolly days before multi-track recording, MTV, and certainly digital entertainment content, Spike Jones put together a top-flight musical organization that the world has not seen the likes of since. Known as the City Slickers, the emphasis was on comedy, primarily doing dead-on satires of popular songs on the hit parade and taking the air out of pompous classical selections as well.
By 1942, his sixth record under the new band’s name, “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” became not only a national hit but a national mania, and Jones’ self-named “musical depreciation revue” was off and running. The song—which had been written to accompany an anti-Nazi cartoon produced by Walt Disney during World War II—appeared on a record that sold 1.5 million copies. Its success made Jones a household name. Although these additions made him unique in a field loaded with anonymous sidemen, Spike had bigger and crazier ideas. After putting together various after-hours small groups that played “corny just for fun” (including early recordings with the Penny-Funnies and Cinema-Fritzers bands for the short-lived Cinematone company.)
Not merely content to do cornball renderings of standard material or trite novelty tunes for comedic effect, Jones’ musical vision encompassed whistles, bells, gargling, broken glass, and gunshots perfectly timed and wedded to the most musical and unmusical of source points. 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 (all part of the master plan of selling the idea to the general public), 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 caliber of musicianship several notches higher than most big bands of the day that played so-called “straight” music.
In other words, Jones was no dummy. He knew what he was doing when he put the whole concept together — checkerboard suits and all. It gave him Top Ten hits on phonograph records and proved immensely popular as a stage show, in movies, and on television. (It became a badge of honor with pop musicians that you really hadn’t tasted true success until Spike Jones & the City Slickers had destroyed your song.) A definite precursor to the video age, Jones didn’t merely play the songs funny, he illustrated them as well, a total audio and visual assault for the senses.
The bands assembled over the years under the City Slickers banner would feature everyone from singers, midgets, acrobats, and vaudeville comics to musicians who could just plain blow their brains out, all hand-picked by Jones. From George Rock’s braying, high-register trumpet and kiddie voices to Freddie Morgan’s incredible rubber-faced pantomime banjo shenanigans, from Sir Frederick Gas’ insane “twig” bowing to Billy Barty’s Liberace impressions, here was a band that truly defied description. Musicians who could play multiple instruments in a wide variety of styles were commonplace, making the City Slickers the cracker jack unit they were. But certain members of the troupe (like Gas or Barty) were hired because they did one thing extremely well, and would proceed to do it on a nightly basis, key players all. (For years, the rumor persisted that Jones had a guy on the payroll who did nothing but gargle.)
The City Slickers went on to record more hit songs, utilizing comical voice effects, the sounds of live goats and barking dogs and instruments from slide whistles and tubas to a “latrinophone,” which was a toilet accessorized with strings so that it could be played like a harp. Their recordings of the 1940s and ’50s included “Cocktails for Two” (with a chorus of hiccuping singers), “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” (with one of the band members lisping in a baby voice). They also parodied famous works of classical music, like Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz and George Bizet’s opera Carmen.
During the 1940s, the City Slickers began a tour called the Musical Depreciation Revue, which ran for several years. Jones, fronting the band, wore loudly colored, checkered suits and added countless props to his stage routine. He continued this performance style in television appearances throughout the 1950s. In the 1960s, Jones formed a more traditional band and recorded albums in a straightforward Dixieland style; however, he would always be best remembered for his comedic work.
Although parodies of pop music continued to proliferate (Weird Al Yankovic is probably the closest modern-day equivalent, although he’s closer in style to an Allan Sherman; he sings funny lyrics to normal songs, he doesn’t play them funny), the simple fact remains that Spike Jones & His City Slickers did it better than anyone before or since.
Other performers, like Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart, have mentioned Jones as an important influence on their own sense of humor and their satirical recordings. Jones’s admirers range from radio personality Dr. Demento to author Thomas Pynchon to the director Spike Jonze, who adapted a variant of Jones’s name as his own professional name.
Jones died on May 1, 1965, in Los Angeles, California, due to complications related to emphysema. He was 53 years old. He had been married twice, to two singers: Patricia Ann Middleton, with whom he had a daughter, and then to Helen Greco, with whom he had two daughters and a son.