|About this Recording
Musical Depreciation with
SPIKE JONES & HIS CITY SLICKERS
Original 1942-1950 Recordings
There were many recording artists who descri-bed their acts as zany and off-the-wall back in the golden era of popular entertainment that bracketed the Second World War. But compared to Spike Jones and His City Slickers, they were all second run. Nearly 40 years after Jones’ death, no one has come along to claim his group’s title as “The Craziest Band in the Land.”
Born Lindley Armstrong Jones on 14December 1911, Spike’s nickname was bestowed on him by the railroaders he grew up around as the son of a Southern Pacific Railroad station agent in the desert towns of southern California. He displayed a musical aptitude at an early age and – as if from the script of a Hollywood movie of the time – it was the black chef in one of the railroad station restaurants who taught him how to beat out tunes with knives, forks and spoons. When Jones got his first set of drums at age eleven, his career path had unknowingly been set. He played in high school bands and demon-strated not only his natural talent, but also the personality traits that would be shielded from the public in future years. He was described as cold, moody, caustic, ambitious and even ruth-less when it came to promoting his own name.
When he graduated from high school in 1929 – right on the brink of the Great Depression – he found work as a drummer with a succession of local dance bands. Within a few years, he was one of Hollywood’s most employed studio musi-cians, playing a steady 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 the rest of the musical pack.
In addition to his radio and record studio work, he played regularly in theatre pit orchestras. There, he was able to study many of the novelty bands that came through southern California. He believed he could do better than all of them. A band he put together with other studio colleagues slowly picked up dates (over and above his well-paying studio work) and evolved into the City Slickers. Key to this metamorph-osis was his acquisition of partners such as vocalist Del Porter and violinist Carl Grayson, both of whom had natural gifts for comedy and were bigger names with the public. Each might have fairly claimed title to the band. But when they had to sign a contract and someone had to be declared the head of the band, Jones had no problem stepping forward and putting his name on the deal and relegating the others to employee status.
The big break came in 1942. Jones’ RCA Victor recording contract of 1941 produced three initial recording sessions that yielded some interesting sides that didn’t exactly set the music business on fire. But the fourth session included a song written for the Walt Disney cartoon, Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, which poked fun at Adolph Hitler and the Nazi scourge overrunning Europe. Take one ended with a trombone “schmeer” effect after the last mention of 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 it was Der Fuehrer’s Face that made Jones a household name. Played repeatedly by several famous American disc jockeys, it swept the country and soon spread abroad, reportedly even to Hitler’s ears. It was that little something extra that Jones needed to grab the public’s attention.
Not even a strike by the American Federation of Musicians over record royalties – which kept Jones and all other instrumental artists out of the recording studios for more than a year – could halt the band’s growing popularity thanks to radio, stage and film appearances and the continuation of recording on 16-inch transcription discs for air play, all of which were immune from the unions strike prohibitions. When the strike ended, the City Slickers went back into the studio to catch up with the hits they had generated in these other media during the intervening months, including Cocktails For Two, which still lingers in the minds of many as the band’s signature song. Jones had hit the big time.
The peak came with the creation of the Spike Jones Musical Depreciation Revue, a touring show that was on the road for as much as ten months per year throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Jones now had it all: A stage show that packed audiences in across the U.S. and Canada, million-selling recordings and a network radio show aired 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 only natural that the Spike Jones phenomenon would peak. Changing tastes, the disappearance of the surprise factor in the material, the high cost of travelling with a large cast and crew, and Jones’ decision to leave Victor after thirteen years all contributed to a slow decline in the 1950s. But he never gave up. Almost up to the time of his death from emphysema at 53 on 1 May 1965, he was still trying to recapture the old magic.
That magic lives on in the recordings heard on this Naxos collection. They cover the peak years from 1942 to 1950. The big hits are here: Der Fuehrer’s Face, Cocktails For Two, You Always Hurt the One You Love, the exploits of Feetlebaum in 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 who found themselves within the crosshairs of Jones’ comic shotgun.
Songwriters who had control of their works frequently prevented Jones from parodying their songs. Those who couldn’t often seethed. Composer Jerome Kern was furious at Jones’ version of his late friend Gus Kahn’s Chloe, which is heard here in a rare Armed Forces Radio Service live performance, complete with introduction by Bob Hope. Kern thought the song was an insult to its lyricist and he urged Kahn’s widow, Grace, to pursue the matter. She thought it was hilarious and was pleased that it breathed new life into the corny song, telling Kern nicely to mind his own business.
Not so good humoured was singer Vaughan Monroe, who was one of Victor's top-selling artists in the late 1940s and a large stockholder. When Jones parodied his hit recording of Riders in the Sky, it ended with: "I can do without his singing, but I wish I had his dough." To satisfy Monroe and Victor executives, the record was withdrawn and a new ending fabricated in the New York studios, with Spike nowhere in attendance. The original version still turns 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, counting on the controversy to create the kind of publicity he savoured.
Zany, off-the-wall, irreverent, inventive and, above all, funny. That was Spike Jones and His 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 Ochs Archives / Redferns
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