About this Recording
8.120834 - JONES, Spike: Spiking The Classics (1945-1950)

‘Spiking the Classics’ Original 1945-1950 Recordings

For this coming year I’m gonna be discreet,
Have the Slickers playing music soft and sweet.
I resolve to treat Tchaikovsky tenderly And set his second movement off with TNT.

Lindley Armstrong Jones’s 1949 New Year’s resolution needed no affirming. He’d already been lampooning the classics since 1945, beginning with Tchaikovsky, Johann Strauss and Franz Liszt. Add Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Leoncavallo, Ponchielli, Offenbach, Bizet and Brahms and you have the inspiration for much of the best work Spike Jones gave us during those peak years 1945-1950. Not bad for a drummer with no classical training.

But it was classical music in concert that may have been Spike’s inspiration, according to a story he told many times and with varying names and locales. The most frequent version concerned composer Igor Stravinsky conducting his ballet The Firebird at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. ‘Stravinsky had on some new patent leather shoes that night, and every time he would rise up to give a downbeat, his shoes would squeak … I got to thinking if you planned mistakes in musical arrangements and took the place of regular notes in well-known tunes with sound effects, there might be some fun in it.’

Through much of the 1930s, Spike Jones was a drummer with a variety of dance bands and stage bands in California, also working the radio studios and free-lancing on recording sessions. He was also collecting telephones, cowbells, pistols and other odd objects that would become his stock-in-trade. By the early 1940s his radio credits included Fibber McGee and Molly, the Al Jolson show, Screen Guild Theater,The Eddie Cantor Show and Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall, and he could be heard on records by Hoagy Carmichael, Ella Logan,The Foursome and more. It was with Foursome member Del Porter that Jones formed the group that would ultimately become Spike Jones and his City Slickers, the dominant name in musical satire for nearly two decades.

By 1945, the City Slickers had recorded a number of hit sides and even more radio transcriptions, appeared in films and on radio, and had developed a wild stage presence that ensured sell-out houses for their ‘Musical Depreciation Revue’. Spike also had a foundering marriage and a daughter he adored, five-year-old Linda Lee. So while the band’s parodies of popular classics fitted the band’s current style, a full-length version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was a radical departure. It was also a Christmas present for Linda, who reportedly was unimpressed. (Jones would eventually marry singer Helen Greco, later spelled Grayco. Note the names Beautiful Linda and Little Helen as horses in the William Tell Overture.)

September, 1945 saw Spike’s full-scale assault on the classics, beginning with The Blue Danube and Liebestraum on the tenth. Matrix numbers just a few digits away were assigned for The Nutcracker Suite, but Spike didn’t begin recording this epic until seventeen days later. In addition to the Jones regulars, many studio musicians took part in the sessions. The singers are unidentified, except for the distinctive bass voice of Harry Stanton (‘Mister Tchaikovsky, this dance is toughsky’), and the vibraphone work on Arab Dance is by Ralph Hansell. The orchestra also used two flutes, a bassoon and a harp.

The Jones Laughing Record (by the ‘City Snickers’) was a salute to the old ‘laughing records’ of the early 1920s, which consisted of a hapless soloist trying to perform a complicated work or a tear-jerking tune and being constantly interrupted by gales of laughter. Vocal music and opera were skewered when Spike turned on Arditi’s Il Bacio,Offenbach’s Orpheus and Leoncavallo’s Vesti la Giubba from I Pagliacci.The first posed a genuine opera singer, Ina Souez, against the canine contributions of Dr. Horatio Q. Birdbath (Purves Pullen, who also voiced Tarzan’s Cheetah and the chimp Bonzo in films). Pal-Yat-Chee was one of only two recordings combining Spike’s band with the great country and western parodists Homer and Jethro. Spike and Helen took the lead roles in None But The Lonely Heart, another jab at Tchaikovsky as well as at the daytime soap operas then on radio. Other participants in the mayhem were Sir Frederick Gas (Earl Bennett, also a voice and sound effects specialist), Freddy Morgan, Dick Morgan (unrelated), Red Ingle and George Rock.

Winstead ‘Doodles’Weaver, the brother of pioneer television executive Pat Weaver and the uncle of actress Sigourney Weaver,was a night-club comedian who joined the City Slickers in 1946, with his zany song parodies and routines. His horse race commentary (William Tell Overture) and auto race follow-up (Dance of the Hours) were classics, and the original recordings were included on a previous Naxos Nostalgia Spike Jones compilation, Musical Depreciation (8.120679); here we present broadcast versions that are somewhat different. On stage, they were able to have even more fun, projecting photographs of horse races, auto races, car crashes, and at the appropriate point, a picture of an ancient donkey (‘Fee-tle-baum’).

Despite Spike Jones’s best-selling records and his popular radio and stage (and later television) shows, there are some odd patterns in RCA Victor’s releases of his recordings. Ill Barkio was recorded in 1947 but not issued until April 1951. Pal-Yat-Chee, a masterpiece, was recorded in 1950 but held back until September 1953, and then it was the B-side to the marginally funny “Dragnet”. Carmen, intended as a four-side set in 1949, finally emerged in 1952 as an extended-play 45 and one side of an LP the following year, uncertainly titled (“Carmen Murdered” on the front,“Spike Jones Murders Carmen” on the back, just “Carmen” on the label). Both issues are quite scarce. And one of the most mysterious gaps of all concerns a title listed as ‘soon to be released’ on a 1946 Spike Jones souvenir program: “A Goose to the Ballet Russe”. No such title ever appeared in a catalogue, but Spike did finally record it at the same 1949 session that produced Carmen. In December 1950 the recording was edited and certain sections deleted, and in February 1951 it was finally released as Rhapsody from Hunger(y), the B-side to the cloying “Peter Cottontail”. (Editing can be necessary for a number of reasons. A reference to Vaughn Monroe had to be removed from “Riders in the Sky”, and RCA’s corporate lawyers may have been playing it safe with Spike’s subsequent releases. In this compilation, an edit was necessary in The Nutcracker Suite to remove a racial epithet that hadn’t raised eyebrows in 1945.)

Spike Jones left RCA in 1955, subsequently recording for Verve,Warner Brothers and Liberty before his death from emphysema in 1965. There would be a few more stabs at the world of classical music on Spike’s later recordings and broadcasts, including a send-up of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, but the five years from 1945 to 1950 produced the best of them. Here they are.

David Lennick, 2005

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