Born: December 14, 1911 | Died: May 1, 1965 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
Popular musician and bandleader specializing in performing satirical arrangements of popular songs. Ballads and classical works receiving the Jones treatment would be punctuated with gunshots, whistles, cowbells, and ridiculous vocals. Through the 1940s and early 1950s, the band recorded as Spike Jones and his City Slickers and toured the USA and Canada under the title, The Musical Depreciation Revue.
Jones's father was a Southern Pacific railroad agent. Young Lindley got his nickname 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.
The City Slickers evolved out of the Feather Merchants, a band 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.
The band signed a recording contract with RCA Victor in 1941 and recorded extensively for the company until 1955. They also starred in various radio programs (1945-1949) and television shows (1954-1961) on both NBC and CBS.
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). Both 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.
After appearing as the house band on The Bob Burns Show, Spike got his own radio show on NBC, The Chase and Sanborn Program, in 1945. Frances Langford was co-host and Groucho Marx was among the guests. The guest list for Jones' 1947-1949 CBS program (originally The Spotlight Revue, retitled The Spike Jones Show for its final season) included Frankie Laine, Mel Torme, Peter Lorre, Don Ameche and Burl Ives. Frank Sinatra appeared on the show in October 1948, and Lassie in May 1949.
One of the announcers on Jones's CBS show was the young Mike Wallace. Writers included Eddie Maxwell, Eddie Brandt, and Jay Sommers. The show signed off for good in June 1949.
The very name of Spike Jones became synonymous with crazy 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 alternate 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 first half (played exquisitely by the serious group), and a manic second half (played hilariously by the City Slickers).
In 1940, 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.
Jones, 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 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.
Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brothers cartoon characters, performed a drunken, hiccupping verse for 1942's Clink! Clink! Another Drink (reissued in 1949 as The Clink! Clink! Polka). 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, much to the resentment of composer Sam Coslow.
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' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.