By Jordan R. Young
There’s no truth to the rumor that Lindley Armstrong Jones was born with a drumstick in his hands, when he made his debut in Long Beach, California, on Dec. 14, 1911. But by the age of seven he had decided to become a musician. It was hardly a respectable ambition for the only child of salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners, who hoped he was simply going through a phase.
Spike, the son of a schoolteacher and a railroad depot agent, reportedly got his nickname from a telegrapher because he hung around the tracks so often. He took trombone and piano lessons as a kid, growing up in the desert towns of the Golden State.
A station porter—or a lunch counter cook, according to legend—whittled Spike his first pair of drumsticks from the rungs of an old chair. He got his first set of drums at age 11, and wasted little time in organizing his first group, the Jazzbo Four. At a high school orchestra contest he met the band director of top-rated Long Beach Polytechnic High, and promptly returned to his birthplace.
Spike got a first class musical education at Poly—the alma mater of singers Jo Stafford and Marilyn Horne, and more recently rapper Snoop Dogg—though they didn’t teach him how to “play it hot.” But he wanted to become a jazz band drummer, so he played along with the radio and reportedly drove the neighbors crazy.
Jones led his own combo, the Five Tacks, while in high school and continued to do so following graduation in 1929. Among his gigs in the early ‘30s was a swanky Hollywood dance band job with fledging bandleader Sam Coslow, soon to write a song called “Cocktails for Two” that would unwittingly prove an annuity for his ambitious young drummer.
Spike played a variety of short-lived gigs in the ‘30s alongside future bandleaders Stan Kenton and Freddie Slack. Eventually he started getting calls to report to work in the recording studios, beginning with a Decca session in 1936; he provided percussion for such popular artists as Judy Garland, Dick Powell, The Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby (he backed the crooner on more than 110 sides, including the evergreen “White Christmas.”)
He also infiltrated network radio about the same time, plying his trade anonymously in orchestras behind Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and others. His longest stint was in John Scott Trotter’s band on The Kraft Music Hall with Crosby; he commuted to work in a station wagon that looked like a junkyard on wheels but “All we ever did was play soft and sweet…no cowbells, no gunfire.” Meanwhile, Jones had become a family man, marrying Patricia Ann Middleton Sept. 7, 1935; daughter Linda Lee was born Oct. 23, 1939.
Spike Jones wasn’t the first musician to wander into the “corn” field, nor would he be the last. Ted Lewis, Fred Waring, Irving Aaronson and others displayed an abundant sense of humor in their recordings of the 1920s; the Hoosier Hot Shots, the Schnickelfritzers and their virtual clone, the Korn Kobblers, proved the harmonic potential of washboards, cowbells and auto horns in the ‘30s. But Spike would leave them all in the dust when he and his acquaintances started making novelty records.
By the time the fledgling group of funsters cut their first session at RCA Victor on Aug. 8, 1941, many of the key personnel were in place. Band co-founder Del Porter, whose Foursome quartet Spike had backed in the ‘30s on numerous discs for Decca, handled the vocals and did the basic arrangements with trombonist King Jackson. Violinist Carl Grayson, banjoist Perry Botkin and pianist Stan Wrightsman helped develop the City Slicker sound; trumpeter Don Anderson joined the day after the first session.
The band’s early recordings for RCA’s Bluebird label were all over the musical map, stylistically—honky-tonk, ragtime, trad jazz and more. “Behind Those Swinging Doors,” the A side of the first release, was a typical saloon song in the old music hall style. The B side, “Red Wing,” was a 1907 tune about a lovesick Indian maiden. Victor labeled the former a “Waltz,” the flipside a “Bright Two-Step.” The band also began cutting Standard Transcription discs for radio airplay about the same time.
The Slickers found themselves in a whirlwind of activity in 1942, including their appearance in a group of Soundies—the precursor of music videos—a regular slot on Bob Burns’ radio show, the all-star Warner Bros. film, Thank Your Lucky Stars, and the RCA recording of “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” which made them a household name.
While a record ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians in 1942 kept Spike and his funsters out of Victor studios for two years, they remained furiously busy elsewhere. The Slickers appeared in the feature films Meet the People and Bring on the Girls, recorded V-Discs, visited army hospitals and entertained American and allied forces in England and France on a 1944 USO tour. Returning to find their V-Disc of “Cocktails for Two” an unexpected hit, they recorded it at RCA when the ban lifted.
The Slickers adopted a new look in 1945 with garish checkered and plaid suits. They recorded “Chloe,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “The Nutcracker Suite,” provided comic relief in the film Ladies’ Man and appeared on radio’s The Chase and Sanborn Program.
Bassist-arranger Country Washburne, comedian-saxophonist Red Ingle, banjoist Dick Morgan, trumpeter George Rock and singer Helen Grayco (née Greco) joined the band during these years, while Del Porter quit the group.
Jones put together a large dance band he called his Other Orchestra in 1946, disappointing an unsuspecting public. More successfully he reorganized the City Slickers for a new two-hour variety show, The Musical Depreciation Revue, and began touring the country on a punishing itinerary.
Red Ingle quit the group at this time while Carl Grayson and others were terminated. Comedian Doodles Weaver, clarinetist Mickey Katz, drummer Joe Siracusa, banjoist Freddy Morgan, comedian Earl Bennett (aka Sir Frederick Gas) and dwarf Frankie Little were among those hired.
Spike and the Slickers enjoyed a two-year run on CBS Radio in the The Spotlight Review (The Spike Jones Show) from 1947-49, sponsored by Coca-Cola and broadcast from various cities on their itinerary. “Hawaiian War Chant,” “My Old Flame,” “The William Tell Overture” and “Two Front Teeth” were among the numbers they recorded before the start of another year-long record ban late in 1947.
Public appearances and radio broadcasts kept the band busy during the record ban. The Slickers had the honor of performing for President Truman in Washington, D.C., at the peak of their popularity in 1948. They returned to RCA studios to record such numbers as “Riders in the Sky,” “Morpheus,” “Rhapsody from Hunger(y)” and the album, “Spike Jones Plays the Charleston.” (“Pal-Yat-Chee,” a collaboration with Homer and Jethro, was not released until 1953).
Spike and the band also branched out into other media. They were parodied by Chester Gould in his “Dick Tracy” comic strip, and filmed two television pilots under the direction of Eddie Cline; the shows remained unseen by the public until they surfaced on home video decades later.
In private life, Spike divorced wife Patricia in 1946, marrying singer Helen Grayco (née Greco) July 18, 1948; they welcomed their son Spike Jr. to the family May 19, 1949.
Emanating live from Chicago, the band made its network television debut on NBC’s The Colgate Comedy Hour early in 1951. Critical response was mixed; their follow-up, broadcast from New York that fall, fared less well. Doodles Weaver was replaced by Peter James following a tour of Hawaii that year. There was also a new addition to Jones’ offstage family, with the arrival of daughter Leslie Ann Jones June 13, 1951.
Departing from the expected, the Slickers recorded a polka album (“Bottoms Up”) and a number of country and western records with a group Spike called his Country Cousins. A parody of “Dragnet” and “I’m in the Mood for Love” (vocalized by Billy Barty, a new member of his outfit) were closer to what fans expected, but a series of uninspired children’s records comprised most of his later efforts for RCA. Jones parted company with the label in 1955, later remarking to a DJ he’d been “an RCA Victim” for 15 years.
The band hosted two episodes of NBC TV’s All-Star Revue in 1952, finally getting its first TV series on the same network two years later.
Jones and the Slickers also starred in a 1954 film for Universal, Fireman, Save My Child co-starring Buddy Hackett and Hugh O‘Brian in place of Abbott and Costello, who were originally slated. Ever the perfectionist, Spike was dissatisfied with the finished product. He planed an ambitious daytime TV variety series, but failed to sell the idea.
The Slickers’ drawing power in live appearances began to wane at home, thanks partly to the popularity of television and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll. A scheduled European tour failed to materialize but massive crowds welcomed the band on a 1955 tour of Australia.
Personnel changes were many during this period. Joe Siracusa and Earl Bennett left the band, while Dick Morgan died of a heart attack. In the mean time, Mousie Garner and Gil Bernal joined the organization.
Jones continued making records after departing RCA, waxing “Spike Spoofs the Pops” and a number of LPs for Verve, most notably “Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry.” He followed this assault on the public’s eardrums with “Spike Jones in Stereo” (aka “Spike Jones in Hi-Fi”) for Warner Bros. Records and “Omnibust” for Liberty.
In league with changing tastes, the Slickers abandoned their loud plaid suits for pastel tuxedos and became The Band That Plays for Fun, for a 1957 CBS TV series that marked a departure in style. The following year, Spike served as bi-weekly host for the summer season on NBC’s Club Oasis. Daughter Gina Maria was born July 14, 1958.
Jones, in failing health, was diagnosed with emphysema in 1960. Nonetheless, he recorded “60 Years of Music America Hates Best” and “Rides, Rapes and Rescues” for Liberty that year. He and Helen hosted a summer series for CBS TV (produced and co-written by Bill Dana) and continued to make personal appearances in Las Vegas. Jones also pitched several TV projects around town, but found no takers.
Freddy Morgan, George Rock and Billy Barty left the band toward the end of this period, all flourishing on their own.
Jones’ prodigious activity in his last years belied his ill health. He recorded but did not release an LP parodying conductor Leonard Bernstein, “Spike Jones as Leonard Burnside Discusses…” He contemplated a staggering number of other projects, meanwhile recording four Liberty albums with his New Band ranging from “Washington Square” to “Hank Williams Hits.”
Spike and Helen toured with a revue called The Show of the Year. He began work on two additional albums, “Persuasive Concussion” and “Ghoul Days,” but sadly did not live to complete them.
Jones managed to fulfill a February 1965 engagement in Las Vegas, despite his illness. In March, he collapsed at Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe – ignoring warnings that the altitude was too severe — and was flown to a hospital in Los Angeles.
The maestro died at his Beverly Hills home May 1, 1965. Following a memorial service that drew a crowd of some 400 people—where he was eulogized as “a genius in the clothes of a musical satirist” with “a gloriously fantastic imagination,” Jones was entombed at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Calif.
Copyright © 2015 by Jordan R. Young. All Rights Reserved
JRY is the author of the definitive Spike Jones biography, and other books on the performing arts.