The Talented Spike Jones Part Two
Spike’s parody of Vaughn Monroe’s rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was performed as if sung by a drunkard and ridiculed Monroe by name in its final stanza:
CHORUS: ‘Cause all we hear is “Ghost Riders” sung by Vaughn Monroe.
DRUNK: I can do without his singing.
FRIEND: But I wish I had his dough!
The official American release edited out the dig at Monroe, because Monroe, a popular RCA Victor recording artist and also a major RCA stockholder, demanded it. The original version was released on the European market in 1949. (A few pressings containing the first ending were mistakenly released on the West Coast and are a prized rarity today.)
All I Want for Christmas
Jones’ recording, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”, with a piping vocal by George Rock, was a number-one hit in 1948. (Dora Bryan recorded a 1963 variation, “All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle”.)
Murdering the Classics
Jones and some of his musical instruments – empty tin cans – are seen in the background
Among the series of recordings in the 1940s were humorous takes on the classics such as the adaptation of Liszt’s Liebesträume, played at a breakneck pace on unusual instruments. Others followed: Rossini’s William Tell Overture was rendered on kitchen implements using a horse race as a backdrop, with one of the “horses” in the “race” likely to have inspired the nickname of the lone chrome yellow-painted SNJ aircraft flown by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team’s shows in the late 1940s, “Beetle Bomb”. In live shows Spike would acknowledge the applause with complete solemnity, saying “Thank you, music lovers.” An LP collection of twelve of these “homicides” was released by RCA (on its prestigious Red Seal label) in 1971 as Spike Jones Is Murdering the Classics. They include such tours de force as Pal-Yat-Chee (Pagliacci), sung by the Hillbilly humorists Homer and Jethro, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, Tchaikovsky’s None but the Lonely Heart, and Bizet’s Carmen.
In 1944 RCA Victor released his “Spike Jones presents for the Kiddies” version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, in three 10 inch 78 rpm records, P-143, arrangement credited to Joe “Country” Washburne with lyrics by Foster Carling. It was released as a three 7 inch 45 rpm vinyl set in 1949 as WP-143 and as a one 45rpm extended play EPA-143 in 1952. An abridged and re-sequenced version is also included in the aforementioned ‘classics’ album, with the complete original version available on the CD collection Spiked: The Music of Spike Jones.
After appearing as the house band on The Bob Burns Show, Spike got his own radio show on NBC, The Chase and Sanborn Program, as Edgar Bergen’s summer replacement in 1945. Frances Langford was co-host and Groucho Marx was among the guests. The guest list for Jones’s 1947-49 CBS program for Coca-Cola (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. Jones’s resident “girlsinger” during this period was Dorothy Shay, “The Park Avenue Hillbillie.” One of the announcers on Jones’s CBS show was the young Mike Wallace. Writers included Eddie Maxwell, Eddie Brandt and Jay Sommers. The final program in the series was broadcast in June 1949.
Spike Jones and His Other Orchestra
While Jones 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. Some of the City Slickers band members appeared and recorded with the Other Orchestra, but most of the Other Orchestra personnel consisted of “serious,” accomplished studio musicians from the Los Angeles area.
The one outstanding recording by the Other Orchestra is “Laura”, which features a serious first half (played exquisitely by the Other Orchestra) 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.
As the band’s fame grew, Hollywood producers hired the Slickers as a specialty act for feature films, including Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Meet the People (1944), Bring on the Girls (1945), Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) and Variety Girl (1947). 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, turned out to be Spike Jones’s only top-billed theatrical movie.
In 1942 the Jones gang worked on numerous Soundies, musical shorts seen on coin-operated projectors in arcades, malt shops, and taverns. The band appeared on camera under their own name in four of the Soundies (“Clink! Clink! Another Drink”, “Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy”, “The Sheik of Araby”, and “Blacksmith Song”), and, according to musicologist Mark Cantor, provided background music for at least thirteen others. Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brothers cartoon characters, performed a drunken, hiccuping verse for 1942’s “Clink! Clink! Another Drink” (reissued in 1949 as “The Clink! Clink! Polka”).
Jones and his wife, Helen Grayco, with Bill Dana in 1960. Dana wrote and produced the summer replacement show, as well as performed on it.
Jones saw the potential of television 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 was seen leaping around playing a washboard, cowbells, a suite of klaxons and foghorns, then xylophone, then shooting a pistol. The band starred in variety shows, such as The Colgate Comedy Hour (1951, 1955) and their All Star Revue (1952) before being given his own slot by NBC, The Spike Jones Show, which aired early in 1954, and Club Oasis on NBC, in the summer of 1958; and by CBS, as The Spike Jones Show, in the summers of 1957, 1960, and 1961. Jones and his City Slickers also appeared on NBC’s The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford in the episode which aired on November 15, 1956. In 1990, BBC2 screened six compilation shows from these broadcasts; they were subsequently aired on PBS stations.