Spike Jones – Myrthful Murderer of Music

Who doesn’t love Weird Al Yankovic? Anyone who can take a popular song (whether it be a good song or an annoying one) and turn it into a spoof is a reminder that we should never take life too seriously. Weird Al, however, was not the first of this genre. Back in the primordial age of black shellac discs there was another – Spike Jones.

Lindley Armstrong Jones was born in Long Beach, California in 1911. His was not a musical family, but young Spike (nicknamed because he was quite thin as a kid) took to drumming. He followed the normal trajectory – playing in small bands formed of friends which led to better and better gigs. By the 1930s he was playing in the orchestra of Victor Young, a well known group that had morphed from a jazz-oriented group in the 1920’s to a Hollywood-centered band popular with movie studios in the making of films. Not very well known is that Jones was the drummer for the band that backed Bing Crosby in his 1942 recording of White Christmas.

But Jones was restless. Most musicians tire of playing the same thing every night and Spike Jones was no different. He and some musician friends began some recreational playing of silly versions of songs that were often (but not always) parodies of popular tunes. The group started recording them on their own to share with family and friends. Some of those recordings found their way to an exec at RCA Victor, who signed them to a recording contract in 1941.

After a handful of records, one of them hit pay dirt. In 1942, the Walt Disney Studios made a Donald Duck cartoon that made fun of Hitler and his Nazi companions. Called “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, the film employed a German oom-pah-pah style song as the theme. (The Disney version is here).

Jones got ahold of the song and did what he had become used to doing by then – he took a song that made fun of Adolph Hitler and amped it up to the next level. Jones had the good fortune to record it right before the musicians’ union recording strike took hold in 1942 and Der Fuehrer’s Face became a national hit.

Jones was afraid that he and his City Slickers were destined to be a one-hit wonder, but he turned out to be wrong because people kept asking for more. When the recording strike was over, Jones was there with more material that seemed to feature two varieties. The first was the spoof of a popular song. One of the first to hit it big was “Chloe” in 1945. The original was a moldy oldie from the late 20’s, and was one of those things that had been made popular by several bands. The old versions are pretty bad, and this is one example. Jones’ version was far more listenable than the old ones and was a number 5 hit on the pop charts of the day.

A great example from later in Jones’ run was a riff on a hit record by Vaughan Monroe, Riders In The Sky. Monroe’s record was a No. 1 hit in 1949, and featured his inimitable baritone voice – a voice that had caused Monroe’s detractors to nickname him as “the Iron Lung”. One listen to even thirty seconds of the original (here) and you will get both his nickname and the treatment that Spike Jones followed with in 1950.

Jones’ version of Riders paired a drunk-sounding baritone with a yiddish sidekick and combined parody, sound effects and jokes to liven the song up. Some old jokes are easy to miss, like the advertising references thrown in – here are the slogan for Life Bouy Deoderant Soap (“Don’t Be Half Safe!”) and the heavy jingle for Lava soap (“L – A – V – A”). The record also finished with a gag that referred to Monroe by name. Monroe complained to RCA Victor, which made Jones edit out that last bit. Fortunately, this original version has survived. Fortunately because it’s funny.

Other examples of Jones’ takes on popular hits of the day included Laura, Holiday for Strings and That Old Black Magic (linked for those who cannot get enough of this stuff). One way Jones differs from later song parodists is that in Spike’s era songs were less associated with a single artist (as a rule) so the song tended to get more attention than any particular performer.

Jones other niche was to have fun with well-known classics. Everyone knew the famous Strauss waltz “The Blue Danube”. Everyone still knows it because it has been incorporated into so many films, cartoons, commercials and about everything else.

Jones’ contributions included unique sounds out of normal instruments, but also screams, gunshots and all manner of other sounds that could replace a note here or there. The William Tell Overture (more popularly known as the theme song for The Lone Ranger of radio and later television) got Jonesified and turned into a horse race, won by the slowest nag of them all, Beetlebaum. Jones also gave the business to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and the opera Carmen (which his City Slickers performed in 13 minutes!).

Jones made some efforts to play straight music but could not find an audience. And, as the big band era wound down his style of musical parody became less and less relevant as the rock & roll era got a start. In later years he was quoted as saying “My business is lousing up music. But how can you slaughter a tune that already is a mess?” And even at his peak he occupied an odd niche. He once remarked that his problem was that his music was too corny for sophisticated people and too sophisticated for corny people. Still, he found some enduring fame, including the Christmas classic “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” – “tho I can with you merry Chrithmath.”

Spike Jones continued performing in records and on television until ill health and breathing difficulties caused by long-term smoking led to his death in 1965 at the age of 53. Some of his popular sidemen went on to continued success like Doodles Weaver who got plenty of work in television (and was the uncle of Sigourney Weaver) and Red Ingle who became known for the tune “Cigareets and Whoosky and Wild Wild Women.” Another Jones Alum, Eddie Metcalf (who later went by Ed) became general manager of WPTA TV 21 in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana in the 70’s.

We have become used to comedy with an edge, or comedy that is blue or comedy that is political. Sometimes it is a relief to take in some comedy that is just silly and innocent and fun. We usually get that with Weird Al, whose stuff I like a lot. But before Weird Al, we always got it with Spike Jones too.

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COAL Update: Last week was about a short but enjoyable time as the owner of one of the most popular cars in history. Which was so unlike me.

31 thoughts on “Spike Jones – Myrthful Murderer of Music

  1. What a great read for a Friday morning! i remember me asking, and my parents explaining Spike Jones to me, sometime between when I started to recognize tunes on the radio, and when rock-n-roll took over almost everything, so it must have been the late 50’s. Spike was still getting airplay then, at least in Chicago, on “general” adult music AM stations. I specificly remember the “horse race” number being in pretty frequent rotation.

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    • I got on a Spike Jones kick in the 70s and bought two or three LPs of material that RCA Victor was still re-issuing. It is not the kind of thing a person keeps going back to over and over, but it can be a lot of fun.

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  2. This was fun! My daughter loves Weird Al although I have found Weird Al to be like sugar – some is good but too much makes you queasy. Same goes for Ray Stevens.

    Years ago I remember an episode of M*A*S*H in which somebody sang “Der Fuehrer’s Face” but I’ve never had a point of reference until now. And Vaughn Monroe sang as if he took himself too seriously.

    On a different note, the guy second from the right in the last picture somewhat reminds me of a gentleman you and I know. We met him one weekend in St. Louis a few years ago.

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    • I never understood Vaughn Monroe’s popularity, but he sold a lot of records over a long time. But then maybe someone who appreciates Spike Jones isn’t supposed to understand much about music. 🙂 Actually, I have always been impressed by the way he could assemble a batch of tin cans and car horns that clanked and honked in tune with actual notes.

      I had not noticed that resemblance in the last photo – I think that was Doodles Weaver. Do you think our mutual friend might be related to Sigourney and just never told us?

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      • Funny you two should be mentioning Vaughn Monroe. Lately I’ve been back-tracking over old SCTV “bits” (I always liked it better than SNL), and was laughing at their sketch about the “Gerry Todd Show”, where they were showing vapid videos of a crooner named Tom Monroe; I can only imagine a “dig” against Vaughn. SCTV would alawys have “stars” on that would be amalgamated names of real stars as a deep joke, hence Tom Monroe was probably supposed to be a cross between Tom Jones and Vaughn Monroe, and Lola Heatherton, Joey Heatherton and Lola Falana. Just google SCTV Tom Monroe for some hilariously bad “crooney” song bits.

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  3. Gotta say I like that blue striped suit! I too came across Spike Jones via Doctor Demento. Pretty silly stuff, you’d really need a deep well of wackiness to make a living doing this.

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    • Spike was known for those goofy loud plaid suits that kind of went along with his musical vibe. And you are right that not very many people could have kept this kind of thing up for 20 years or more like he did.

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  4. Thanks for the memories, Jim
    !! My Dad liked Spike Jones and used to play it for us! “Wyatt Earp he makes me burp”!! You made my day!!! Love, K. Essex

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    • Thanks Kathy! I have been surprised at how many younger people (yes, I count us as younger people) are fans.

      You also reminded me that I forgot to add my old car chapter at the end this week, and had to go back and do so. John’s Mustang got a mention. 🙂

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  5. Wow. When I was a teenager I had a friend who was much older than me and he introduced me to Spike. This made me think of some happy memories. I have a couple of “best” collections of his. It would be hard to pick one favorite but The Man On The Flying Trapeze has to be right up there.

    Between Spike and Weird Al was Allan Sherman.

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  6. According to my mom, my grandfather was a pretty big fan of Spike Jones and she played me a few things occasionally, but I find that I have to be in the mood for something like that. I think you hit the nail on the head with the dilemma between sophistication and corniness; that said it’s miles ahead of most of the things people consider funny nowadays.

    One musical comedy act that hasn’t been mentioned, and which I really enjoy the more I discover, is that of P.D.Q. Bach, don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him. A musical parody by a music professor who made up a fictitious composer: son of J.S. Bach who was such a bad composer the family tried their best to erase him from history, unsuccessfully as his compositions are now being “rediscovered.” Perhaps a bit more on the cerebral side of things but for someone with a background in classical music it’s hilarious and I’d recommend checking it out.

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    • I have not heard of PDQ Bach in years. I remember being aware of him but never had any of his records. I need to check him out again.

      And I agree that Spike Jones requires a particular state of mind.

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      • Interesting – I have missed seeing this movie. Though I will admit that my tastes are more in line with “Run Silent, Run Deep”.

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      • “Run Silent Run Deep” is a great WWII movie.

        But “Silent Running” is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film where all plant life on Earth is becoming extinct.

        The film depicts attempts to preserve plant and animal specimens are in a series of enormous greenhouse-like geodesic domes that are attached to large American Airline cargo spaceships. But financial concerns say these domes should be destroyed so the expensive cargo ships can be put back into income producing service.

        This 50 year old film is painfully relative in today’s ecologically stressed world wide climate environment where real life deforestation and species extinction is increasing each year.

        Life imitating art… and not good art.

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      • I looked the movie up after I listened to the song. I should have added the little emoji to clarify that I was kidding. I think the early 70s was the prime era for the genre, with Soylent Green being another example. But I don’t imagine there was a PDQ Bach connection to that one.

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  7. Whatever’s in the next car installment, I hope it comes in red. I went through a Big Band era in the early 80’s and still have a playlist of it – it’s really uplifting music.

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  8. Dad got me into Spike Jones as a drummer to the level of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. Not sure I see it, but he was probably more editorially inventive than either. Though Krupa is hard to beat, having essentially invented the modern drumset.

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  9. Hmm – hopefully I am not the only reader that had not heard of Spike Jones. I looked at the videos – nope, no recollection of him at all. The last picture, the B&W with the long horn had some pretty unusual-looking suits. Guess that was the style then?

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