Area oldsters will likely recall the musical antics of Spike Jones and His City Slickers in the 1940s and 50s. My uncle, Glenn Cox, owned a collection of the comedic bandleader’s 78-rpm breakable records and introduced me to the group about 1950.
About that same time, I recall hearing their songs being played over WJHL radio by popular deejay, Eddie Cowell, who incorporated their chaotic classics into his daily radio show. If you listened to Eddie Cowell, you heard Spike Jones.
Jones cleverly and humorously stereotyped his music as “dinner music for people who aren’t very hungry.” He acquired his nickname from his father, a Southern Pacific railroad agent, who thought his son was so thin he resembled a railroad spike.
The band’s typical format was to commence a song with normal melodic music and then, after about 30 seconds, transition into a wild no-holds-barred arrangement with a variety of sounds: cowbells, fireworks, foghorns, screams, horse laughs, shattered glass sounds, gunfire, car horns, screeching tires and clothes being ripped. There was also an unwholesome portion of human sounds: belching, snorting, gargling, whistling and hiccupping. Even their instruments appeared to be deranged, such as a “latrinophone,” a toilet seat with strings.
Over time, the ensemble included regulars Carl Grayson (straight vocalist and violinist), George Rock (high pitched child’s voice, trumpet), Mickey Katz (vocal sound effects), Sir Frederick Gas (played a leather reed known as a Sadivarious, Doodles Weaver (comedian, known for his Beetlebaum routine), Dr. Horatio Q. Birdbath, Red Ingle, Ed Metcalfe and Helen Grayco (Spike’s wife). As members of the band, they were frequently heard on records, radio shows and television programs.
Some of Spike’s best-known classics were “Cocktails for Two,” “Hawaiian War Chant,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (Beetlebaum, an unlikely horse wins a race), “Ponchielli's “Dance of the Hours,” “Der Fuehrer's Face” (reached #2 on the Hit Parade during the war years),” “Mairzy Doats” (“Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey,” and “The Hut Sut Song (‘Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit’) and my favorite and seasonal favorite, “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” (#1 on the Hit Parade in 1948).”
The Slickers were anything but second-class; they could play harmonious music with the best of the big bands of the 1940s era. In 1941, they received a contract with RCA Victor and recorded extensively for the company until the mid 1950s when they moved to the Liberty label. It was then that they dropped their straight music intros in preference to comedic songs.
As a connoisseur and collector of programs from “The Golden Age of Radio,” I recently listened to several Spotlight Review programs that aired over CBS between 1947 and 1948. The show’s sponsor was Coca Cola and featured Spike as the show’s high-energy host. His program featured an assortment of special guests: The Mills Brothers, Vic Damone, Buddy Clark, Eddy Arnold, Francis Craig, Jack Smith, The Milt Hearth Trio, Nellie Lutcher, Jan August, Jack Owens, John Laurenz and Dorothy Shay (“The Park Avenue Hillbilly”).
The end came suddenly for the chaotic clowns when Spike died in 1965 at age 53. The big farcical curtain descended for both the bandleader and his band. Their unique offerings were immediately extinguished, leaving the Slickers as another fond memory of yesteryear.