Born in 1911, Spike Jones began his musical career working in nightclubs and as a studio percussionist. He gained attention for the unique, surprising and humorous sound effects that he was able to create by using unusual instruments and other objects. In the 1940s and '50s, Jones's band, the City Slickers, found success with its satirical renditions of pop and classical music. Jones died in 1965.
Early Years and Musical Roots
Spike Jones was born Lindley Armstrong Jones on December 14, 1911, in Long Beach, California, to Lindley Murray and Ada (née Armstrong) Jones. His father was employed as a station agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the family moved frequently due to his work.
Jones began playing drums at the age of 11. As a teenager, he formed a band called Spike Jones and His Five Tacks. After he graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1929, he began playing percussion at nightclubs around Hollywood. By the late 1930s, he was working as a session drummer for several Los Angeles recording studios and performing in bands on live radio shows.
Spike Jones and His City Slickers
To set himself apart from other studio drummers, Jones began adding unusual sound effects to his performances, using items like automobile horns, cowbells, doorbells and kitchen utensils. He was soon being hired for his ability to produce unique noises, which added surprise and humor to recordings and radio programs.
At the beginning of the 1940s, Jones formed a band called Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Their breakthrough success came in 1942 with the irreverent song "Der Fuehrer's Face." The song—which had been written to accompany an anti-Nazi cartoon produced by Walt Disney during World War II—appeared on a record that sold 1.5 million copies. Its success made Jones a household name.
The City Slickers went on to record more hit songs, utilizing comical voice effects, the sounds of live goats and barking dogs and instruments from slide whistles and tubas to a "latrinophone," which was a toilet accessorized with strings so that it could be played like a harp. Their recordings of the 1940s and '50s included "Cocktails for Two" (with a chorus of hiccuping singers), "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" (with one of the band members lisping in a baby voice). They also parodied famous works of classical music, like Gioachino Rossini's "William Tell Overture," Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz and George Bizet's opera Carmen.
During the 1940s, the City Slickers began a tour called the Musical Depreciation Revue, which ran for several years. Jones, fronting the band, wore loudly colored, checkered suits and added countless props to his stage routine. He continued this performance style in television appearances throughout the 1950s. In the 1960s, Jones formed a more traditional band and recorded albums in a straightforward Dixieland style; however, he would always be best remembered for his comedic work.
Death and Influence
Jones died on May 1, 1965, in Los Angeles, California, due to complications related to emphysema. He was 53 years old. He had been married twice, to two singers: Patricia Ann Middleton, with whom he had a daughter, and then to Helen Greco, with whom he had two daughters and a son.
Jones's son Lindley, known as Spike Jr., was also a musical performer who carried on his father's legacy in the 1970s. Other performers, from Frank Zappa to Weird Al Yankovic, have mentioned Jones as an important influence on their own sense of humor and their satirical recordings. Jones's admirers range from radio personality Dr. Demento to author Thomas Pynchon to the director Spike Jonze, who adapted a variant of Jones's name as his own professional name.
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