Remembering Spike Jones And His City Slickers

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Spike Jones and his City Slickers broke the mold of conventional music decades ago with humor, drums, cowbells and even cannons. With his 1950s TV show now on DVD, the late bandleader's wife, Helen Grayco, and son, Spike Jones Jr., talk about his legacy of subverted songs.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Spike Jones was a bandleader who made funny music on records and radio in the 1940s and on television in the 1950s. The humor was broad, and the target of the joke was typically a song. For example, that sultry tune about a quiet, romantic encounter, "Cocktails for Two."

(Soundbite of song, "Cocktails for Two")

SPIKE JONES AND HIS CITY SLICKERS (Music Group): (Singing) In some secluded rendezvous...

(Soundbite of whistle)

SPIKE JONES AND HIS CITY SLICKERS: (Singing) ...that overlooks the avenue...

(Soundbite of horn)

SPIKE JONES AND HIS CITY SLICKERS: (Singing) ...there's someone sharing a delightful chat of this and that and cocktails for two.

SIEGEL: "Cocktails for Two" was a hit for Spike Jones and his City Slickers, apparently much to the chagrin of the composer. In addition to a legacy of subverted songs, Spike Jones left a widow, singer Helen Grayco, and four children. His son, Spike Jr., has released a collection of his father's TV shows on DVD, and mother and son came to our California studio to talk about it.

Spike Jr. told how his father, a drummer with an uncanny gift for the cowbells, came to expand his band's arrangements with seemingly extraneous sounds.

Mr. SPIKE JONES, JR.: He went to see Stravinsky conduct the Firebird Suite, and Stravinsky apparently had a brand new pair of patent leather shoes. And every time he rose to give a downbeat, you'd hear this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I see.

Mr. JONES, JR.: And on the way home, my dad was thinking, what happens if you took sound effects and replaced musical notes with them, wouldn't it sound fun? So he got some of the band members together that he was really close with. They put a group together. They did some records. They took them to Decca. And Decca said, gee, this is fabulous. We think RCA should have it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES, JR.: And then he...

SIEGEL: But you're saying that Spike Jones was inspired by the sound of Igor Stravinsky's shoes.

Mr. JONES: That's correct.

(Soundbite of song, "Jingle Bells")

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear from both of you, your thoughts on how you describe the kind of humor of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, which wasn't - there was no social commentary in it. It wasn't satire.

Helen, how do you describe the humor of Spike Jones?

Ms. HELEN GRAYCO (Singer): Well, it was just amazing. He was one of a kind. He was an absolute genius, I think, in musical satire.

SIEGEL: Spike Jr., how do you describe your father's sense of humor?

Mr. JONES, JR.: Well, I think there was an element of satire because if you think about the period of time that dad really skyrocketed, the big bands were very staid. And all of a sudden, Spike Jones comes along with checked suits, shooting off guns, chewing gum and then politics-wise, you don't get much better than "Der Fuehrer's Face."

(Soundbite of song, "Der Fuehrer's Face")

SPIKE JONES AND HIS CITY SLICKERS: (Singing) When der fuehrer says we is de master race, we heil, heil right in der fuehrer's face. Not to love der fuehrer is a great disgrace. So we heil, heil right in the fuehrer's face.

SIEGEL: "Der Fuehrer's Face," we should say, was Spike Jones' wartime contribution or at least the most famous example of it.

Mr. JONES, JR.: Correct.

SIEGEL: One reaction I had in watching this, these programs, after all these years on your DVDs was this is stuff I'd be more accustomed to seeing on the BBC at one time than in the U.S.

Ms. GRAYCO: Funny that you should say that because Spike's biggest audience was the English audience, London. They really are satirically-minded in England, and I think Spike had a great deal to do with that.

(Soundbite of song, "William Tell Overture")

Ms. GRAYCO: He takes the "William Tell Overture" and does a whole number on that that is just amazing how he could take that number and do what he did with that.

(Soundbite of song, "William Tell Overture")

SIEGEL: When Spike Jones would play a, for lack of a better term, I'll call it percussion instruments - thing to which lots of bits of metal are stuck, and he would hit it with drumsticks, first of all, was there a standard instrument that he has created for doing that? Did he know where the different notes were on it? How did he play this thing?

Mr. JONES, JR.: Well, he was basically a studio drummer. His basic instrument as a musician was drums and everything...

Ms. GRAYCO: And xylophone, I think.

Mr. JONES, JR.: And xylophone and everything extended. So he had his cowbell set - built, which was basically an octave and a half of tuned cowbells.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: What's he doing there?

Mr. JONES, JR.: He's playing an octave and a half of tuned cowbells. And then with his mallet he hits a brake drum. And the mallet goes into the air and then he catches it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES, JR.: Other than that, he's doing nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Other than that. And explain to us the point of Spike Jones wearing these amazingly - loud isn't loud enough - his fortissimo suits that were checkered patterns.

Mr. JONES, JR.: Everybody else was in black tuxedos with white shirts and he came along with putting all the band in checked suits. His were very special. He had six of them made. I think at the time they were, like, $1,000 or $1,500 a piece. There were different combinations for different types of music. He would make costume changes throughout his two-and-a-half-hour presentation. His basic one was yellow with purple stripes, and then he had black and white, he had gold and white for more ballads and things like that and then he even had one with tails that was all leopard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES, JR.: And it was just - it's unfortunate that we don't have color on these items because this stage looked phenomenal.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: In liner notes that the novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote for a collection of Spike Jones' music, I read that Mickey Katz, who played with your father and your late husband, Helen, wrote this in his memoir that at one time Spike Jones wanted to have a very serious symphonic jazz orchestra like Paul Whiteman's orchestra and that nobody wanted to hear him do that. They wanted him to do fun.

Ms. GRAYCO: That's right. He called it Spike Jones' Other Orchestra. And he was very seriously doing very straight, wonderful music. And the audience just didn't accept it.

SIEGEL: Yes, Mickey Katz evidently wrote: People said if we want a symphony, we'll go to the Hollywood Bowl. We came to hear Spike Jones, not Stokowski.

Ms. GRAYCO: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Was that a disappointment to him?

Ms. GRAYCO: Yes, it was because he was such a fine musician himself and had such a great appreciation for the classics and everything, that he was hoping it would be a turnabout for him, that he'd be able to do both. But he worked the Trocadero in Beverly Hills at the time on Sunset Boulevard on the Strip. Although it was well-received that evening, people went away and said, oh, we like the old Spike Jones.

(Soundbite of music)

SPIKE JONES AND HIS CITY SLICKERS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) we're sorry we must leave. So here's a (unintelligible) for you before we go (unintelligible) on the Spike Jones show.

SIEGEL: Well, Helen Grayco and Spike Jones, Jr., thank you both very much for talking with us today.

Mr. JONES, JR.: Robert, thank you.

Ms. GRAYCO: Our pleasure, Robert. Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: Spike Jones died in 1965. The DVD featuring the television shows is called "The Best of Spike Jones."

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