GREETINGS, MUSIC LOVERS!
Southern California native Lindley Armstrong Jones was born in late 1911. He was so thin as a child that he was called Spike. His frame and nickname lasted his lifetime as did his talent for playing percussion instruments - drums which led to cowbells, pots, pans and eventual fame and fortune.
As a teenager, the drumming Spike organized his first small band, Spike Jones & His Five Tacks. But his talent rose beyond small community band dates and led to first-call status among the growing number of Network Radio studio orchestras by the time he was 20. During the 1930’s he was playing for bands fronted by Victor Young, John Scott Trotter, Lud Gluskin and Billy Mills on a regular basis, plus other conductor/arrangers who needed reliable sidemen who could sight-read and improvise smoothly on short notice. Young Spike was just the percussionist who was needed. In return, he was making a great name for himself and lots of money. He was also getting bored stiff playing sound-alike arrangements night-after-night. (If this sounds familiar, see “Professor” Jerry Colonna.)
Jones and a small group of other Los Angeles studio musicians formed The Feather Merchants, a collection of sidemen looking for an outlet from their daily routines. They found it in developing and recording novelties for their own amusement. One of those novelties was written by Oliver Wallace for a Walt Disney cartoon, Donald Duck In Nutzi Land, in which the raspberry, (aka Bronx cheer), sound was inserted whenever the word Heil was sung, (…right in Der Feuher’s Face.) (1)
Released by RCA-Victor shortly before the recording strike of 1942, Der Feuher’s Face, was immediately picked up by disc jockey Martin Block of WNEW/New York City. Block’s heavy play and endorsement of the Nazi-ridiculing novelty recorded by Spike Jones & His City Slickers, snowballed to other stations and resulted in 500,000 sales of the record. By September, 1942, the record reached Number Three on Billboard’s charts and Spike Jones’ career was launched.
The first to recognize Spike’s rising star was rural comedian Bob Burns who adopted the sudden recording stars for his CBS in October. (See Bob Burns.) Next in line was Gilmore Petroleum, which signed Spike for to provide music and laughs for its weekly Furlough Fun hosted by actress Beryl Wallace on the NBC West Coast Network beginning in November. A sample from that show, November 9, 1942, is posted.
While the band was busy with radio and its early stage appearances in 1943, Jones was busy plotting a new course for his City Slickers - parodying popular songs and classics. The prime example of this was his RCA-Victor record of Cocktails For Two which reached Number Four on Billboard’s charts. With Carl Grayson singing while all pandemonium breaks loose around him, it’s heard at 21:20 into this episode of the Armed Forces Radio Service’s Command Performance from April 1, 1944.
Standard Brands teamed Spike with Frances Langford and singer Tony Romano, both veterans of Bob Hope’s overseas tours, in NBC’s Chase & Sanborn Show, a 13-week summer replacement for the vacationing Edgar Bergen’s perennial Top Five show in 1945.
Spike’s presentation of the ballad Laura at 5:20 into the first show of June 3, 1945, demonstrates his band’s musicianship, worthy of Percy Faith or Gordon Jenkins, before breaking into the familiar Jones‘ style of parody. Leave The Dishes In The Sink, Ma, solo by Del Porter at 17:40 follows as the obligatory second Jones' song of the show. (2)
Variety responded with this tepid review on June 6: “By usual summer replacement show standards, Standard Brands didn’t stint on coin in lining up this Edgar Bergen - Charlie McCarthy hiatus-time program. … But what emerged in the preem was little more than a hodge-podge that even as a hiatus-time show merits little distinction. As a femcee designed to wrap the thing together, Miss Langford is of dubious value and it isn’t until she slides into the singing department did she hit her real stride … The City Slicker cacophony is somewhat of a problem, too. … Sharing top billing on the show, Jones obviously isn’t going to be restricted in his numbers, but it’s highly questionable whether that cowbell routine rates a reprise in a half-hour show. As a novelty on the program, limiting it to a one-shot would be a much wiser choice."
The Chase & Sanborn Show of June 10, 1945 features the Spike Jones classic, Chloe, sung by Red Ingle at 5:15. (3) The noticeable lack of audience response to the jokes within the song can be attributed to the remote broadcast conditions where it was performed.
It was back to the road for Spike and his Musical Dereciation Revue during the remainder of 1945 and much of the next two years, taking advantage of the public’s curiosity to see this unusual pack of musician-comedians who continued to turn out their string of top-selling parodies for RCA-Victor, including Holiday For Strings, The Hawaiian War Chant and The William Tell Overture. (4)
The City Slickers were on the road almost constantly which was a big obstacle to any network project, but it didn’t stop D’Arcy Advertising and producer Hal Fineberg from packaging Spike’s band, singer Dorothy Shay, (aka "The Park Avenue Hillbilly"), with weekly guest stars into The Coca-Cola Spotlight Revue which would originate on CBS at 10:30 every Friday night from wherever the band was playing at the time. Given the record sales and box office appeal of Jones and Shay, it appeared that it was a bargain for Coca-Cola at a production cost of $7,500 per show. (5)
The Coca-Cola Spotlight Revue debuted on October 3, 1947 and Variety slammed it with a lengthy review headed, Spike Jones: Coke Hoke, on October 8th:
“Every so often bookers and buyers of talent plan a unit of entertainment which on paper looks great only to have any one of a number of possible interfering factors step in and upset the apple cart. That seems to what have happened to the debut of the ‘Spike Jones-Dorothy Shay Show’ which reached the air last week from San Francisco. It was perhaps the sorriest scripting and producing job done to a major show in a long time. Jones, due to his many hit recordings of novelties and hoked-up standard tunes is one of the strongest box office names in the country. Shay has come up strongly over the past six months due to her recording, ‘Feudin‘ & Fightin’. Here was a case of two names who use similar themes being bought for the same show. … The producers of the show, recognizing that similarity leaned backwards to avoid confliction - and wound up with very thin air.
“The entire premise in view of the talent involved was badly thought out. However, the poor aim didn’t stop there. It prevailed throughout the entire script which often made the speakers of lines sound silly. … All in all, Coca-Cola has the talent to build the new show into a responsible position in the Hooperating sweepstakes, but it won’t do so with the sort of construction applied to this debut program. The main draw, Spike Jones, is wasted.”
The Coca-Cola Spotlight Review of October 24, 1947 is posted which indicates that the producers heeded Variety’s advice to use Spike Jones properly. But what the review didn’t mention were the audio problems that arose from originating the program from theaters that weren’t designed for broadcasting. This program from Chicago’s Studebaker Theater is a good example of bad facilities. Nevertheless the show recorded a 10.8 Nielsen rating for its first, troubled month on the air.
One of the later programs in the Coca-Cola series was one of its best. The show of December 10, 1948, features another of the City Slickers’ hits, My Old Flame, with Paul Frees performing his hilarious Peter Lorre impression followed by a guest appearance by Lorre who joins in the fun.
Dorothy Shay and producer Hal Fineberg left the show two weeks later on Christmas Eve which is ironic because biggest hit record of Spike Jones’ career, All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, was the Number One Record in America that week. (6)
Coca-Cola moved the new Spike Jones Show to the prime slot on CBS - 6:30 Sunday nights beginning January 2, 1949, the same night Jack Benny debuted on the network at 7:00. New producer Joe Bigelow, a veteran of Edgar Bergen's writing team, took over and the changes were evident as the show suddenly had a prime time polish it lacked before. (7) The second show in the new series featuring guests Dinah Shore and Fred Astaire is posted from January 9, 1949. Variety responded with this rave review on January 12th:
“Spike Jones’ new show for Coca-Cola on CBS this year is a far cry from his broadcasts of last season. This is Spike Jones! Last year‘s Jones might have been a guy named Spud for all the resemblance it had to the zaniness that has spotlighted the name. The second show of the new series, using Dinah Shore and Fred Astaire, seriously and as participants in gags with the Jones boys, was a fast, tight and highly amusing half-hour. It left no doubt from the opening, ‘Oh, By Jingo’ as to who was pitching for laughs. And those laughs, incidentally, were nicely written and spotted. Jones himself has improved at the mike. He has better timing and presence. … But as long as he can induce such personalities as Miss Shore and Astaire to swing with the act, he needn’t strain too much himself. … It was good.”
Despite good reviews and ratings, trouble was brewing behind the scenes at both CBS and Coca-Cola. CBS had negotiated the return of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet to its former 6:30 slot on Sunday nights in September and Coke had signed to sponsor Edgar Bergen when he jumped to CBS in the fall. Either move would have left The Spike Jones Show in jeopardy, combined, cancellation seemed certain. Nevertheless, Coke and CBS gave Spike a chance to carve out a new audience on Saturdays beginning on March 12 at 7:00 p.m.. His farewell show on Sunday nights is posted from March 6, 1949 broadcast from Richmond, Virginia, where the band was appearing in its spring tour of nightly stage appearances.
Spike Jones’ last radio show was broadcast for Coca-Cola on CBS with guest star Don Ameche on June 25, 1949. He had a fun run in Network Radio which boosted his record sales and personal appearances then paved his way into television appearances in the early 1950’s. And fun was what it was all about.
Isn’t that right, Music Lovers?
(1) The cartoon’s title was later changed to Der Feuher’s Face.
(2) Clarinetist-saxophonist Del Porter was Spike Jones’ first partner in organizing The Feather Merchants band when both were studio musicians in Los Angeles.
(3) Chloe rose to Number Five on the charts in 1945. Ernest (Red) Ingle left Spike Jones to form his own novelty group, The Natural Seven, at Capitol Records where his Tem-tay-shun and Cigarettes, Whiskey & Wild, Wild Women became hits.
(4) Rossini’s William Tell Overture provided the background for comedian Winstead (Doodles) Weaver - the brother of NBC executive Sylvester (Pat) Weaver - to “call” the crazy horserace won by the infamous Feetlebaum.
(5) The third member of this cast was announcer Mike Wallace who delivered the Coca-Cola commercials with near dramatic appeal and acted as the occasional straight man to Spike Jones.
(6) All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth featured the falsetto voice of trumpet player George Rock who impersonated children on the Jones’ broadcasts.
(7) Spike Jones won the 6:30 Hooperatings for January 2, 1949, registering a 10.5 for CBS compared to The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet’s 9.5 on NBC, Nick Carter’s 10.0 on Mutual and The Greatest Story Ever Told’s 9.5 on ABC.
Copyright © 2020, Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org