“Where are ya, you old bat?!”

There was a very composed musicality to the works of Spike Jones. He treated sirens, gunshots and gurgling as sincerely as trumpets and banjos. As an arranger, he had both an impeccable ear for musical madness and a pitch-perfect comedic timing. Sure, his versions of songs were hilarious, but they were more than just the throwaway novelties like which audiences at the time treated them.

Spike was born in 1911, and started playing drums before becoming a teenager. Throughout the ’30s, he played with traditional orchestras before forming his own group, The City Slickers, around 1941. The group employed a number of seriously talented vocalists whose straight presence served as the Margaret Dumont to Jones’ Groucho. A smattering of legendary comedic voices also appeared in Jones’ group, including Mel Blanc, Thurl Ravenscroft and Paul Frees. Frees’ impression of Peter Lorre in “My Old Flame” and Blanc’s stammering hiccup in “Clink! Clink! Another Drink!” made these versions riotously popular. Jones’ breakneck interpretation of “Cocktails For Two,” originally a delicate ballad, upset composer Sam Coslow (who also penned “My Old Flame”), and, in turn, made Jones seem like even more of a dangerous character.

Perhaps the most effective tool in Spike Jones’ arsenal was the establishment of a mood and then quickly ruining that mood. His iconic take on the “William Tell Overture” features a delicate string introduction before a set of clattering cowbells plays the melody. A similar trick is used in “Holiday For Strings,” in which a variety of noisy objects (and people) run through the piece’s rushing refrain. As the years went on, Jones yearned to play more serious music, though his audience resisted accepting this shift. One song, “Laura,” features Jones’ Other Orchestra, which he formed in 1946 to play dance halls and ‘serious’ venues. The City Slickers became mainstays on a variety of radio and television shows (including Jones’ own) throughout the ’40s and ’50s.

Through the early years of rock n’ roll, Jones, like most other bandleaders, struggled to stay popular. With a few records that were more in the style of spoken word comedy, Jones gained some slight late-career success. A lifelong smoker, Jones died in 1965 from emphysema. Artists like Neil Innes, Frank Zappa and “Weird” Al Yankovic all drew influence from Jones’ mania. References to hit songs like “Der Fuhrer’s Face” and Jones’ inimitable style continue to reaffirm the creativity of this iconic musician.

Listen: Spike Jones with Doodles Weaver – “The Man On The Flying Trapeze” (1947)

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~ by E. on April 5, 2010.

One Response to ““Where are ya, you old bat?!””

  1. I love Spike Jones and it’s great to see he is appreciated TWO FULL generations later.
    I can’t take the way he sings, but I love it when he talks.

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