Spike Jones kept up a frenetic pace in the late 1930s as a freelance studio musician for motion pictures, records, and radio shows. The busy young drummer commuted to Hollywood studios in a station wagon that was a veritable junkyard on wheels. But he had little opportunity to employ cowbells, sirens, and automobile horns in his work at the time. He felt so frustrated he decided to form his own band "where I could make as much noise as I wanted," he once claimed.
Delmar Porter, who sang with the Foursome -- a vocal and ocarina quartet Jones had backed on Decca Records -- was Jones' partner in musical mayhem from the outset. Porter led a six-piece group called the Feather Merchants, which was managed by Jones before it gradually evolved into the City Slickers.
Few musicians took Jones and Porter seriously when they started the band. It was no more than a spare time proposition, and many of them -- who had steady work in radio -- departed after a rehearsal or two.
The precise evolution of the band, which consisted of various studio musicians of Spike's and Del' s acquaintance, is unclear. Adding to the puzzle is the existence of a concurrent Jones band which made experimental "penny records" for the short-lived Cinematone Corporation. The second group included not only Porter but future Slickers Perry Botkin (banjo), Kingsley Jackson (trombone), and Stanley Wrightsman (piano).
Jones was not officially the leader of the City Slickers -- nor had the group yet adopted the name -- when they entered Victor studios for the first time in 1941. "It was a lot of fun but it never occurred to me it was going to be anything big," said trumpeter Bruce Hudson, who was hired for the afternoon. "We were freelance musicians who were having a ball doing crazy music."
Del Porter sang the numbers and did the basic arrangements with trombonist King Jackson, who pumped a lot of imagination into the group. When "Behind Those Swinging Doors"/"Red Wing" was issued that October, the label identified the group -- for the first time publicly -- as Spike Jones and his City Slickers.
Within a year of their first Victor session, most of the sidemen involved -- including Botkin, Jackson, Wrightsman, and bassist Hank Stern -- departed for greener pastures. Porter and violinist Carl "Donald" Grayson were the exceptions. Don Anderson, a colleague of Spike's from Fibber McGee & Molly, joined the day after the initial session, becoming the band's first steady trumpet player.
Botkin, who was too busy with radio work, brought Luther Roundtree in to replace him on banjo. Wrightsman, an ace jazz pianist who didn't care for the Slickers' slam-bang style, gave his seat behind the keyboard to Frank Leithner, who played The Eddie Cantor Show with Spike. Jackson left to enlist in the army and was replaced by trombonist John Stanley.
Hank Stern's successor on tuba and string bass was a man of almost limitless talent. Joe "Country" Washburne, a first-rate jazz musician who had performed with Ted Weems, eventually took over most of the arranging duties from Porter. In doing so, he became a major influence on the Slickers in their evolution from a pleasantly silly cornball style to the riotous, all-stops-out zaniness that put them over the top.
Ernest "Red" Ingle, a colleague of Washburne's from the Weems band, was more than capable on the saxophone; he was hired less for his musical skills than his comic genius. Along with Carl Grayson, Jones came to rely heavily on Ingle for the gags and vocal effects used to annihilate the songs.
Many of the early Slickers left the band because they could not accommodate Jones' demand for "first call" on their availability. Most of them had other jobs and considered the band a secondary job. Frank Leithner, who worked seemingly every radio show in town, was one of the few Slickers who named his own terms, and got them.
Other associates like Del Porter departed because they felt their contributions were taken for granted. Country Washburne, whose arranging talents forever "Spiked" "Cocktails for Two," received no acknowledgment for this contribution to the band's success, yet continued to arrange for Jones, despite the anonymity of the task.
But musicians everywhere wanted to work with Spike. Shortly before Porter left, Jones added two key players. Dick "Red" Morgan, who had recorded with Alvino Rey, joined on banjo and guitar; trumpeter George Rock was snatched from the employ of rival music butcher Freddie Fisher, and soon became the dominant sound in Jones' ensemble.
The face of the band changed substantially in 1946, a year of dramatic personal and professional change for Jones. More in demand than ever, he stopped drinking and reorganized the group for a new two-hour variety show. he also began touring the country on a punishing schedule. Hard-drinking Carl Grayson, who had contributed much to the success of the band -- including the vocals on "Der Fuehrer's Face" and "Cocktails for Two" -- was among the first to be dismissed.
Red Ingle quit the group to pursue other ventures, including his own band, and several others were fired. Among their replacements were up-and-coming nightclub comedians Doodles Weaver and Earl Bennett (whom he rechristened Sir Frederick Gas), clarinetist Mickey Katz, drummer Joe Siracusa, and veteran comic-banjo player Freddy Morgan. Bird and animal imitator Purv Pullen (renamed Dr. Horatio Q. Birdbath) brought an aural menagerie along with him; dwarf Frankie Little and giant Junior Martin provided additional comic relief.
The band reached its zenith in the late '40s -- the very top of its game -- with The Musical Depreciation Revue, a Coca Cola-sponsored CBS radio series, and some of their most musically sophisticated records, including "Rhapsody from Hunger" and "Morpheus." But within a few short years the rigors of the road -- and an invention called television -- began to take their toll on the zany band and its once hugely popular enterprise. Jones made a valiant effort to tackle the new medium with appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour and a number of short-lived series, but his declining health and a change in musical tastes were the end of the line for the City Slickers.
Jones' so-called New Band, which combined folk music with traditional Dixieland jazz in the early '60s -- and disappointed his old fans -- was "just a temporary musical disarmament until rock & roll blows over." But he was forced to admit: "It's been eight years blowing over, and it's blowing better now than ever." ~ Jordan R. Young