Musical Depreciation: fun for the eyes and the ears

This week’s selection is by special request from none other than Zayde himself! My collection includes a number of single albums by the prolific and immensely talented comic musician Spike Jones, the self-described “man who murdered music” (for our younger readers, imagine a mid 20th century Weird Al Yankovic). Rather than feature just one of these records, however, I’ve decided to feature a compilation.

Musical Depreciation, with "Maestro" Spike Jones and his City Slickers

“Musical Depreciation” is a bound set of five standard electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl discs with lateral grooves and ¼” spindle holes. The musician on all the records is “Maestro” Spike Jones and his City Slickers. The records themselves are housed in plain brown paper sleeves that are bound together in a cardboard book that measures about 12” wide by 10-3/8” tall by 5/8” deep. The cover has a full color caricature illustration of Spike Jones, wielding a popgun and surrounded by musical instruments. The front and back boards are blue with a red paper over the spine and the album title and artist name appearing in gold lettering down the side. The cover shows some wear but the majority of the rubbing and damage is along the binder’s edges and corners, as well as the spine. Neither the set nor the individual albums (nor any Spike Jones album, for that matter) appear in Les Docks’ valuation guide for collectible 78-RPM records, however I was able to find three dealers selling the set online for $19, $40, and $50.

Spine of the compilation.

Three other RCA Victor compilation sets in my collection.

The set was issued by RCA Victor, one of the many labels and brands of the Radio Corporation of America and Victor. Victor, of course, is perhaps the most prolific record company of the 20th century. The company’s history and diversity of labels are, as was the case with Columbia, far too long and complicated to detail here. I will point out that RCA Victor issued a number of sets of records with the exact same dimensions, color schemes, and even typeface on the spine as “Musical Depreciation.” Bound sets such as this one were a way for a record company to issue a compilation of songs by one artist (or, with their classical records, to release a multiple movement symphony in one package). The key with bound sets, however, is that they are almost never the first issue of a particular recording. In order to be worth the expense that the binder and artwork entailed, companies would only issue works and artists that had already had proven commercial success. Despite the fact they are “reissues” of previously released recordings, bound sets today are not terribly common. The great irony is that many record sellers would remove the records from the set, discard the binder, and sell them individually; the end result is a glut of A-list musicians’ records – all represses and individually mostly without any collectability or value – that, had they been kept in their original album, might actually be more valuable.

Several other RCA Victor album covers with Frank Decker's rich illustrations.

The illustration on the cover is by the artist Frank Decker. I could find almost nothing about the personal life of this 1940s-1960s illustrator in my research. Decker was an in-house RCA Victor album illustrator, though he was not the company’s only such artist. Album artwork today is for many as collectible as the records themselves – for some, in fact, it is more so, and album covers with no records in them at all can sometimes fetch far more than the associated record in a plain sleeve with no illustration. Decker was heavily influenced by the man who supposedly originated the concept of album artwork: Alex Steinweiss, the in-house illustrator for Columbia records. Steinweiss, who passed away last year at the age of 94, was a member of the Columbia advertising department when he was approached by some of the company executives in 1939 to develop strategies to improve record sales. His first illustrated album cover, for a collection of Rogers and Hart songs, was a massive success and Columbia moved quickly to re-release their most popular albums to that point with new illustrated covers; in most cases sales increased by nearly ten times their previous level for the same record.

Decker was more than just an album artist. He did this cover illustration for Pic magazine in 1946, the same time he was busy working for RCA Victor.

Ad for the Park-Sheraton hotel illustrated by Frank Decker in 1960.

The other record companies were quick to catch on to the concept and began releasing (and re-releasing) their own compilations and solo albums in the new illustrated album cover or sleeve in the 1940s. Decker, who was with RCA Victor, based his illustrations on the same style and sentiment that Steinweiss had popularized: geometric patterns, bold solid colors, and whimsical or fantastical depictions of scenery or other elements illustrative of the album content. Decker’s most famous works were probably his classical music album covers, which captured creative, fantastic scenes in a style that was remarkably at once both rigid and fanciful. The illustrations took liberties with scenes and people and the earliest reviews of the pieces I could find – in Billboard magazine from 1947 – indicate that some in the music industry, while impressed with the artwork, were a bit confused with Decker’s (and presumably Steinweiss’) imaginative interpretations. Where Steinweiss remained primarily an album artist until the 1970s, when a more psychedelic style of artwork became the fad and he chose to retire, Decker apparently branched out early, doing magazine covers and advertising art as early as the mid 1940s, while also continuing to provide illustrations to album artwork well into the era of the 45-RPM.

Album boxes for 45-RPM records, illustrated by Frank Decker.

Spike Jones. His band's trademark outfits sported garish plaids, stripes, and bowler hats, to accent their looniness and guarantee the viewer would remember them.

Spike Jones (1911-1965) was born Lindley Armstrong Jones and earned his nickname as a young boy when his father’s business colleagues at the Southern Pacific Railroad compared the thin boy to a railroad spike. He had an early affinity for music, getting his first drum set at the age of 11 and learning how to beat out rhythms from a chef in a railroad station restaurant who taught him how to play on pots and pans in the back kitchen. A short stint in theater orchestra pits led to a job playing drums for a number of larger bands, including as the percussionist on Bing Crosby’s first recording of “White Christmas.” It was in the pit orchestras, however, where the young drummer discovered the niche market of novelty orchestras.

The City Slickers, in an early performance.

Jones was described as being, in private, a moody and ambitious man who was deeply interested in finding new ways to promote himself and build his own name in the public. Bringing together other musicians from his studio gigs, most importantly the vocalist and clarinetist Del Porter and violinist Carl Grayson – both relatively big names at the time – Jones assembled his own novelty band. Originally named the Feather Merchants, the group rechristened itself the City Slickers (after a Cindy Walker tune that Jones had played in the band for entitled “We’re Gonna Stomp Them City Slickers Down”). If in private he was broody recluse, in performance he was the consummate ham. Spike Jones and his City Slickers became infamous throughout the 1940s for their satirical arrangements of popular songs – from contemporary fox trots to classical works – and for utilizing a bizarre assortment of “instruments” including shotguns, birdcalls, police sirens, and cowbells.

Greg Gormick tells of the moment that proved the band’s break-through success:

Donald Duck mocks Hitler and the Nazis.

“The big break came in 1942.  Jones’ RCA Victor recording contract of 1941 produced three initial recording sessions that yielded some interesting sides that didn’t exactly set the music business on fire.  But the fourth session included a song written for the Walt Disney cartoon, Donald Duck in Nutzi Land (click the still to the left to view the cartoon), which poked fun at Adolph Hitler and the Nazi scourge overrunning Europe.  Take one ended with a trombone “schmeer” effect after the last mention of der Feurher, but the second substituted a loud and rude “raspberry” effect, which more accurately summed up how most Americans felt about Hitler.  It was take two that was issued and it was Der Fuehrer’s Face that made Jones a household name.  Played repeatedly by several famous American disc jockeys, it swept the country and soon spread abroad, reportedly even to Hitler’s ears.  It was that little something extra that Jones needed to grab the public’s attention.”

Following “Der Fuehrer’s Face” the group issued hit after hit. The band eventually took their show on tour around the U.S. and Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the title The Musical Depreciation Revue. The group was so popular they even appeared on various radio programs from 1945 to 1949, and on television programs on both NBC and CBS from 1954 to 1961. In the end, Jones achieved his wish: a famous name, numerous records at the top of the charts, millions in sales, and a top-ticket touring and television act. As with contemporary satirists like Weird Al Yankovic, however, Jones was not always looked on fondly by the musicians whom he parodied; many songwriters tried to prevent Jones being allowed to create his “arrangement” of their tune. Gormick, again, tells two interesting anecdotes that illustrate the tension between musician and mocker is nothing new to the American entertainment industry:

“Composer Jerome Kern was furious at Jones’ version of his late friend Gus Kahn’s Chloe…  Kern thought the song was an insult to its lyricist and he urged Kahn’s widow, Grace, to pursue the matter.  She thought it was hilarious and was pleased that it breathed new life into the corny song, telling Kern nicely to mind his own business. Not so good humoured was singer Vaughan Monroe, who was one of Victor’s top-selling artists in the late 1940s and a large stockholder.  When Jones parodied his hit recording of Riders in the Sky, it ended with:  “I can do without his singing, but I wish I had his dough.”  To satisfy Monroe and Victor executives, the record was withdrawn and a new ending fabricated in the New York studios, with Spike nowhere in attendance. The original version still turns up and is a prized collectors’ item… In addition, Spike circulated copies of the full parody to disc jockeys, counting on the controversy to create the kind of publicity he savoured.”

The City Slickers grew in size and took their (expensive) show on the road for "Musical Depreciation."

Popular taste changes in comedy perhaps quicker than any other form of entertainment, and Jones was no exception; the musical comic act was dying and being replaced by spoken word comedy recordings by the likes of Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and Tom Lehrer (Jones tried his hand at spoken word comedy on the LP “Omnibust” but it was not a big hit). His popularity peaked by the mid-1950s and began a slow decline from there. Coupled with the large expense associated with a traveling revue featuring dozens of performers and Jones’ choice to walk away from the Victor label the Spike Jones phenomenon plummeted. Jones, whose fodder was big band tunes and highly lampoonable pop music of the 1940s, was hurt by the rise of rock-n-roll in the 1950s and 1960s. There were attempts at children’s records (“Socko, the Smallest Snowball!”) and even a few serious music recordings under the moniker Spike Jones’ New Band, but the bandleader failed to recapture the successes of his earlier period.

Then, on May 1, 1965, at the age of 53, Jones – who smoked countless cigarettes every day, died from emphysema. Just as Jones had been influenced by the novelty orchestras (and the Marx Brothers) of the 1920s and 1930s, however, the City Slickers left an indelible impression on American culture and paved the way for performers such as Stan Freberg, Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach, Frank Zappa, and, of course, Weird Al Yankovic. Even the Beatles, by way of the Goons, drew some inspiration from the drumming musical murderer from Southern California.

My copy of the album set features five completely immaculate interior envelopes.

Interestingly, of the three individuals selling this set online, not one of us has the same five records in the album. All are RCA Victor labels and all feature five of Spike Jones many records. This is because it was very common for owners of these albums to mix and change up the records that were stored in the album binders, often based on preference or simply replacing a damaged record with another one by the same artist. I have not been able to identify the exact recordings that comprised the album set as originally released. Below I provide the information about what is on each of the five records I have in the set, along with links to complete versions of the songs elsewhere online. I do not go much into detail about the writers or performers, but where there is some interesting comment about the song itself I’ve included that.

Disc 1:

20-3177-A            “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)” by Don Gardner, vocal refrain by George Rock (recorded December 6, 1948)

20-3177-B            “Happy New Year” by Eddie Brandt and Freddy Morgan, vocal refrain by Sir Frederick Gas, Doodles Weaver, George Rock, and Spike Jones (1948)

This disc does not appear in the sets of the other three versions I found and is probably a later addition to the “Musical Depreciation” compilation I own. “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” one of Jones’ most famous songs, was written in 1944 when Don Gardner, a music teacher in Smithtown, New York, asked his second grade class what they wanted for Christmas. He realized most the children were answering with a lisp because they were missing at least one of their front teeth. Thirty minutes later he had the song written. When he performed it in 1947 at a music teacher’s conference it was picked up by a representative of the Witmark Company and, ultimately, had its first recording (the one in this set) made by Jones and his band in 1948. To Gardner’s utter amazement, it reached the top of the pop charts in 1949. It has since been covered by the likes of Danny Kaye with the Andrews Sisters, the Platters, Nat King Cole, the Three Stooges, the Chipmunks, and Count von Count of Sesame Street. How many other songs can say that?

Disc 2:

20-1893-A            “The Glow-Worm” by Lilla Cayley Robinson and Paul Lincke, arranged by Spike Jones, vocal refrain by Red Ingle and Aileen Carlisle with chorus (1946)

20-1893-B            “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai)” by Ralph Freed, Johnny Noble-Leleiohaku, vocal refrain by Spike Jones and his Wacky Wakakians with chorus (1946)

In the process of preparing this week’s entry and digitizing the records in this set I was very saddened to discover that this particular record has a straight-line crack at about 7 o’clock rendering it entirely unplayable. Nevertheless, I included it here. Only one of the three dealers selling this set online also had this album in the compilation. “Hawaiian War Chant” was written in the 1860s by the Hawaiian prince Leleiohoku and was originally entitled “We Two in the Spray,” with lyrics telling of two lovers, not a battle. In 1936 Ralph Freed changed it to English lyrics and Johnny Noble altered the melody, and the tune was performed by the Tommy Dorsey Band in the 1942 film Ship Ahoy. It was this version that Jones would lampoon in 1946, kicking up the tempo and changing the lyrics with Grayson doing the (uncredited) lead vocals. Jones’ version reached #8 on the U.S. charts that year, yet another example of a Spike Jones satirical take on a pop song actually selling better than the original song itself. Freed and Noble’s version proved more enduring, however, as Les Paul and Mary Ford, Sandi Griffiths, Sally Flynn, the Muppets, Nathan Lane (as Timon in The Lion King), Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and Weird Al Yankovic all recorded covers or adaptations of it. The song is in the regular repertoire of both the University of Hawaii Marching Band and the Michigan Marching Band. Finally, Disney has used it in two of their theme park attractions (the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and the Adventurers Club’s Pleasure Island).

 Disc 3:

20-1654-A            “Chloe” by Gus Kahn and Neil Moret, featured in the Paramount picture “Bring on the Girls”, vocal refrain by Red (Swamphead) Ingle (1945)

20-1654-B            “A Serenade to a Jerk” by Del Porter and Carl Hoefle, vocal refrain by Judy Manners and Red (Jerk) Ingle (1945)

This album, with its two fox trots, appears in all three versions of the “Musical Depreciation” set I could locate online, as well as in my own; therefore, I am fairly confident it was part of the original compilation issued by RCA Victor. Interestingly the label (which simply reads “Victor” instead of “RCA Victor”) differs from the other four albums in my set.

“Chloe” reached a relatively unimpressive #441 in the U.S. charts when it was first released in 1927. That version, of course, was the original song – “Chloe (Song of the Swamp)”, with music by Neil Moret and lyrics by Gus Kahn (see above for the anecdote related to Kahn’s friend, Jerome Kern’s, less than pleased reaction to the Spike Jones spoof). Jones’ version would place in the top 5 on the charts in 1945, again illustrating the often powerful effect that satire could have for boosting a song’s popularity – albeit in an altered, and not always desired, form.

The film “Bring on the Girls” was a moderately successful comedy starring Veronica Lake, Sonny Tufts, and Eddie Bracken. In the movie a millionaire joins the Navy hoping to find a girl who will marry him for himself and not his money; a beautiful gold-digger working at a resort hotel sets out to “get him.”

Disc 4:

20-1895-A            “That Old Black Magic” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, vocal refrain by Carl Grayson

20-1895-B            “Liebestraum” by Del Porter and Franz Liszt, arranged by Spike Jones and Del Porter, vocal refrain by Red Ingle, narration by Richard Morgan

This album likewise appears in all three versions of the “Musical Depreciation” set I could find online, as well as my own; therefore it was also likely part of the original compilation. While the Liszt spoof is quite entertaining “That Old Black Magic” was the more popular.  Harold Arlen wrote the tune and Johnny Mercer the lyrics, and it was published in 1942, quickly becoming a very popular standard. The initial recordings in 1942 were made by Glenn Miller, Margaret Whiting, Frank Sinatra (the Chairman of the Board sang an altered version entitled “The Old Jack Magic” at a celebration for John F. Kennedy the night before his presidential inauguration), Sammy Davis Jr., Mercer himself, and Judy Garland, for whom Mercer actually intended the song when he wrote the words. The song placed in the top ten for two separate recordings (Miller’s and Whiting’s) in 1943 and went on to be recorded by just about every major singer of the 1940s-1960s. Ella Fitzgerald crooned it in 1961 and Billy Daniels’ 1950 version earned him the nickname “The Old Black Magic Man.” Sammy Davis Jr. sang it on a guest cameo on I Dream of Jeannie and, perhaps most infamously, Marilyn Monroe sang it in the 1956 film Bus Stop. Who else? Jerry Lewis, Louis Prima, Dave Brubeck, Cab Calloway, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrison, the Platters, Kevin Spacey, Mel Torme, Tom Jones… Over 75 recorded versions (including Spike Jones’ and one by the Muppets – I’m noticing a pattern there) and five appearances on feature film soundtrack, background music on two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and as background music to the 1996 Miss Universe beauty pageant semifinals.

Disc 5:

20-2023-A            “The Jones Laughing Record (introducing The Flight of the Bumble Bee)” by Spike Jones and his City Snickers

20-2023-B            “My Pretty Girl” by Del Porter and Ray Johnson, vocal refrain by The Foursome, whistling by Gene Conklin

My apologies to the link to the song of “My Pretty Girl.” The only recording I could find of it online was that one. There is a fun live performance of just the Spike Jones version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” to be found elsewhere, however.  Again, this record does not appear in the other three sets of “Musical Depreciation” I found online, suggesting it was probably added by a later owner of the compilation. The original “Flight of the Bumblebee” was an orchestral interlude by Rimsky-Korsakov written in 1899 for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The piece closed Act III, Tableau 1: the magic Swan-Bird changes the Prince into a bee so he may fly off to visit his father, who believes the prince is dead. The song is infamous for its highly technical complexity, consisting primarily of long runs of sixteenth notes. While the original composition (mercifully) split the runs up among the various orchestra instruments, later adaptations were crafted and arranged to showcase virtuosity on a single instrument by highly skilled musicians. Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the piece for piano is probably the most famous. Later musicians used it as a solo piece for violin, guitar, and – with Jones’ recording – trombone.

Spike Jones a few of his comic comrades...

78-RPM recordings of novelty orchestras are normally of high monetary value, but Spike Jones and his City Slickers were so popular and so prolific that their albums were produced in huge quantity, making them almost without value to a collector. But, to a music enthusiast – especially one with a sense of humor – they are a must have for any collection of 20th century American records. Clever, fun, and upbeat, you are almost certain to at least crack a smile, if not burst out laughing, at each one. I had the great joy of putting this week’s entry together with my toddler running around and it was wonderful to watch her laughing and dancing to these songs as I played each one in turn (she especially enjoyed “Liebestraum”). So, click the links above to the songs in “Musical Depreciation” – and then click around to the other Spike Jones recordings available online. Then put your feet up and laugh a little.

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2 comments on “Musical Depreciation: fun for the eyes and the ears

  1. Chris Roberts says:

    Wow, I just acquired “Musical Depreciation” from a library book sale in Alton, IL for 50 cents. The timing of your post is uncanny. Thanks for posting all the wonderful background on the cover artist and Spike Jones himself. My set only has 1 disc in common with yours and that’s the 20-1654 A/B. My other 4 are: Bluebird 30-0821-A (“I’ll Get By”, The King Sisters) / B (“Behind Those Swinging Doors”, Spike Jones), Victor 20-1733-A (“Holiday for Strings”) / B (“Drip, Drip, Drip”), Victor 20-1628-A (“Cocktails for Two) / B (“Leave The Dishes in the Sink, Ma”) and Bluebird 30-0818-A (“Hotcha Corina”) / B (“The Wild, Wild Women”)

    • Chris Roberts says:

      Oh, and as I was cleaning them I just found one of mine is cracked as well (30-0818). Bad luck for both of us 😦

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