Equal All Ways

A “monstrosity” and an early jazz smash hit share the shellac on this entry of Zayde’s Turntable!

Triangle was a short-lived label affiliated with the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount) and manufactured from September 15, 1922 to 1925 at the Bridgeport Die and Machine Company on Elm Street in Bridgeport, CT. The label touts the innocuous slogan “Equal All Ways.” Triangle, like most of Bridgeport’s labels at the time (Puritan being perhaps the most voluminous) drew on Paramount masters for their tracks until 1924, when Paramount collapsed in bankruptcy and the manufacturer turned to Emerson for masters. Their contract with Paramount restricted Bridgeport’s sales primarily to the east coast and mid-Atlantic, much of which was done through department store retailers and mail order firms.

With the move to Emerson in 1924, the company was able to branch out and took on the Hudson and Mitchell labels out of Detroit in 1924. Bridgeport was an incredibly prolific manufacturer of early 78s, as a sampling of just some of their associated labels makes clear – Baldwin, Belvedere, Broadway, Carnival, Chautauqua, Everybody’s, Hudson, Lyraphone, Mitchell, Music Box, National, Pennington, Puretone, Puritan, Resona, Supertone, Triangle, and Up-To-date, just to list a few.

Just a sample of some Bridgeport labels.

In addition to Paramount and its myriad affiliate labels (Broadway, Puritan, etc.), in their contract with Emerson the company pressed discs from Dandy, Grey Gull, Blu-Disc, Pathe, and Banner material. They even, briefly, issued their own master series (which can be identified by the master prefix “BDM”), which appeared on later Triangle labels from 1924 to 1925. Triangle classical records were also released (with catalog numbers in the 15000s), as were standards (9000s). Triangle met its demise with the July 1925 bankruptcy of the Bridgeport Die and Machine Company. Unlike other Bridgeport brands, which made their way into other company’s portfolios, Triangle did not live on, leaving just a four year window for their manufacture. To that effect, Triangle label records meet the general requirement for valuable records to be scarce. Of course, the quality, importance, and scarcity of the music still play a role.

This album, Triangle 11145, is in fair condition. It has wear to both sides, with the expected impact on the quality of the audio. The paper label shows considerable wear, rendering some of the text unreadable. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black shellac disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The A-side recording features the Society Syncopators performing “Hot Lips,” by Henry Busse, Henry Lange, and Lou Davis. The master number is 1101 and it was recorded June 29, 1922. It runs 3 minutes and 22 seconds and was published by Leo Feist Inc. of New York. The B-side recording is the same group performing “You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him,” by Dan Dougherty, with lyrics by William Tracey (though Tracey’s name does not appear on the label here, since this version is an instrumental only – no vocalist). The master number is 1100 and it was recorded the same day, June 29, 1922. It runs 3 minutes and 12 seconds. It’s interesting to note that the recording date actually precedes the establishment of the Triangle label by three months; this suggests that the recordings were likely made as a Paramount master and intended to be distributed on other labels, which, indeed, they were. The record does not appear in Les Docks’ value guide for 78 r.p.m. records, though there is one dealer selling the same recordings on Regal 9341 for $14.95 on Ebay.

“Hot Lips” (not a reference to the M*A*S*H character; the lyric is “He’s got hot lips when he plays jazz” and refers to the instrumentalist) was written by Busse, Lange, and Davis as a “blues fox trot” for male trio and solo trumpet, for George White’s Scandals of 1922. The Scandals were a string of revue style Broadway shows, produced by George White, that ran from 1919 until 1939. The 1922 cast included Lester Allen, Dolores Costello, Peggy Dolan, W.C. Fields, Winnie Lightner, Sally Long, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and the George White Girls. Busse was a founding member of the Whiteman orchestra and the song (released on Victor as 18920-A) went on to become a #1 hit for the group in 1922, holding the spot on the charts for six weeks. Legendary saxophonist Clyde Doerr played sax. Whiteman’s band recorded the song on June 23, 1922 – just six days before the Syncopators’ recording was made. The Whiteman recording was featured on the soundtrack to the Oprah Winfrey film The Color Purple in 1985. Busse himself led his own orchestra in the popular song 12 years later on a Decca, #25015-A, recording. Busse’s track was also used across the pond on Brunswick 03791-B, an English record, released the same year. The Decca track was also later re-released as a 45 r.p.m. Eventually it was the title track on a 33-1/3 r.p.m. LP.

Henry Busse on the record cover for the vinyl LP “Hot Lips,” featuring his signature tune as the title track.

The chorus to the song (not heard on this record, as it is instrumental only) is:

He’s got hot lips when he plays Jazz,

He draws out step, like no one has,

You’re on your toes and shake your shoes,

Boy, how he goes, when he plays Blues.

I watch the crowd until he’s through,

He can be proud, they’re cuckoo, too;

His music’s rare, you must declare, the boy is there

With two hot lips, he’s got hot lips.

After the Whiteman recording a plethora of other groups took on the hit song – including the Society Syncopators. Also in June 1922, the California Ramblers made a recording of the tune on Vocalion 14384-A. In August 1922 Bailey’s Lucky Seven pressed it for Gennett 4935-A. The Cotton Pickers made a recording of the song in July 1922 for Brunswick 2292-B. Henry Lange, one of the song’s composers, and his orchestra pressed it for Gennett 6263, Superior 306, and Genett Special 40102 concurrently in 1927. Even into the next decade, the song remained popular, with the Hoosier Hotshots releasing a recording of the “Novelty…Hot Dance with Singing” on Melotone 7-06-60 after recording it on October 5, 1936.

Henry Busse in 1921.

Henry Busse (1894-1955) was born into a musical family in Germany. Originally raised as a violinist, he had to abandon the instrument after a broken finger was set improperly and did not heal correctly; the boy picked up a trumpet in its place. Busse was made by his family to play in an “Oompah” band led by his uncle and he despised it; he made numerous attempts to escape, finally succeeding in 1912. Crossing the Atlantic, Busse found himself in the German neighborhoods of New York. Homeless and unable to speak English, Busse was picked up by the police while sleeping in Grand Central Station. After his release he found menial work on a ship heading to California; while at sea his English improved and by the time he landed in Hollywood the adventurous 20-year old was landing extra roles in Keystone Cop films (one can imagine his performances being inspired by his own run-ins with the police in the Big Apple a couple of years prior) and, fortuitously, playing his trumpet in movie theater pit bands. Busse initially played with the “Frisco Jass Band,” also called the Frisco Jazz Band (not to be confused with the Frisco Syncopators – see below) before forming his own “Busse’s Buzzards,” which went on to develop into the Paul Whiteman orchestra.

Despite being subject to discrimination due to his German accent, Busse found success in the California music scene. At one point in the 1920s eight of the top ten sheet music sales spots belonged to his band and Busse himself brought in more than twice the earnings of fellow band member Bing Crosby. Other members of the band included Tommy and Jimmie Dorsey. Busse began to tour and take his talents overseas and across the states. For a while in the 1930s he ran the house band at the Chez Paree in Chicago, where he worked directly for the club’s owner – Al Capone. Back in California Busse’s career found him leading bands appearing in feature films, including one with a speaking part for Busse – “Lady Let’s Dance”.

Busse in a promotional photo taken by the William Morris Agency when he was near the height of his celebrity.

Busse became a celebrity, with all the attendant scandal: after he partied hard at the Hotsy Totsy Club one night, he awoke the next morning married to a woman he had met the night prior. The legal wrangling for the annulment lasted 18 months, during which Busse toured Europe. Busse married twice more and professionally continued to lead his own dance orchestra, the Henry Busse Orchestra, until his death in 1955. Henry Busse’s fascinating life ends with not a little irony: the trumpeter was playing with the Shuffle Rhythm Band at a professional convention in Memphis when he suffered a heart attack. The meeting was the National Undertakers Convention.

Henry W. Lange (1896-1985), the “monarch of the ivories,” was introduced to music through a friend of his father: Arthur Kortheur, the conductor of the Toledo Orchestra in the early 1900s. After Kortheur’s death Lange’s musical education continued with the accomplished pianist Max Ecker. Lange graduated from the Illinois College of Music and went on to serve as music director for a handful of radio stations (WOAI San Antonio, WFAA Dallas, and WHIC Dayton) and pianist for a number of hotels across the southwest. From 1920 to 1924 he played with the Paul Whiteman orchestra in New York at the Palais Royale, where he crossed paths with Henry Busse. With the Whiteman band Lange served as one of the trio of pianists in the 1924 premiere performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – the other two being Gershwin himself and Ferdie Grofe, who shared a regular stint with the Whiteman band with Lange. Lange was apparently quite versatile, appearing both in dance bands and with the Ziegfield Follies, and in European tours performing classical concerts for members of the aristocracy and even royalty. His original piano compositions and performances were released on Ampico, Duo-Art, Melodee, Brunswick, Gennett, and Pathe, among others, and he spent some time as composer to the filmmaker Rudolph Valentino. Lange struggled with health problems for much of his life, and was forced to put his music career on hiatus for a period in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, when he was finally able to return to the circuit, the Great Depression struck and most of the bands dissolved. He performed solo under the moniker “Monarch of the Ivories” for a while, resumed his radio work, and eventually retired.

The final credited name for “Hot Lips” is Lou Davis, about whom I could find almost nothing. The always-helpful World Catalog does reveal an extensive collection of original songs from the period with him named as a composer, lyricist, or arranger (I couldn’t determine which), but there is no biographical information about him that I could identify. If you know anything about Lou Davis, please share it in the comments!

The B-side recording is the blues tune “You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him” – also called in some publications by the rather lengthy title “The You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him, Didn’t Love Him Anyhow Blues.” The song should not be confused with Irving Berlin’s “You Can Have Him,” from the 1949 musical Miss Liberty or with Roy Hamilton’s 1961 “You Can Have Her,” which has been occasionally rewritten for female vocalists as “You Can Have Him.” The Berlin tune was recorded by the likes of Allyn McLerie, Mary McCarty, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Doris Day and Dinah Shore, Vanda King, Shirley Bassey, Anita Lindblom, Liza Minnelli, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, and Nina Simone. I cannot find many other references to the Tracey/Doughtery song, however, which predates the Irving Berlin tune and is here performed by the Society Syncopators. There was a recording of it made by the legendary blues singer Mamie Smith, with her Jazz Hounds, in August 1922 – around the same time as this recording – released on Okeh 4670. A little later, on October 3, 1922, the popular vaudeville duo Gus Van and Joe Schenck recorded it for Columbia A-3735. I cannot locate any other references to the tune being recorded after 1922. And the Van & Schenk and Mamie Smith recordings are the only two mentioned by Warren Vache in his 2000 book The Unsung Songwriters: America’s Masters of Melodies. The only critical review of the piece I could locate was a one sentence panning by Sigmund Spaeth in his 1948 History of Popular Music in America in which he simply called it “a monstrosity.”

Mamie Smith (left) and Van & Schenck (right). It is fascinating that two entirely different types of musicians/performers could record this song.

The catalog of copyright entries specifies that Dougherty penned the melody and Tracey the words to this “monstrosity,” though on this recording there is no vocalist and, hence, no lyrics.  A native New Yorker, William Tracey (1893-1957) was a staffer for a number of music publishers where he collaborated with a host of major composers from the early 20th century, including Lewis Muir, George Meyer, Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and Nat Vincent. A charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Tracey penned the words to such Tin Pan Alley standards as “Gee, But It’s Great to Meet a Friend from Your Home Town,” “Bring Back My Daddy to Me,” “Them There Eyes,” “Mammy ‘o Mine,” “He’s Had No Lovin’ For a Long, Long Time,” “Dixie is Dixie Once More,” “Give a Little Credit to Your Dad” (I like that title), and “Is My Baby Blue Tonight.”

Dan Dougherty (1897-1955) of Philadelphia joined ASCAP in 1927 and saw many of his popular songs end up in early films. He composed for Sophie Tucker and collaborated with Nick Kenny and Jack Yellen. His most well-known popular works include “It Certainly Must Be Love,” “It’s All In Fun,” “Glad Rag Doll,” “Mollie,” “Alone in the Rain,” “Moaning for You,” “I’m Dreaming,” “Sittin’ on a Rainbow,” “You’re Still in My Heart,” Mr. Segal, Make It Legal” (“the story of a girl who sleeps with her boss and gets pregnant. Naturally, the boss won’t answer her phone calls, hence the lyric, ‘Mr. Siegel, please make it legal.’”), and the political ditty “Let’s Get Behind the President” written with George Jessel for Harry Truman in 1949. “Glad Rag Doll” is perhaps his most recorded and longest-lived song, with versions being pressed by Dolores Costello for the 1928 film of the same name, again in 1928 by Ted Lewis and his band, Arthur Briggs and His Boys and Earl Fatha Hines in 1929, Tommy Dorsey, Ruth Etting, Johnnie Ray in 1954, Kay Starr in 1955, Barbara Cook in 1975, Joyce Moody and Earl Wentz in 2007, and Diana Krall in 2012. Other films with music by Dougherty include shorts Aunt Jemima: The Original Fun Flour Maker (1927), The Wild Westerner (1928), Grace Johnston and the Indiana Five (1929), the 1929 and 1930 Metro Movietone Revues, The Grand Parade (1930), Crashing the Gate (1933) and feature films Glad Rag Doll (1929), Call of the West (1930), Brothers (1930), Rain or Shine (1930), The Range Feud (1931), Under Pressure (1935), and Follow the Boys (1944).

Specht’s Society Syncopators, sometimes called the Georgians or Specht’s Syncopators, in 1922. Paul Specht is at right with violin and trumpeter Frank Guarente is back center.

Who are the Society Syncopators? According to Michael Harris in The Rise of the Gospel Blues, when it came to the names of popular music recording ensembles of the early 1920s, “jazz was the most frequently used designation, with various forms of the word syncopated a close second…in 1923 appeared the Society Syncopators.” Initially, I thought the band on this record was Fate Marable’s Society Syncopators; Marable, a jazz pianist, led bands on Mississippi river boats that were the proving grounds for many of the legends of American jazz. That suspicion, however, was quickly rejected; Marable’s Society Syncopators only recorded one record – Okeh 40113, which has neither of these tunes. Strangely enough, the answer was suggested when I checked the recording date for Triangle 11145 at the Online Discographical Project: their database mistakenly lists two entries for this record, suggesting that it may have been issued with two different labels. The first, the one I have, only refers to the Society Syncopators; a second seems to refer to “Paul Specht and his Orchestra” on the A-side (that title may be an error – see below) and “Specht’s Society Syncopators” on the B-side.

Paul Specht and the Society Syncopators/Serenaders in 1921, with trumpeter Frank Guarente at the far left and Specht in center with his violin. That’s right: jazz violin.

Puritan issue of the exact same masters, using the exact same catalog and matrix numbers. Only the label is different; while Triangle is “equal all ways,” leave it to Puritan to claim it is “America’s best record.”

This recording, of June 29, 1922, was only the second made by Paul Specht’s orchestra – first coming five days prior with a recording session of “A Dream of Romany” and “In Rose-Time,” billed as “Paul Specht’s Society Serenaders,” a name which was used by the band in live performance from at least as far prior as December 1920. The band’s recording of the songs on this Triangle record appeared simultaneously on Banner 1090 and Imperial 1184 as “Specht’s Society Serenaders,” Paramount 20148 and Puritan and Triangle 11148 as “Specht’s Society Orchestra”, “Specht’s Society Syncopators” and, of course, simply as “Society Syncopators”, Emerson 10546 as “Emerson Dance Orchestra, and Regal 9341 again as “Specht’s Society Syncopators.” This illustrates the general lack of consistency in band names from the period, especially on printed labels, and also the on-going use of pseudonyms for, not simply solo musicians, but entire ensembles. Interestingly, studio records show the recording session of June 29, 1922 was booked for “Specht’s Jazz Outfit,” a name not found on any records issued by the group. The ensemble for the recording – and on this record – comprised of Paul Specht conducting, Frank Guarente on trumpet, Ray Stilwell on trombone, Johnny O’Donnell on clarinet, alto sax, and bass clarinet, Arthur Schutt on piano, Joe Tarto on tuba, and Chauncey Morehouse on drums.

Early jazz trumpeter Frank Guarente. Though Guarente left Specht’s ensemble, cordially, in the mid-1920s he is most likely the trumpeter on this particular recording.

Frank Guarente is likely the trumpet soloist featured on “Hot Lips.” Guarente was born in Avellino, Italy, in 1893 and emigrated to the U.S. out of Naples in 1910.

Paul Specht (1895-1954) was raised as a violinist by his bandleader father, Charles Specht. After graduating from Combs Conservatory in Philadelphia in 1916 Paul put together his first band. The group signed with Columbia in 1922, recording both as the larger band (called Paul Specht and his Orchestra – the reference to that ensemble having made this recording seems to be in error, as this record was pressed by the smaller jazz-focused set) and as a smaller jazz subset that Paul called The Georgians and, later, the Frisco Syncopators or the Society Syncopators. Specht and both of his groups were quite popular throughout the 1920s and starting in 1922 they toured several times to England, where Specht eventually established the “School for Jazz Musicians” in 1924. Specht’s ensembles started the career of many notable jazz musicians, including Charlie Spivak, Joe Tarto, and Chauncey Morehouse, among many others.

Paul Specht on board ship for one of his several trips to England in the early 1920s.

While overseas, however, the group ran into legal troubles: the British government refused to grant them work permits, a fact that Specht only learned after their ship was half-way across the Atlantic. Fortunately for Specht there was a delegation of attorneys, as well as American Secretary of State Charles Hughes aboard the same vessel; after playing some concerts for their fellow passengers, Specht made an entreaty and they intervened on the group’s behalf. There was some diplomatic and legal wrangling, but the group was allowed to disembark and perform. Specht was embittered by the experience, in addition to hassles he ran into with the British music unions, and did not return to England again after 1926, despite the existence of his school and the popularity of his music with the British people in general.

Specht (leaning forward with the white hat in his hand in the front row) and the band in England in 1923.

Specht’s group went on to become the first orchestra to broadcast for RCA, the first to broadcast on a nation-wide radio network (covering 109 stations in all), and one of the earliest to issue a “phonofilm” – sound on film – with a 1925 release. While Specht’s was the first orchestral phonofilm recordings, it was not the first phonofilm recording at all, as some have suggested; the very first phonofilms were made in 1922, with the first public presentations in 1923. Ironically, in 1929 Specht’s group was selected over Paul Whiteman’s (with Henry Busse and Henry Lange) to play at the inauguration of Herbert Hoover. Arthritis hampered his ability to play into the 1940s and he turned more to arranging music for radio and television until his death at age 59.

Guarente, center, is the star of the show in this performance by The Georgians in 1924, towards the end of his affiliation with Specht’s ensembles.

There are all kinds of fun little tid-bits of history associated with this record. The Bridgeport Company, the two “Frisco” bands, Busse’s fascinating career, brush with America’s most famous mobster, and his ironic death, Specht’s diplomatic drama and important role in early sound film, not to mention the “monstrosity” review. The fact that this record features a (once upon a time) hit back to back with a song that seemingly went nowhere is an extra historical treat. There’s still a lot of mystery around this record – why leave Specht’s name off the band’s credit if he was a relatively well-known celebrity? Why no vocalist for two songs written with lyrics? Who decided to do that? Who was Lou Davis? Maybe you know the answers to some of these questions or can provide more background on these tunes and this band. According to my research this record – truly drawn at random from my collection this time – has no monetary value. But I think it still adds another kind of value to my collection, nevertheless.

Advertisements

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.