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On this Day in Movie History, May 1, 1965: Spike Jones Dies

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On this day, May 1, 1965, Lindley Armstrong “Spike” Jones died. A musician and bandleader specializing in performing satirical arrangements of popular songs, ballads and classical works receiving the Jones treatment would be punctuated with gunshots, whistles, cowbells, and outlandish vocals. Through the 1940s and early 1950s, the band recorded under the title “Spike Jones and his City Slickers” and toured the United States and Canada under the title “The Musical Depreciation Revue.”

Jones’ father, a Southern Pacific railroad agent, nicknamed young Lindley “Spike” because he was so thin that he was compared to a railroad spike. At the age of 11 Spike got his first set of drums. But a railroad restaurant chef may have been the first to give him his direction. Teaching him how to play pots and pans, forks, knives and spoons as musical instruments, these were among the many unusual things which Spike would play in his performances. Usually dressed in a suit with an enormous check pattern Spike was seen during his act leaping around playing a washboard, cowbells, a suite of klaxons and foghorns, then xylophone, then shooting a pistol.

In the 1930s he joined the Victor Young orchestra and thereby got many offers to appear on radio shows, including Al Jolson’s Lifebuoy Program, Burns and Allen, and Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall.

After appearing as the house band on The Bob Burns Show, Spike got his own radio show on NBC, The Chase and Sanborn Program, as Edgar Bergen’s summer replacement in 1945. Frances Langford was co-host and Groucho Marx was among the guests. The guest list for Jones’s 1947-49 CBS program for Coca-Cola (originally The Spotlight Revue, retitled The Spike Jones Show for its final season) included Frankie Laine, Mel Torme, Peter Lorre, Don Ameche and Burl Ives. Frank Sinatra appeared on the show in October 1948, and Lassie in May 1949. Jones’s resident “girlsinger” during this period was Dorothy Shay, “The Park Avenue Hillbillie.” One of the announcers on Jones’s CBS show was the young Mike Wallace. Writers included Eddie Maxwell, Eddie Brandt and Jay Sommers. The final program in the series was broadcast in June 1949.

In 1942 the Jones gang worked on numerous Soundies, musical shorts seen on coin-operated projectors in arcades, malt shops, and taverns. The band appeared on camera under their own name in four of the Soundies, and provided background music for at least 13 others, according to musicologist Mark Cantor.

As the band’s fame grew, Hollywood producers hired the Slickers as a specialty act for feature films, including Thank Your Lucky Stars and Variety Girl. Jones was set to team with Abbott and Costello for a 1954 Universal Pictures comedy, but when Lou Costello withdrew for medical reasons, Universal replaced the comedy team with look-alikes Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett, and promoted Jones to the leading role. The finished film, Fireman, Save My Child, is a juvenile comedy that turned out to be Spike Jones’s only top-billed theatrical movie.

Jones was a lifelong smoker. He was once said to have gotten through the average workday on coffee and cigarettes. Smoking may have contributed to his developing emphysema. His already thin frame deteriorated, to the point where he used an oxygen tank offstage, and onstage he was confined to a seat behind his drum set. He died at the age of 53, and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California.

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