George Rock was the backbone of one of the most popular bands of the 1940s and '50s. But while he was justly proud of his accomplishments, he was too modest a man to claim his rightful place in the history of popular music. As lead trumpet for Spike Jones & His City Slickers, he largely determined the sound of the zany band and contributed a great deal to their success.
Rock attended Wesleyan College on a football scholarship before trading in his helmet for a horn. He turned professional at 20 and worked with a number of small groups in the Midwest before becoming a member of Freddie Fisher's Schnickelfritz Band. The group played a mix of Dixieland and polkas with a liberal sprinkling of novelty and corn -- a distinct predecessor of the City Slickers.
The young trumpeter recorded for Decca, appeared in movies and performed in nightclubs with the Schnickelfritzers. He was working in Hollywood with Fisher's group when Spike Jones caught his act and invited him to join the Slickers. Rock worked briefly with Charlie Barnet while Jones went on a USO tour; upon joining Spike late in 1944, he quickly became the star of the wacky troupe.
"Spike could hire all the trumpet players he wanted, but none of them could play like George," asserted Jones' longtime staff writer Eddie Brandt. "He had that big fat tone and he could bend all the notes. Nobody could do what he did. He had the Slicker style, and Spike knew he had the style, so he took Rock away from Fisher."
Rock borrowed "Trumpet Blues" from Fisher's repertoire (which he inherited from the Schnickelfritzers' original trumpet player, Nels Laakso) and turned it into a show-stopping solo called "Minka." He also utilized his talent for mimicking children -- which Fisher was well aware of -- when he recorded "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" for Jones. The record sold over two million copies. "Ya Wanna Buy a Bunny?" was less popular, but won Rock new fans decades later when Dr. Demento reprised it regularly on his syndicated radio program. One of his proudest moments came when the six-foot, 250-pound entertainer performed "Blowing Bubble Gum" in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit for President Truman, during a Slicker command performance. Rock augmented his virtuoso trumpet solos and comic kiddie vocals with uncredited vocal effects, including crazy laughs and raucous belches, which can be heard on almost every RCA record Jones ever made.
Rock left the Slickers early in 1960, about the time the band began to fade into obscurity, to play the Las Vegas/Reno/Lake Tahoe circuit with his own group. He joined trad-jazz revivalist Turk Murphy for a short stint before moving on to work with fellow Slicker alumni Phil Gray and Joe Siracusa, with whose Spike-like New Society Band he recorded an LP. Toward the end of his life, he often performed with Merle Koch's jazz band in a Nevada steakhouse.
While he was no threat to Louis Armstrong or Harry James, Rock was considered by his fellow trumpet players then and now to be a man of great artistry. Al Hirt, who played second trumpet on some of Jones' radio shows in his salad days, is one among many who looked up to him. ~ Jordan R. Young
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