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Helen Grayco, the pop singer and actress who appeared on records, tours, radio programs and TV shows as a classy contrast to her zany bandleader husband, Spike Jones, has died. She was 97.
Grayco died Saturday of cancer at her home in Los Angeles, her son, longtime Creative Arts Emmy Awards producer Spike Jones Jr., told The Hollywood Reporter.
Jones Sr. was about to embark on a tour with his City Slickers bandmates when he approached Grayco with a job offer after watching her perform with Stan Kenton’s orchestra at the Hollywood Palladium in 1946.
“I was terribly insulted when Spike first asked to hire me,” Grayco recalled in a 2009 interview. “He had just done ‘Cocktails for Two’ and all that stuff that he was known for. ‘I don’t know where I could possibly fit in in your group. I’m not a comedienne,’ I told him.
“He said, ‘No, you’ll do your own thing. You’ll have your arrangements. You’ll do 15, 20 minutes entirely separate from the show.’ They needed something to calm people down. And that’s how we always worked from then on.’ On the Spike Jones TV show, even there I was the contrast.”
For the uninitiated, Jones’ madcap songs commonly used sound effects like gunshots, whistles, cowbells, anvils, hiccups, burps, sneezes and, in the case of “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” raspberries.
Grayco married the musical satirist in 1948, and she was a regular on versions of The Spike Jones Show at NBC in 1954 and at CBS in 1957 and 1961. Meanwhile, she was recording such albums as 1957’s After Midnight and 1958’s The Lady in Red.
Jones died in May 1965 at their Beverly Hills home at age 53.
The 10th of 11 children, Helen Greco was born on Sept. 20, 1924, in Tacoma, Washington. She sang on a local radio program and came to Hollywood at age 8 with a letter of introduction from Larry Crosby to brother Bing. (The Crosbys also were from Tacoma.)
She had her own radio show, The Carnival Hour, on KHJ, and appeared alongside Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera (1935), starring the Marx Brothers, and in That Certain Age (1938) at Universal, where she was signed to a film contract to become the next Deanna Durbin.
While still a teenager, Grayco performed with bandleaders Chuck Cabot and Red Nichols, then toured with Kenton’s orchestra before hooking up with Jones.
Watch her sing “Teach Me Tonight” on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955 here.
Growing up with his mom and dad “didn’t suck,” Jones Jr. said. “Theirs was a brand new type of entertainment, and to hang out with my parents [during this time was amazing].”
After her husband’s death, Grayco headlined the Copa in New York and performed on NBC’s The Dean Martin Show before she wed Bill Rosen, owner of the New York restaurant Gatsby’s, in 1968. When he opened another Gatsby’s in Brentwood in L.A., she often sang there. (Rosen died in 2002.)
In addition to her son — he worked 20 straight Creative Arts Emmys and received an honorary Emmy Award — survivors include her two daughters, Leslie Ann Jones, director of music recording and scoring at Disney’s Skywalker Sound, and Gina Maria Jones; grandchildren Taylor and Nicholas; stepdaughter Linda; and step-granddaughter Alexandra.
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