Central Illinois Native Heard In Perennial Christmas Song

Dec 19, 2017

Farmer City native George Rock, costumed as a Boy Scout to promote his little boy's vocal rendition of My Daddy Is A General To Me for Spike Jones And His City Slickers, circa 1951. Farmer City Genealogical and Historical Society

You’re going to hear a lot of Christmas songs between now and December 25th. And you may hear one that features a little boy asking Santa to replace his two central incisors, after losing them in a slide down the banister. The vocalist that made that song famous was George Rock, a trumpeter hailing from the central Illinois town of Farmer City.

“All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” has become a mainstay among Christmas novelty songs, recorded by everyone from Nat “King” Cole to Alvin and the Chipmunks. But it was George Rock’s version, recorded with Spike Jones and his City Slickers, that first made the song famous.

In a high-pitched falsetto voice, with a whistle thrown in to suggest missing front teeth, Rock sang what became a familiar refrain to many:

All I want for Christmas (whistle) is my two front teeth (whistle), my two front teeth (whistle), see, my two front teeth ! (whistle)

Gee, if I could only have my two front teeth (whistle), then I could wish you Merry Christmas! (whistle)

The recording, released by RCA Victor, was an enormous hit, with sales in the millions during the Christmas season of 1948 and again in 1949.

George Rock did not use his normal voice for the song. But, a little-boy falsetto was a vocal effect that Rock used throughout his career, including several times during his 16-year stint as lead trumpeter for novelty bandleader Spike Jones.

Jordan R. Young, who interviewed Rock for his 1984 biography of Jones, says he never said anything about the little boy’s voice or how he developed it, but that didn’t surprise him because “he was so modest".

Rock had recorded an earlier record with the child’s voice for Jones, released in 1947 as a B-side entitled “(I’m Forever) Blowing Bubble Gum”. But Young says it was Don Gardner’s song, “My Two Front Teeth” (which Gardner, a schoolteacher, had originally composed for a children’s Christmas pageant) that turned George Rock into a minor celebrity.

“When the record was released in November of ‘48, one thing that happened was that George started getting all this fan mail,” said Young. “And people were sending him teeth. He got thousands of pairs of teeth in the mail from fans.”

Spike Jones had chosen the song in a hurry --- he was stockpiling recordings in 1947, in anticipation of an American Federation of Musicians ban on recording, which would end up taking nearly all of 1948. Jones' banjo player Freddie Morgan and staff writer Eddie Brandt added a bridge and additional lyrics to punch the composition up. The result would be a song that George Rock would sing for the rest of his career.

George Rock: Farmer City Born & Bred

The DeWitt County town of Farmer City can boast of a congressman (Vespasian Warner) and an Illinois Supreme Court justice (Lott R. Herrick) among its native sons. But while those names have largely faded into obscurity, George Rock is remembered every December, when “My Two Front Teeth” gets its annual airing.

Rock was born in Farmer City in 1919 to a musically inclined family. He grew up in the town, which at that time was a busy commercial hub for surrounding farming communities. Rock began playing the trumpet in high school --- a yearbook for Moore Township High School shows Rock as a member of the high school band and orchestra. A yearbook article on the school’s musical groups even carries Rock’s byline.

Dean Scarbrough, whose family owns controlling interest in Maple Grove Cemetery just outside Farmer City, is now in his 90s, and remembers Rock as a boy.

“He was just a kid”, said Scarbrough. “Everywhere he went, he carried that trumpet. People raised hell because he played that trumpet all the time.

When asked if Rock was a good musician in his youth, Scarbrough says, “I was a kid, I don’t know.”

Rock attended Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington for a year on a football scholarship. But music would turn out to be his true vocation. At age 20, Rock sat in with a band that came to town to perform at the Farmer City Fair. They ended up hiring him, giving Rock his first professional gig.

Rock's Years As A 'City Slicker'

Five years later, Rock began playing with Spike Jones and his City Slickers, after Jones saw him performing with Freddie Fisher’s band, which played Dixieland jazz and novelty numbers not unlike the City Slickers’ repertoire.

The Slickers were known for their chaotic sounding but actually carefully planned novelty tunes, staged with outrageous sight gags and costumes. Rock, a big man sporting a mustache, would often dress in a Buster Brown suit or other children’s garb for his little-kid vocal numbers.

Rock would perform and record several numbers for Spike Jones over the years, using his little-kid voice. He also could be counted on for various vocal effects --- from belches to a maniacal laugh --- that were sprinkled through the City Slickers’ music. But all that was just a sideline to Rock’s talent for playing the trumpet.

As the band’s lead trumpeter, Rock was usually the one stating the melody, no matter what else was going on in a musical arrangement. He could also use the trumpet for a variety of effects. One piece where Rock could show off his versatility was a setting of the old Ukrainian melody, “Minka”, which became one of his showcases. In a performance preserved on Spike Jones’ 1950’s television show, Rock plays the melody with swing inflections, then takes a chorus with a variety of growling effects, plays another swing chorus with a mute and finishes with a lightning-fast solo in which the melody’s sixteenth notes are divided into a succession of 64th notes.

Rock would be a mainstay of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, both on tour and on records, and also on a network radio show in the 1940's and TV shows in the '50's. He also performed with Jones' "straight" band, known as the Other Orchestra, which Jones created in a bid for musical respectability, although it never achieved the mass popularity of the City Slickers.

“He was a musical inspiration to the band,” remembers drummer Joe Siracusa, the last surviving member of Spike Jones’ band during its peak years in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

“He set the pace and the tempo in many ways”, said Siracusa of Rock. “He could play jazz, big concert stuff, Dixieland, whatever you wanted to play, he’d play, plus always his own interpretation.”

To his daughter Georgy, George Rock was a delightful, loving father that she didn’t get to see enough of, due to his frequent touring.  She only gradually realized the high regard he had earned from his fellow musicians.

“Over the years, I have had --- especially trumpet players --- climb over chairs, climb up onto anything to shake the hand of the daughter of the guy,” said Georgy, who lives in the St. Louis area and performs as a professional storyteller. “Other trumpeters would explain to me that my dad did what I took for granted, but was very difficult to achieve, but my dad just did it.”

 Rock's Later Years

Business for the City Slickers gradually petered out as the 1950’s ended. George Rock left the band in 1960, and started his own sextet, which leaned toward Dixieland jazz. But he still made use of his distinctive child’s voice. “I Should Have Left The Light On”, released as a single by the George Rock Sextet, features Rock again impersonating a child who hears Santa (but more likely his father) fumbling in the dark to place presents under the tree on Christmas Eve.

Rock also played occasionally with bands organized by drummer Joe Siracusa to play in the Spike Jones tradition. Rock was featured on an album by one of these groups, performing as the New Society Band. And he took part in a Salvation Army benefit concert by another version of Siracusa’s group, performing as the Phunharmonic Orchestra, which was emceed by a deejay who specialized in novelty music under the name of Dr. Demento.

Dr. Demento, who still spins novelty tunes for an online program at his website, www.drdemento.com, was a celebrity in his own right in 1985, when he emceed Siracusa's concert at which George Rock performed. (A video of Rock with the Phunharmonic Orchestra appears on YouTube).  

He remembers being so wrapped up in listening to Rock’s performance, that he curtly told an autograph-seeker not to interrupt him.

“Because at that time, George was active as a Dixieland musician, they played a few Dixieland numbers”, said Dr. Demento. “And the one that I really remember was a Dixieland version of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”. And George played a beautiful melody on that one, along with improvising on it in traditional Dixieland style. He certainly didn’t try to be funny with that song. It was just a wonderful straight performance.”