Feb. 26 marks the 100th birthday of Jackie Gleason, the Great One, the actor and television legend who most famously embodied the Dickensian-by-way-of-Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners.” But pause to consider one of Gleason’s more unlikely successes: his career as a mood-music tycoon.
After years in clubs and a less-than-scintillating Hollywood stint, Gleason achieved television stardom in the early 1950s. Around that time, he turned his fugitive attention to music. His first album, 1953’s “Music for Lovers Only,” combined an oversize string section and Bobby Hackett’s muted, melancholy trumpet on frictionless versions of love-song standards. Simultaneously more languid and more streamlined than contemporaneous orchestral-pop offerings, it was an immediate hit, selling half a million copies. Forty-plus albums followed over the next two decades.
Gleason’s contributions to the albums remain slightly mysterious. He could neither read nor write music; in long sessions, Gleason picked out themes on the piano while arrangers tried to divine his intentions. Certainly the albums owed much to those arrangers (primarily Pete King, then George Williams, both thorough professionals). But Gleason knew — and got — what he wanted: seductive scene-setting for hopeful bachelors. (One album bore the bluntly transactional title “Music to Change Her Mind.”)
Hackett — who, as a member of Glenn Miller’s band, had first met Gleason on the set of the 1942 musical “Orchestra Wives” — defended Gleason’s musical sense. Then again, once asked what Gleason brought to the sessions, Hackett replied, “He brought the checks.” Still, even that was visionary. Finding no takers, Gleason funded that first album himself. Gleason’s entrepreneurial instincts could be scattershot, but with his music, he hit the target square.
Beneath the high-gloss surface, Gleason’s music sometimes cultivated a quietly obsessive weirdness, saturating entire albums with what might otherwise be momentary instrumental touches: continually burbling mallet percussion on “The Torch With the Blue Flame,” the mandolin horde strumming throughout “Lonesome Echo.” The hint of outsider-art defiance is appropriate. To hear Gleason tell it, his music, like his comedy, was seeded by his impoverished childhood. His brother died young; his father abandoned the family; his overprotective mother often imprisoned him in their apartment. Alone, shut in, Gleason honed his ears. “I could tell who was coming into the tenement by the sound of their feet,” he said. “I could tell what people were doing by the sounds they made. . . . And it got so that when I heard music, I could listen to the sounds in back of the melody, hear it all.”