John Herbert “Jackie” Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987) was an American comedian, actor, and musician who developed a style and characters in his career from growing up in Brooklyn, New York. He was known for his brash visual and verbal comedy style, exemplified by his character Ralph Kramden in the television series The Honeymooners. By filming the episodes with Electronicam, Gleason later could release the series in syndication, building its popularity over the years with new audiences. He also developed The Jackie Gleason Show, which had the second-highest ratings in the country 1954-1955, and which he produced over the years in variations, including in the venue of Miami, Florida after moving there.
Among his notable film roles were Minnesota Fats in the Academy Award-winning 1961 drama The Hustler (co-starring with Paul Newman), and Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series from 1977 into the early 1980’s, in which he co-starred with Burt Reynolds.
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s Gleason enjoyed a secondary music career, lending his name to a series of best-selling “mood music” albums with jazz overtones for Capitol Records. Gleason believed there was a ready market for romantic instrumentals. His goal was to make “musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive”. He recalled seeing Clark Gable play love scenes in movies; the romance was, in his words, “magnified a thousand percent” by background music. Gleason reasoned, “If Gable needs music, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate!”
Gleason’s first album, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the album longest in the Billboard Top Ten Charts (153 weeks), and his first 10 albums sold over a million copies each. At one point, Gleason held the record for charting the most number-one albums on the Billboard 200 without charting any hits on the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Gleason could not read or write music; he was said to have conceived melodies in his head and described them vocally to assistants who transcribed them into musical notes. Gleason was a successful composer and conductor of jazz-inflected mood music, recording over a dozen albums during his career. These included the well-remembered themes of both The Jackie Gleason Show (“Melancholy Serenade”) and The Honeymooners (“You’re My Greatest Love”).
There has been much debate over the years as to how much credit Gleason should have received for the finished products. Biographer William A. Henry III wrote in his 1992 book, The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason, that beyond the possible conceptualizing of many of the song melodies, Gleason had no direct involvement (such as conducting) in making the recordings, but he did conduct the group during club/concert appearances. Red Nichols, a jazz great who had fallen on hard times and led one of the group’s recordings, was not paid as session-leader. Cornetist and trumpeter Bobby Hackett soloed on the albums and was leader for seven of them. Asked late in life by musician–journalist Harry Currie in Toronto what Gleason really did at the recording sessions, Hackett replied, “He brought the cheques”.
But years earlier Hackettt had told writer James Bacon:
“Jackie knows a lot more about music than people give him credit for. I have seen him conduct a 60-piece orchestra and detect one discordant note in the brass section. He would immediately stop the music and locate the wrong note. It always amazed the professional musicians how a guy who technically did not know one note from another could do that. And he was never wrong.”
Nearly all of Gleason’s albums are still available and have been re-released on compact disc.
An off-topic aside:
Gleason was greatly interested in the paranormal, buying and reading numerous books on the topic, as well as on parapsychology and UFOs. During the 1950s he was a semi-regular guest on a paranormal-themed overnight radio show hosted by John Nebel, and wrote the introduction to Donald Bain’s biography of Nebel.After his death, his large book collection was donated to the library of the University of Miami. A complete listing of the holdings of Gleason’s library has been issued by the online cataloging service LibraryThing.
According to writer Larry Holcombe, Gleason’s known interest in UFOs allegedly prompted President Richard Nixon to share some information with him and to disclose some UFO data publicly.