When I was a kid, perched on the floor in front of our old black and white TV, one of shows we regularly watched starred a rotund gentleman with a cocky manner and a loud, abrasive voice. At the beginning of every show, he’d roll his eyes and say, “and awa-a-aay we go!”. That was a signal that the fun was on, and we were soon watching little sketches featuring some of his regular alter egos, such as Reginald Van Gleason or the Poor Soul.
Jackie Gleason had a lot of comedic talent, and at that time in America when things were a little less “PC”, he could often make a lot of people laugh with those characters and some even edgier ones. Joe the bartender was one, and his conversations with the drunken Crazy Guggenheim were funny because in those days we weren’t thinking about whether Crazy had a designated driver. And probably the best known edgy guy of all, Ralph Kramden, the Brooklyn bus driver who often promised to punch his wife “right to the moon”. It proved to be so popular as a sketch on the original show that it became an independent spin-off.
I laughed until I cried, but at the time I had no idea that there was another side to Jackie Gleason. He’d had a very difficult and poverty-stricken childhood, and was known to be loud, boorish and tough to work for, but there was a softer side to him. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that he had a strong affinity for lush romantic music, and he followed that muse by producing many best-selling albums. He wasn’t a trained musician, but he had strong roots in the appreciation of jazz and he wrote music (transcribed by others), directed orchestras, and produced a lot of gorgeous stuff.
Some critics feel that he didn’t really have as much involvement in the music as was claimed, but there’s little doubt that his inspiration drove the whole thing, and there’s also not much to dispute in the huge record sales. One big seller was his original show’s theme song, “Melancholy Serenade”, but even more of a favorite of mine is his version of a familiar old song from the film of the same name, “Laura”.
Speaking of the movies, Gleason had a successful film career too (although he wasn’t in Laura) and I’m not talking about the Smokey and the Bandit movies. He had a number of dramatic roles, including an oscar-nominated one as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler.
He was hard-drinking and loved to party, irascible at times but charming when he wanted to be, and could be a good friend or a deadly enemy. A multi-talented, charismatic and often under-appreciated man who always lived life to the fullest, but judging by his music, he was a romantic at heart.