Chances are, if you’re familiar with Jackie Gleason, it’s as the loudmouthed loser, Ralph Kramden, from his grim, existentialist 1950s TV “comedy” series, The Honeymooners, which for all the world appeared to be Satre’s No Exit set in a one-room, Bronx walkup. You may recognize Gleason’s oft-imitated catchphrase about one day striking his wife in her mouth with his fist. Ah, the golden age of comedy. It’s also possible you know his Honeymooners character at one remove, as the inspiration for Fred Flintstone.
Gleason’s unfortunate legacy of depressing domestic comedy and wife-abuse punch lines overshadows his admirable contributions to American entertainment, as a skilled comic on the enormously popular, eponymous TV variety series that spawned The Honeymooners, and as a recording artist. While the nature of his contributions may be in question, it’s indisputable that Gleason’s TV popularity translated into success as a recording artist. Music for Lovers Only, released as a 16-track, mono LP in 1953, moved a half-million units and still holds the longevity record, a staggering 153 weeks, on the Top Ten album chart. This Real Gone Music CD release duplicates the album’s track list and iconic cover art.
This album was the realization of Gleason’s dream of “creating a new kind of orchestral music that was lush without being syrupy, elegant without being stuffy, suggestive without being crass,” according to the CD liner notes. One man’s syrup is another’s ipecac, of course, and reactions to this lugubrious easy listening music will vary accordingly.
The formula is simple and unvarying: Take a torchy, late night saloon song, ladle on layers of sumptuous strings, and let Bobby Hackett carry the melody on coronet. Likewise, the program sticks largely to familiar standards, like “My Funny Valentine,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “Body and Soul,” for nearly an hour of aural attitude adjustment.
Unlike much of the bachelor pad/lounge/space age pop music that enjoyed a brief resurgence in the ’90s, Gleason’s music is decidedly less frenetic and overtly kitschy than the ping-pong stereophonics of Esquivel or the tiki-torching of Les Baxter and Dick Hyman. This is music as diaphanous as the filmiest nightgown, smooth as the most covert midnight assignation, so relaxed, it’s nearly narcoleptic. These melodies meander and dissipate into the air, like so much cigarette smoke.
It’s been suggested that Gleason’s late-night mood music is equally appropriate for solitary martinis of remorse as accompaniment to Champagne cocktails of seduction. Popular as his albums were (and he released 41 of them between 1953 and 1971), for adults of a certain age, there’s a decent chance Gleason’s music played a role in your being here today. Equally likely, it explains the copy of this album in your elderly, alcoholic, bachelor uncle’s record cabinet.
Depending upon how your own life is going, you may find Music for Lovers Only a fitting soundtrack for romance or for drowning your sorrows. There is a timeless quality to this music, whether it strikes you as libidinous or melancholy, one that may find a receptive audience today.