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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, June 03, 2010


Music critic Ralph Gleason died on this day in 1975, aged only 58. He made an immense contribution to "the music", being the first critic to make an American mainstream newspaper pay any real attention to jazz and popular music. (The photo shows Gleason interviewing Jerry Garcia & Phil Lesh; at the time, of course, they thought Gleason was the one with the stupid haircut... )

I knew him slightly, after he gave me a belated write-up of the first American edition of Song & Dance Man in Rolling Stone, calling it "the hidden Dylan book". Perhaps with that he hoped to shame my American publisher, E.P.Dutton, for their non-marketing of that first US hardback - I certainly did - but it made no difference. In the short interval between then and Gleason's death, we enjoyed some correspondence. I especially relished the grand, wide-ranging contempt his letters expressed for Jann Wenner, with whom he'd co-founded Rolling Stone. Anyway, here's his entry in the updated paperback edition of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Gleason, Ralph J. [1917 - 1975]
Ralph J. Gleason (‘the “J” was for Joseph, although we often joked that it stood for “jazz”’, said his son Toby) was an old-fashioned music enthusiast and journalist based in San Francisco, an influential American jazz and pop music critic in the 1950s who adjusted painfully to the decade that followed, but having done so, co-founded Rolling Stone magazine as an ‘underground paper’. The name Rolling Stone came from Gleason; co-founder and editor JANN WENNER wanted to call it Electric Newspaper. There was little love lost between the two. (See the entry Wenner, Jann and unloading heads.)

Gleason was born in New York City on March 1, 1917, attending Columbia University before moving to the West Coast in his early thirties. He began contributing to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1950, and there introduced the first regular coverage of jazz and popular music in US mainstream media. He interviewed, among others, HANK WILLIAMS, FATS DOMINO and ELVIS PRESLEY, helped bring about San Francisco’s cultural flowering in the late 1950s and, as Joe Selvin notes: ‘At a time when there were practically no books on the subject, he wrote the history of jazz on the back of album covers, writing literally hundreds of liner notes in the golden age of long-playing albums.’ He was also a radical who spoke out in the McCarthy era, and later was named on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List.

He became an earlyish supporter of, and copious commentator on, Dylan’s work, having been an early champion of LENNY BRUCE and Miles Davis; later he was similarly enthusiastic about San Francisco’s pioneering rock groups, and in 1966 wrote a paean to FRANK ZAPPA and the Mothers of Invention, ‘Those Mothers Can Really Play’, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Gleason continued to contribute to Rolling Stone until his death in 1975. He was also an associate editor and critic on Down Beat, and his weekly columns in the New York Post were syndicated in the US and in Europe.

Gleason produced and hosted many TV documentaries, including a series of nearly thirty jazz and blues programs, Jazz Casual, featuring musicians from Dave Brubeck to B.B. King; a documentary on Duke Ellington; a series on the Monterey Jazz Festival; and several looks at San Francisco rock, notably A Night At The Family Dog, catching the Haight-Ashbury scene in one night’s performances from the GRATEFUL DEAD, SANTANA and Jefferson Airplane (1970).

His books, compiled from articles and reviews, include Jam Session (1957), The San Francisco Scene (1968) and Celebrating The Duke, & Louis, Bessie, Billie, Bird, Carmen, Miles, Dizzy & Other Heroes (1975).

He was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1963 when Dylan, then a rising star, performed at the Monterey Folk Festival. Gleason slated the concert, telling ROBERT SHELTON: ‘It was an old Dylan concert and I didn’t dig it. The talking blues stuff was poor imitation GUTHRIE. He looked wrong to me and I didn’t like his voice. Although I didn’t like “Hard Rain”, I became haunted by it. Jesus, it was disturbing.’ (PETE SEEGER, THEODORE BIKEL and others wrote a protest letter in response to this review, and Gleason recanted: ‘I was deaf,’ he wrote.)

From then on, Gleason’s advocacy of Dylan never faltered. His was a useful voice, since he was of an older generation and could address its doubts from the inside, as here, in 1964: “To the generations raised on solid Judeo-Christian principles, on the rock of moral values of our fathers, on the idea that cleanliness is next to Godliness, the deliberate sloppiness, the disdain for what we have thought of as perfect by Dylan’s generation is shocking. But we are wrong. Look where our generation has gotten us… a hard core of reality connects the music of Dylan, the best of jazz, of contemporary poetry, painting, all the arts, in fact, with the social revolution that has resulted in CORE and SNCC, Dick Gregory, James Baldwin and the rest.’

An aeon later, after the unenthusiastic response to Self Portrait in 1970, it was Gleason, in Rolling Stone, who came out with the now almost notorious claim in response to hearing New Morning: ‘We’ve got Bob Dylan back again!’

The Rex Foundation, a non-profit charity organization founded by the Grateful Dead and friends, established the Ralph J. Gleason Award in 1986, and 1989 saw the launching of the annual Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Awards, sponsored by Rolling Stone, BMI and New York University.

Gleason, who died aged 58, in Berkeley, California, on June 3, 1975, after suffering a massive heart attack, was a catalyst and an enthusiast. He was not an especially good writer - as his widow said in 2004: “He was not a good writer. He wrote about interesting things.”

Gleason had been an audience participant at Dylan’s classic San Francisco Press Conference of December 1965, and many decades later was named on the front of a technically enhanced DVD release of this riveting event, Ralph J. Gleason Presents [posthumously] Dylan Speaks - The 1965 Press Conference In San Francisco.

[Ralph J. Gleason: 1st two quotes taken from Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, p.170 & p.250; 3rd quote Rolling Stone no.70, SF, Nov 12 1970. A Night At the Family Dog, Sep 1970, is DVD-issued by RED Distribution, 2005. Joe Selvin & Mrs. Gleason quotes, Steven Rubio’s Online Life, Dec 23 2004, seen 16 Aug 2005 at Toby Gleason, e-mail to this writer, 3 Oct 2005. Ralph J. Gleason Presents - Dylan Speaks - The 1965 Press Conference In San Francisco, 3 Dec 1965, DVD, Eagle Rock Entertainment, 2007 (Executive producer Toby Gleason).]


Blogger Kilaueagirl said...

Hi Michael! Thank you for remembering Ralph. He was my dear friend and mentor and it was wonderful to read about him, see the photos and remember that 35 years ago he left this earth. I cried for days and can still cry just missing him. He was such an amazing friend. From 1965 - 1970 we'd have a long talk almost every day if we didn't see each other. We'd talk about music, the day's news, politics, whatever was on our minds and in our hearts. He gave me stacks of records to listen to and took me to listen to amazing music. He took me to hang out with Duke Ellington and his band - a night I will always remember! I couldn't have gotten into the Jazz Workshop myself because I was under 21 - but with Ralph all things were possible!
Don't know if you know that Jeannie, Ralph's widow, passed away this last year. They were such an amazing couple! I hope they are together in whatever world follows this one.
All the best, Denise Kaufman

9:34 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hi Denise
Thank you for writing in - I'm gratified that you appreciated the posting. Thank you too for the information about Ralph's widow Jeannie. She outlived him by more than a third of a century then...

1:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I also enjoyed reading your memories of Ralph Gleason, who is the subject of a scholarly paper my wife and I are currently writing. Am particularly interested in your insights into Mr. Gleason's complex relationship with Jann Wenner, and his evolving perspective of Dylan - could you be so kind as to share the sources of the Shelton quote and the 1964 quote about being "tone deaf'? Mr. Gleason waged a lifelong, almost unbelievably principled (by today's values) struggle to persuade his various media employers to allow him to present the social context of the music he wrote about. His holistic understanding of the role of popular music in America's social history - from the 1930s thru the 1970s is unparalleled -
I welcome any other recollections that you or others who read this would be kind enough to share.

Best regards,
Don Armstrong,
Tuskegee University

PS: Denise Kaufman kindly consented to be interviewed for our paper, Denise, if you read this, thanks so much - your heartfelt recollections speak volumes about Ralph's generous character -

10:28 pm  

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