Ralph J. Gleason, Don Armstrong

Biography of ‘Rolling Stone’ Co-Founder Ralph J. Gleason Rocks and Swings

‘Rolling Stone’ co-founder Ralph J. Gleason predates that golden era of music journalism when Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau thrived.

The Life and Writings of Ralph J. Gleason
Don Armstrong
Bloomsbury Academic
08 Feb 2024

In the introduction to The Life and Writings of Ralph J. Gleason, scholar Don Armstrong quotes noted jazz critic Ted Gioia, who reports grimly on the current state of so much music journalism: “One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.”

The work of Ralph J. Gleason is not only a reminder of the days when music journalists wrote about music – he actually predated that golden era when Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau thrived. In short, he helped invent music journalism. Much older than the contemporary writers he would eventually work alongside for Rolling Stone magazine, the publication he cofounded with Jann Wenner, Gleason – born in 1917 in New York City – began his fascination with music as a jazz fan, discovering it while laid up with the measles as a child, with the radio tuned to the late-night sounds of Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. “I could no more stop listening to music than I could stop breathing,” Gleason wrote.

Armstrong’s The Life and Writings of Ralph J. Gleason takes the reader from those early Depression-era years at the Gleason family home in Chappaqua, New York, to Manhattan, where Gleason’s studies at Columbia University were largely sidetracked by his obsession with the jazz scene that was happening all around him. He would cofound the weekly jazz publication Jazz Information, join the Office of War Information during World War II, and eventually settle in San Francisco, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. His writings on jazz – initially the early “hot music” style and eventually other forms like bebop, led to a fascination and kinship with rock music, unlike many of his contemporaries, who dismissed the genre.

The title of Armstrong’s book underscores that large swaths of Ralph J. Gleason’s writings are featured within the pages, which give irrefutable proof of Gleason’s love of music. Armstrong notes that Gleason’s love of jazz transcended the genre’s pivot to more radical tastes in the 1940s: “Gleason has expanded his aesthetic over the past decade,” he writes. “He now thrilled to music that swung hard, ‘jumped’ and ‘rocked,’ characteristics that defined an emerging new postwar sound in popular music. Artists like (Lionel) Hampton predisposed Gleason to this new direction and revolutionary genres like rhythm and blues.” He also embraced country, or “hillbilly” music, conducting interviews with everyone from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash.

Armstrong places Ralph J. Gleason smack dab in the middle of music history and the overall counterculture of his times, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig character – he was backstage for many important events. Gleason witnessed a 1956 Elvis Presley show from backstage at the Oakland Auditorium, was present for the revolutionary sights and sounds of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (co-founding the Monterey Jazz Festival the previous decade), hung out backstage with the Beatles before their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, and was in the crowd during Mario Savio’s famous “Bodies Upon the Gears” protest speech at University of California Berkeley in 1964. (Gleason, a lifelong liberal Democrat, embraced the Free Speech Movement and the sentiments of 1960s protest).

Visiting Ralph J. Gleason’s suburban ranch house in Berkeley, which he shared with his wife, Jean, and their three children, became a rite of passage for musicians as they discussed music and politics while perusing Gleason’s impressive record collection. Armstrong writes vividly about events most of us could only dream of witnessing firsthand:

It’s May 1961, and John Coltrane settles into the plush leather chair in Gleason’s living room. As a tape recorder runs, the two talk about music – King Kolax’s big band, flamenco, and the different capabilities of tenor and soprano saxophones. Gleason asks, ‘How do you work out a tune when you’re composing?’ Coltrane answers, ‘Well, I’ve been going to the piano and working these things out. Now I think I’m going to move away from that…I think I’m just going to write for the horn from now on, just play around on the horn and see what I can hear.’ A few weeks later, Coltrane recorded a new composition called ‘Ole’ that manifested the ideas he discussed with Gleason.

Ralph J. Gleason and Jann Wenner began working together in 1966 when Wenner was hired as a staff writer for the leftist magazine Ramparts, a publication that also featured Gleason’s work. The two of them launched Rolling Stone the following year, covering the current music scene, counterculture, and politics. Gleason went from discovering Duke Ellington as a teenager on his bedroom radio to writing scathing indictments of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Armstrong’s incisive writing makes these potentially jarring bookends seamless as he chronicles the life of this legend, who passed away in 1975 at 58. Gleason’s legacy as Rolling Stone’s cofounder is secure, as his name remains on the masthead to this day.  

Ralph J. Gleason wrote liner notes for albums from musicians like Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis and gave considerable credence to the San Francisco rock scene by writing extensively and enthusiastically about artists like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Add to that his friendships with artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck and you have a true chameleon who not only bridged musical and cultural gaps, he did so as a fan, not just a reporter.

What set Ralph J. Gleason apart from other music journalists was his indifference to genre labels and generation gaps and his genuine love of the music. “Gleason’s writings model the type of criticism Gioia yearns for,” Armstrong writes. “Gleason eschewed lifestyle reporting and celebrityism and raised his children to see great musicians as everyday people. Instead, Gleason concentrated on evaluating performances for readers, and as a drummer and pianist used his understanding of rhythm, melody, and harmony to do so.”

RATING 8 / 10