Ralph J. Gleason and the ‘San Francisco Sound’
By Peter Richardson

Time Magazine, July 7 1967

The Summer of Love was in part a creature of the national media. By featuring San Francisco hippies in the months before that epic season, national outlets swelled the hordes of young people converging on the city. In effect, these journalists helped create the phenomenon they were covering. That point wasn’t lost on the locals. For the “Death of Hippie” event in October 1967, for example, the funeral notice described the deceased as “Hippie, beloved son of Mass Media.”

 Journalists couldn’t resist the scene’s more spectacular elements. They tended to focus on drugs and general weirdness and to scant or mock the vibrant arts and music community. But Ralph J. Gleason, who covered popular music for the San Francisco Chronicle, was a key exception. Fifty years after his daily columns appeared, his sympathetic but clear-eyed accounts of landmark concerts and events are now a touchstone for historians of the San Francisco counterculture.

 

Born in New York City in 1917, Gleason attended Columbia University and immersed himself in the uptown Manhattan jazz scene. He moved to the Bay Area after the Second World War and began contributing to the Chronicle in 1950. He also wrote for Down Beat, produced a syndicated column on jazz, interviewed Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, and covered Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. Along the way, he hosted radio programs and a KQED television series, Jazz Casual. Well before the Summer of Love, he cofounded the Monterey Jazz Festival, wrote the liner notes for Lenny Bruce’s comedy albums, and testified for the defense at Bruce’s 1962 obscenity trial in San Francisco.

 

Ralph J Gleason

If Gleason had done nothing else, his career would have been remarkable. But starting in the mid-1960s, he also began to cover—and to champion—San Francisco’s emerging rock groups. That coverage gave these bands much-needed credibility. RCA Victor signed Jefferson Airplane in November 1965, the same month Gleason called them “one of the best bands ever.” Gleason also vouched for the Grateful Dead, whose first album appeared in March 1967. Writing to a friend, he described the San Francisco music scene as almost unprecedented. “There has been no point in American history that I know of, except the street bands of New Orleans, where music has had such a direct role in the culture of any area as it has in San Francisco at this point in our history.”

 Gleason was also a key player behind the Monterey Pop Festival, which was conceived by John Phillips (of the Mamas & the Papas) and his label’s president, Lou Adler. Working out of Los Angeles, they needed the San Francisco bands and their hip cachet for the festival to succeed. Obtaining Gleason’s blessing was a step in the right direction. The event’s extraordinary success launched Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Otis Redding, and rock festivals generally.
Music industry insiders soon took notice of San Francisco’s secret sauce. Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, told Gleason that no other city could match the San Francisco scene’s commercial appeal during this period. “Something like fifteen out of the first nineteen albums recorded by San Francisco bands made the best-seller charts,” Ertegun noted. “There’s something different about the San Francisco bands, some mystique.”

 

A contributing editor at Ramparts, the legendary San Francisco muckraker, Gleason planned to orchestrate the magazine’s Summer of Love coverage. But when editor Warren Hinckle ran his own cover article, “The Social History of the Hippies,” in the March 1967 issue, Gleason was furious. He resigned and began to work on Rolling Stone, whose premiere issue appeared later that year. Later, he insisted that Rolling Stone cover the disastrous 1969 concert at Altamont as if it were World War II.  According to author and journalist Joel Selvin, that coverage “lifted the magazine out of the underground and established Rolling Stone as the journalistic voice of its generation.” It also landed Rolling Stone a National Magazine Award for Specialized Journalism.

 

Rolling Stone Magazine 1970
Gleason was the sole music journalist on President Nixon’s Enemies List, which he considered “the highest honor a man’s country can bestow upon him.” Yet Gleason also retained a healthy skepticism about the left. For him, politics always followed culture, not vice versa. He liked to quote Plato on this point: “Forms and rhythms in music are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways.” That belief was another reason Gleason regarded Ramparts as “the white hope of the square left” and turned his gaze to Rolling Stone. Gleason quarreled with cofounder and publisher Jann Wenner over the magazine’s direction, especially its scant coverage of black artists. But he provided Rolling Stone credibility when the fledgling magazine needed it most. More than four decades after his death, his name remains on the masthead.

 

The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound by Ralph J Gleason

In 1977, two years after Gleason died at age 58, Rolling Stone decamped for New York City. Wenner reportedly called San Francisco a “provincial backwater,” but for at least a decade before that, the city was widely regarded as a global rock capital. Much of that recognition can be traced to Gleason’s work, broadly defined to include his deft advocacy, on what his 1969 book called “the San Francisco sound.”

Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University. He has written critically acclaimed books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams, whom Kevin Starr described as California’s finest nonfiction writer.


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