I lean over the handlebars of my mountain bike, panting and perspiring outside the doorway of my Hunter Valley hideaway watched by a snuffling Big J who looks concerned. Is it about my welfare or his empty wine bowl? I suspect the latter. I am two weeks into my get fit routine after allegations from The Voice that I was developing a gut. It wasn’t always like this.
Sipping a glass of chilled red as Big J slurps up a bowl of vintage shiraz I recall those rewarding dinner breaks as a teenage journalist in another life when I would cycle three miles home to hear most of my favourite program on Melbourne commercial radio (3KZ), a jazz-based oasis of superb music. And one of the most rewarding moments was hearing the trumpet or cornet of Bobby Hackett, the “Pied Piper of Mood Music”, cushioned by the string of Jackie Gleason’s Orchestra. Easy listening, that goes without saying, but the melodic musicianship of Hackett’s horn as it caressed romantic ballads are still some of my fondest musical memories. Such as the Harry Warren gem I Only Have Eyes For You from the 1953 album Music For Lovers Only which went gold thanks in no small part to Hackett’s haunting, wistful solos in a seductive setting with an over-sized string section.
Gleason had first met Hackett during the filming of the 1942 movie Orchestra Wives where he mimed the part of a bass player with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. His parts were played on the soundtrack by Doc Goldberg, the band’s regular bassist. Hackett played the trumpet solos attributed to Robert Montgomery, the film’s star. It was not the first time this had happened: Artie Shaw used him to play the trumpet solos which Fred Astaire mimed in the 1940 movie Second Chorus. Hackett joined Miller’s band on 10 July, 1941 – as a guitarist. Although his lip was in poor shape after dental surgery, he was able to play short solos; they are now collectors’ items, especially those on Serenade In Blue and A String Of Pearls which are the best things on the records. His best known solo is on A String Of Pearls which Hackett had to repeat for the rest of his playing life. He became so tired of it that when recording it during a session with strings in England he played it backwards to break the monotony.
Gleason, who admired Hackett’s playing, conceived the idea of featuring him with a large string orchestra in romantic ballads such as But Not For Me, I’m In The Mood For Love, My Funny Valentine and Body And Soul. In 1951 Gleason financed a session which recorded eight tracks and after being turned down by other companies, eventually sold the product to Capitol Records. The 10-inch LP, released as Music for Lovers Only, was an instant hit selling more than half a million copies. Although Hackett was signed exclusively to the label on 1953, a contract which would last until 1960, he received only union scale for the early recordings while Gleason received the considerable royalties on the sales.
Fortunately for Hackett, Capitol was able to arrange similar sessions under his own name which provided him with a useful income. From 1953-59 he recorded 10 LPs with strings, such albums as Softy Lights And Bobby Hackett, Night Love, In A Mellow Mood and Dream A While. Recordings apart, for most of 1954 Hackett and Gleason accompanied by a string orchestra appeared at La Vie en Rose, described by Down Beat magazine as “a small and exclusive bistro on E 54th”.
Dorothy Baker’s novel Young Man With A Horn, supposedly loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke was dramatised as a play on radio in 1940 with Hackett’s cornet playing featured as that of the eponymous hero. A 23-year-old Hackett had played I’m Coming Virginia as a tribute to Bix at Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert in New York. Almost 10 years later when the film of the book was in preparation, both the author and Kirk Douglas wanted Hackett. According to Hackett, producer Jerry Wald said, “No, I hear he’s a drunk and unreliable.” Hackett was indignant: “I haven’t touched a drop in six years”. Trust Hollywood; Harry James, whose idol was Louis Armstrong not Bix, got the gig instead of Hackett, the obvious musical choice. The movie was poorer for his absence.
– Patrick D.Maguire