He may best be known as a Ralph, the goofball character he nailed each week on Happy Days, but these days Don Most is feeling more like a Donny. “I decided after Happy Days I needed to have a more adult image,” recalls Most on making the decision to switch from “Donny” to “Don” professionally. “But for the music, it’s funny — it didn’t feel as good to go with Don, so I’ve sorta been going back to Donny. Maybe as you get older you want to get younger again: When you’re younger you want to appear older and when you’re older you want to appear younger.”
On television screens through Happy Days reruns, Most is forever young, seen reliving each soda pop at Arnold’s or challenging Fonzie to that infamous shark jump. But in the past year Most has been evoking Fifties nostalgia through a different medium, one to which he frequently refers as his “first love.” Since he was a teenager in Flatbush, Brooklyn, he’s been singing — he used to be a part of performance troupes up in the Catskills — and Most has brought a pulse back to his infatuation with big-band music.
“I was a teenager in the late Sixties, and the kind of music most of my friends and peers were listening to was such a great renaissance of music — you’d call it classic rock now,” says Most. “And I really liked all that music as well, but the stuff I was passionate about was not the music my friends were listening to. It was more music of my parents’ era — the jazz standards, swing music, and the Great American Songbook.”
His favorites are the ones he covers onstage: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and, at the top of the list, the young crooner Bobby Darin. He speaks of the legend’s past with a fanboy appreciation.
“It wasn’t the early stuff from Darin, the rock stuff that catapulted him — that wasn’t the music that I was into,” says Most of his idol. “I got to see him [when] I was nineteen years old and went to the Copacabana, which was the club in New York City. If you got to play the Copa, you really made it.”
At nine, Most considered himself an Al Jolson fanatic after viewing his 1946 biopic (Darin also gleefully cited Jolson as a source of inspiration), and he continued an interest in this music throughout his career in Hollywood, which beyond Happy Days included roles in Baywatch, Star Trek: Voyager, and recently Glee. After Most left Happy Days, he flirted with the idea of igniting his singing career but felt the times weren’t right for that style of music.
“I was thinking of doing it back in the early Eighties, but it was hard to do then. There was no receptivity,” he says. “In the Seventies and Eighties [big-band music and jazz] were looked on as [the music of] a past generation and wasn’t really being done by contemporary artists.” But after Most saw a gradual resurgence through Harry Connick Jr.’s When Harry Met Sally soundtrack, Natalie Cole’s tribute to her father, and the success of Michael Bublé, he felt compelled to perform and enlisted Long Island’s Willy Scapatone to be the musical director of his seven-piece band. His first singing gig in 30 years took place in L.A. last summer, and now he’s whetting his musical appetite on his childhood home turf (he now lives in California) with a performance at the Iridium on July 7.
This December marks the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth, and Most said he caught the titan live in Las Vegas in the late Seventies. And even though Bobby Darin tops his chart, Most credits Ol’ Blue Eyes with helping him find the enthusiasm to launch his new career as a singer.
“It was in the last five years or so that I felt an even higher level of appreciation for his music,” Most says of Sinatra. “I remember having a conversation with Bobby [Darin]’s first arranger, a guy named Dick Behrke, and he said Bobby wouldn’t have liked a Nelson Riddle [a frequent Sinatra collaborator] kind of arrangement because it was a little too sophisticated. I think that’s why I’m appreciating that sophistication and the nuances now. Sinatra was known for the phrasing he brought to a song. It’s those subtle things and sophisticated kind of details that I’m appreciating now more than I did when I was younger.”
And with that, Ralph Malph progresses and matures through the great swing-jazz standards, but maybe Don will embrace Donny once again for the sake of nostalgia.
Don Most will perform with his band at the Iridium on Tuesday, July 7, at 8 p.m.