Jazz fans have mixed feelings about Bing
Crosby. He first came to prominence as part of the Paul Whiteman organization—a
fact that pretty much explains our ambivalence right there. However, he was
also an admirer of Louis Armstrong, who helped secure some of the icon’s
highest profile motion picture appearances. Regardless how the jazz community
felt about the crooner, he had fifty million loyal listeners at the height of
his popularity. Crosby’s music and film career, as well as his posthumous controversies
get a critical re-examination in Robert Trachtenberg’s Bing Crosby: Rediscovered (promo
airs this Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS's American Masters.
Harry Lillis Crosby was a law school
drop-out at loose ends when he hooked up with Al Rinker, the brother of Mildred
Bailey, to form a five-piece dance band awkwardly known as the Musicaladers.
Eventually, the attracted the notice of Paul Whiteman, but the bandleader-impresario
had a difficult time figuring out how to showcase them. When they finally hit, they
hit big. Suddenly, Crosby was learning how to drink like a serious musician
from experts such as Bix Beiderbecke. So much for marriage number one, but
Crosby’s star would only continue to rise.
Those fifty million loyal listeners arguably
made Crosby the biggest radio star of all time. With more number one singles than
anyone from Memphis or Liverpool, a case could also be made his was the
greatest recording star as well, but it is tricky to compare the pre and post
LP eras. Admittedly not quite as huge on the big screen, Crosby still had plenty
of success with the Road movies and
his Oscar for Going My Way. However,
six years after his death, Crosby’s son Gary published a family memoir very
much in the tradition of Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. Although not as harrowing, similar damage was done
to Crosby’s reputation.
To its credit, Trachtenberg’s profile
addresses the book and its charges of abusive physical discipline and
emotionally aloof parenting head-on. To a large extent, Crosby’s daughter Mary
serves as the family point person on the issue, even claiming her half-brother later
expressed remorse during a private lunch together.
So maybe Crosby was a crummy dad, but even
if the tell-all is mostly true, it pales in comparison to Bill Cosby’s image
implosion currently underway. Frankly, we are now more willing to separate a
performer’s private life and personal failings from their public personas.
Plus, his sons kind of come off sounding like mess-ups, making it harder to absolutely
condemn him. On the hand, Mary Crosby (she shot J.R.) is quite a persuasive
jazz critic Gary Giddins’ recent biography as a roadmap, Crosby: Rediscovered is at its best putting the singer’s music in
context, comparing and contrasting his style of vocal interpretation with jazz
performance conventions. Strangely though, his brother Bob is only mentioned in
passing, despite his legit success as a Dixieland-ish bandleader. Even if you
still do not want to like Bing Crosby, Trachtenberg presents his life in an
entertaining fashion, dropping plenty of cool names, like Armstrong and Peggy
Lee. Recommended for fans of 1940s film and popular music, Bing Crosby: Rediscovered premieres on most PBS outlets this
Tuesday (12/2), but many stations also plan to replay it on the 26th,
because Holiday Inn, White Christmas and the “Little Drummer
Boy” duet with David Bowie are all duly discussed in detail.
Labels: American Masters, Bing Crosby, PBS