J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bing Crosby: The Road to a Critical Re-Evaluation

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 here), which 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 presence on-screen.

Using 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.

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