Monday, December 8, 2014

Bing Crosby Remembered (WNET/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The PBS Bing Crosby Rediscovered special was interesting, though with only an hour and a half (stretched to two hours with those offensive and disgusting “pledge breaks” through which PBS has to beg for money continually since it doesn’t have a dedicated revenue stream from TV set license fees the way the BBC does) to tell the story of one of the longest and most remarkable careers in show business, it took a rather whirlwind approach. There was precious little about how Bing started out — it briefly mentioned his early partnership with Al Rinker (brother of Mildred Bailey and, like Bing, a native of Washington state) and then with Harry Barris to form the Rhythm Boys, their association with Paul Whiteman (it did not mention that Bing actually made a record before he joined Whiteman — “I’ve Got the Girl,” with Rinker and Don Clark’s orchestra) and its relatively sudden and ambiguous end. The script (no writer is credited on but Robert Trachtenberg is listed as director and he probably wrote the narration as well) says it remains unclear whether Whiteman fired the Rhythm Boys in Los Angeles in 1930 when they were out there to make The King of Jazz or whether they quit; it claims that they got so far into the Hollywood party lifestyle, including quite a lot of drinking (the only mention of Bix Beiderbecke on the program is as a Whiteman colleague whose example encouraged Bing to drink a lot; in fact they were roommates when Whiteman went on tour and there are plenty of Bing’s early recordings, like the whole-tone scale with which he starts his vocal on Whiteman’s “Reaching for Someone,” that show Bix’s influence, but according to this show Bing learned from Louis Armstrong — which he did, often playing hooky from his own gigs at the Ambassador Hotel in 1930-31 to watch Armstrong at Sebastian’s New Cotton Club — but not from Bix, even though Bing loved Bix’s sound so much that in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s he used Andy Secrest, who had replaced Bix with Whiteman, as a studio musician on a lot of his records[1]), and stopped rehearsing or learning new material. (This seems a bit hard to believe because Harry Barris was an ace songwriter who, during this period when the Rhythm Boys were supposedly too busy partying to work, he actually placed quite a few songs not only with his own group but quite a few other L.A.-based performers.)

Trachtenberg seemed anxious to race through Bing’s early years to get to the “good stuff,” the Bing Crosby of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the one who made a lot of movies at Paramount, married Dixie Lee and fathered four sons, watched helplessly as she spiraled into alcoholism while he learned to control his own drinking, and retreated from the intense emotionalism of his early work to the (seemingly) lazy, laid-back persona he projected in his glory years. The biggest paradox of the program is just how long Bing’s career was and how continuously successful he was — who else recorded with both Paul Whiteman and David Bowie? — a level of success he couldn’t have sustained without a lot of hard work even though he made everything he did seem effortless. That extended even to his voice; it was one of the most remarkable instruments ever to come out of a human throat — once he stopped trying to “push up” into the tenor range and instead decided to rely on the natural beauty of the baritone his genes and vocal cords had made him — with a rich, velvety tone, ample reserves of power and a surpassingly smooth legato a lot of opera singers would have drooled over. If there’s one Bing Crosby record I would take to that proverbial desert island, it would be his September 1933 version of “Home on the Range” — sung with a simple, heartfelt eloquence and absolute technical command (I’ll never forget watching Bryn Terfel, an acclaimed operatic baritone, sing this on an Andrea Bocelli special and being astonished that in addition to bringing far more emotion and soul to the piece, Bing outsang him technically as well!). When Bing sings the line “Where the graceful white swan goes gliding along,” he pulls off so perfect a melisma he really conjures up with his voice the vision of a graceful white swan gliding through the air. And if I could take another one with me it would be his first (1935) version of “Silent Night,” also sung eloquently and with depths of emotion even Bing couldn’t touch in his later versions.

If the show had a failing it was in zipping through the story so rapidly it didn’t mention the people who helped Bing artistically — no mention of Eddie Lang, the superb (and tragically short-lived — he died of complications from a tonsillectomy in 1933 and Bing was uncharacteristically guilt-ridden about it, noting in his autobiography that he had been the one who talked Lang into having that operation) guitarist who accompanied him in his early solo career (though one of the last pieces heard is an aircheck from one of Bing’s early broadcasts of his theme, “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,” with Lang playing an absolutely astonishing part behind him that sounds less like an accompaniment than a New Orleans jazz-style obbligato to Bing’s vocal lead), or of Victor Young and Lennie Hayton, arrangers on his early records (before he settled in with John Scott Trotter, a competent but not particularly imaginative arranger, conductor and studio bandleader who led most of Bing’s Decca sides in the 1930’s and 1940’s); or of Victor Schertzinger, who directed the first two movies in the “Road” series with Bob Hope (The Road to Singapore and The Road to Zanzibar) and established the famous “frame-breaking” in which both Crosby and Hope would break character, speak directly to the audience and wryly comment on the film itself and the passel of Hollywood conventions from which its script had derived. The show makes the interesting argument that the success of the “Road” films pulled Bing out of the artistic doldrums into which he’d fallen with Paramount using him for one formula musical after another in the late 1930’s, and it offered intriguing evidence that Bing sensed how limited his roles were getting and pushed for bigger things: the part of Father O’Malley in Going My Way (a movie some executives at Paramount were willing to suppress because they didn’t think audiences would believe Bing Crosby as a priest! In the end it won him an Academy Award), the lead in The Country Girl (a searing performance in an otherwise O.K. movie), and an extraordinary test sequence in which an almost unrecognizable Crosby auditioned for a biopic of Will Rogers. (It was never made — at least not with Crosby — though Bing did star in the 1949 remake of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, playing the role Rogers had played in the original 1933 film of Mark Twain’s tale.)

The oddest thing about Bing Crosby Rediscovered is that someone that overwhelmingly famous for that long (one statistic about the longevity of Bing’s career that particularly impresses me was he made at least one commercially released phonograph record every year of his life between 1926, when he made his first one, and 1977, when he died — he didn’t have the long lacunae in his recording career many of his contemporaries, including Frank Sinatra, had) should be in need of “rediscovery.” ““We naturally think of Bing at Christmastime,” said American Masters executive producer Michael Kantor in an interview on the PBS Web site (and indeed we do; when I went grocery shopping at the Mission Hills Vons after the show, there was Bing’s voice on the in-store sound system, crooning “You’re All I Want for Christmas”), “but with more No. 1 recordings than anyone, it is easy to overlook all of his other achievements.” So why has Bing so totally dropped off the radar screen? Partly it was that as he aged (and so did his core audience), he went from what jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddins called “the first hip white guy” to someone who seemed hopelessly square. It took me a long time to appreciate Crosby — my stepfather had a pile of Crosby 78’s (mostly 1930’s releases on blue-label Decca — the U.S. Decca label was not only figuratively but literally built around Crosby; not only was he its biggest seller but its Hollywood studios were built just two blocks from Paramount so Crosby could come in and make records during his lunch breaks from filming) but when I was growing up he seemed the safe, square alternative to Sinatra — and the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950’s and its maturation into “rock” (without the roll) in the 1960’s took the last bit of edge off Bing’s music. I got into him, oddly enough, from his very earliest records (which are still my favorites; after he quit Brunswick Records in 1934 and signed with Decca, his music became safer; he still sang beautifully but only rarely with the naked, edgy emotion of his early works with Paul Whiteman, Gus Arnheim and on his own for Brunswick, Victor and Columbia from 1927 to 1934), and largely through my interest in Bix. I bought all the Bix LP’s that were available in the early 1970’s and started not only to appreciate Bing’s vocals (so much better than the God-awful pop tenors of the period, people like Frank Bessinger, Irving Kaufman and Jack Fulton, who sounded like they were being strangled!) but hear that he was essentially doing with his voice what Bix was doing with his horn (just as Louis Armstrong did with his voice what he was doing with his horn).

I mentioned the 1933 “Home on the Range” and the 1935 “Silent Night” as Bing’s all-time greatest records, and if I had to pick a third it would be “Galway Bay,” a late-1940’s Decca release which starts out as just a picturesque song about Ireland but takes on a wrenching power when Bing reaches the lines, “For the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways/They scorned us just for being what we are.” It’s a reference to the Church of England sending missionaries to Ireland in the wake of the Potato Famine in 1846 (an important event in my personal history because it led thousands of Irish people, including the Conlan family, to emigrate to the U.S.) and offering to feed the starving people if they would abandon Roman Catholicism and become Protestants. (The people who took them up on this offer were derisively referred to by their Catholic-faithful acquaintances as “soupers” because they had sold their souls into perdition for some soup.) Bing may have been the hippest white guy to his time, and he may have had a feel for the real jazz unparalleled by any other white male singer of his day (though his predecessor Gene Austin made some surprisingly jazzy records for someone whose image was as the crooner whose 1927 mega-hit of “My Blue Heaven” was the best-selling record of all time until Bing released “White Christmas” in 1942), but he was also of Irish ancestry and the sweeping melismas that were such a part of his style owe as much or more to traditional Irish singing as Black gospel music (from which they filtered into jazz, rock and soul). The film also attempted to bridge the gap between Crosby’s affable, self-effacing public persona (it includes an interview clip in which he deprecates his own talents — he says he thinks he’ll be remembered as “someone who could carry a tune passably well” — the sort of thing one would expect from a man who titled his autobiography Call Me Lucky) and his private life — the rather tacky Donald Shepherd-Robert Slatzer biography Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man from the early 1980’s suggested the “Bing” we saw was really the Crosby who emerged when he drank, softening the hard edges of his personality that his children — especially his four sons by his first marriage to Dixie Lee — saw every day at home.

Naturally the show dealt with the infamous book Going All the Way Bing’s oldest son, Gary Crosby, published in 1983; it came out in the wake of other scandalous memoirs by kids of famous stars and was allegedly so close to Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest Gary’s book inevitably got nicknamed Daddy Dearest. This is unfair not only to Bing’s memory but Gary’s as well (Gary died in 1991 but this show includes some interview clips he filmed in 1987), since when I read Gary’s book I was impressed that he did not blame everything that went wrong with his life on his famous parent (as Christina Crawford seemed to), and though he described Bing as a strict disciplinarian he did not experience the sort of craziness from him Christina went through at Joan Crawford’s hands. Indeed, the part of Gary’s book that most bothered me was his account of his dad’s reaction when he started dating a Black woman — for someone with a reputation for being supportive of civil rights (he’d gone to bat for Louis Armstrong and got him billing in the first film they made together, Pennies from Heaven, in 1936) Bing was almost totally disapproving, and Gary flashed back to conversations he’d overheard between Bing and his buddies about how Lennie Hayton, who had written some of Bing’s best arrangements with Whiteman and in his earliest solo years, had done this horrible, terrible thing that had wrecked his career … and it had gradually dawned on Gary that the horrible, terrible thing Lennie Hayton had done that had, in Bing’s eyes and those of his friends, wrecked his career was meeting, falling in love with and marrying Lena Horne. Bing’s widow Kathryn and his kids with her were interviewed for this program — even Bing’s fiercest critics acknowledge that in his second run at parenthood he tempered the strictness and did a much better job than he had in his first — and they said they decided to ignore Gary’s book, thinking the controversy around it would go away on its own, and instead it’s come to overshadow Bing’s extraordinary legacy of success and the love audiences of his time had for him.

You don’t become the kind of success Bing was in any field without being considerably more complicated than the normal run of humanity, and it’s not surprising that he didn’t live up to that Mr. Lovable image off-screen and off-stage (Ken Barnes, who produced Bing’s last records and was interviewed for this show, remembered Bing as thoroughly professional but also prickly to work with). What remains of Bing is a remarkable voice — nature gave him incredible vocal chops but Bing knew exactly what to do with them (if you want to hear what a singer less naturally endowed with sheer vocal beauty but with Bing’s brains and musicianship, listen to his brother Bob, whom Gary Crosby had nice things to say about in his book because he was the only one of Bing’s brothers who carved out his own career instead of ending up on Bing’s payroll) — and an affable on-screen personality with great comic timing and a voice that sounded musical even when he was speaking instead of singing. One of the tics of the “Road” movies is a little inflection Bing does when he’s trying to talk Bob Hope into going along with his latest hare-brained scheme; as Hope explains the dangers of it and pleads with Bing to be let out of his role in it, Bing goes, “Oh, no no no no, No-ooooo,” in a rising inflection that itself sounds musical. Reason enough that Bing Crosby was such a success in movies; his speaking voice was so close to singing that he made it seem quite natural when he stopped speaking and actually started singing — easing the suspension of disbelief that makes so many Hollywood musicals tough going for today’s audiences. Bing Crosby was a remarkable talent, and despite its flaws one would hope this show would aid his “rediscovery” and convince modern audiences that there was more to him than just the affable old gent who brought along the Christmas spirit year after year on his TV specials and, since his death, every time “White Christmas” and his other holiday records are trotted out and replayed for new generations.

[1] — Albert Haim posted a rather pissy note on his Bix Web site blasting the show not only for mentioning Bix only as a fellow Whiteman bandmate who encouraged Bing to drink, but lumping in Frank Trumbauer as a fellow alcoholic — which Trumbauer was not. Indeed, it was Trumbauer who often had the unenviable task of dragging Bix out of whatever speakeasy he was holed up in and getting him to work!