Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bing Crosby: An American Master Rediscovered in a New Documentary

American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered, the new documentary on Bing Crosby's life and career that aired last night on PBS (and which my wife and I watched on their northwest Tennessee affiliate, WLJT) has a clearly revisionist agenda. And that, in the case of Crosby, is not just fine but absolutely necessary, for two main reasons. First of all, because of the infamous books published in the 1980s that consistently slandered his name and negatively affected his invaluable legacy, one of which was written by one of his own sons, Gary Crosby. And then, and just as importantly, because Crosby's importance as a cultural icon and musical innovator is often downplayed, the public at large regarding him merely as a singer of seasonal songs come the month of December. And this is precisely why the title of this documentary, embraced by the Crosby estate (wife Kathryn Crosby and their sons, Harry and Nathaniel, and daughter, Mary, have participated actively in the project), is so appropriate. Crosby is, indeed, an indisputable American master, and his legacy needs to be rediscovered and presented to younger generations that may never be exposed to him otherwise.

Rosemary Clooney and Crosby recording a radio show
All in all, the documentary succeeds in casting a different light on Crosby's legacy, and it is at once informative and entertaining, fast-paced and thoughtful in the way that it portrays Crosby's larger-than-life career and achievements. It benefits not only from the input of the Crosby family but also from interviews conducted with jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, singer and Crosby devotee Michael Feinstein, British producer Ken Barnes (who worked with Bing extensively in the 1970s), and also Tony Bennett, who throws in some interesting comments and memories of how much of an early influence Crosby was on his own singing style. Moreover, there are audio and video clips of old interviews with son Gary, early musical partner Al Rinker, bandleading brother Bob Crosby, and friend and duet partner Rosemary Clooney, among others. And then, of course, there is also a multitude of snippets showing the man himself in action, taken from movies, radio and television appearances, and interviews, as well as dozens of pictures, some interesting home movies, and Dictabelt tape reels that contain recordings of Crosby dictating personal letters. All of this contributes to painting a well-rounded picture of Crosby as a man and as an artist, two facets of his personality that have been long intertwined and difficult to untangle.

Bing and Kathryn Crosby in the 1970s
And this is precisely one of the positive aspects of the documentary: its insistence on underscoring the fact that there was a difference between Crosby's public persona—that is, the way that the public perceived him through his work—and his private self, and its claim that Bing should not be chastised for it. Indeed, that is the way it is with most artists and most people in general, but in the case of Crosby, his difficult relationship with his sons from his marriage to his first wife, Dixie Lee, as well as the gossip-column attitude of many who chronicled said marriage, has resulted in an unfair, slandering treatment of the man. Bing Crosby Rediscovered is determined to set the record straight, offering a portrait of Crosby as a complex yet loving and caring family man who made pretty much the same choices, both right and wrong, when it came to raising his kids as most of the parents of his generation. Throughout the interviews shown in the documentary, his sons, daughter, and second wife, Kathryn, provide new approaches to Crosby the family man, trying to understand the kind of values he upheld and thereby completing and attenuating the grossly one-sided picture that one gets from books such as Gary's Going My Own Way and Donald Shepherd and Robert Slatzer's Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man.

Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong
Even more importantly, the documentary concentrates on the many avenues of showbusiness and American culture on which Crosby made an indelible mark (records, films, radio, television) and emphasizes his perhaps lesser-known roles in funding the research into audio and videotape, as a philanthropist, as a morale-booster during World War II, and as a Civil Rights supporter. One aspect of Crosby's contribution to popular music that is illustrated very effectively is the new approach to phrasing that he introduced, aided by the invention of the microphone, when his career began in the late 1920s and early '30s. This is shown by comparing three different versions of the Depression-era classic "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," sung by Rudy Vallee, Al Jolson, and Crosby. The comparison of snippets of the three records clearly demonstrates Bing's new, coolly relaxed approach to phrasing, proving that, as Michael Feinstein rightly argues, he was several decades ahead of his time even this early in his career. While there is basically very little in the documentary that a well-informed Crosby fan does not already know, the project is notable for its entertainment value and for the wealth of information on Crosby that it offers to a potential new generation of admirers. There is simply a great deal still to discover about the story of Bing Crosby, and this documentary is a fine place to start for anyone interested in his work or in popular music and jazz of the highest order.

Audio and Video Releases

The documentary American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered is available on DVD, and so is its companion soundtrack CD. Further recent CD reissues from Bing Crosby Enterprises include the compilation Bing Crosby Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook and the expanded editions of Some Fine Old Chestnuts and Songs I Wish I Had Sung... the First Time Around.

Bing conversing with David Bowie during the taping of Bing's last Christmas special in 1977

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