Saturday, July 27, 2019

Bing Crosby's Duets with Dixie Lee, August 1936

After a two-year hiatus, The Vintage Bandstand returns with an article about the lone single that Bing Crosby and his wife Dixie Lee cut for Decca in 1936, which featured two then-recent classics by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight."

Born in 1909 (some sources state 1911) in the East Tennessee small town of Harriman, which will be honoring her with a historical marker later on this year, Dixie Lee Crosby (née Wilma Winifred Wyatt) was famously much better known than her future husband, Bing Crosby, when they met in Hollywood in 1929. She'd spent her childhood between East Tennessee, Memphis, New Orleans, and Chicago, and while in the Windy City, she'd won a singing contest which would eventually lead to an appearance on the Broadway show Good Times. After being spotted by an agent, she relocated to California and began a career in films that was becoming rather prominent by the time she and Crosby married in 1930. Though she would still appear in several movies in the years following the wedding (1934's Manhattan Love Song and 1935's Love in Bloom, starring George Burns and Gracie Allen, are two good examples of her screen work) and also made some records, her career ended up taking a backseat to Bing's as his star quickly began to rise in the early '30s, when he became a mass-media icon and the most popular singing star in America.

When Dixie and he met, Bing was still a member of Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys, along with Al Rinker and Harry Barris, but that association was about to come to an end, and Bing was about to transition into a solo career whose success was unparalleled at the time. In his 1953 autobiography, Call Me Lucky, published shortly after Dixie's passing from ovarian cancer in 1952, Bing spends quite a few paragraphs praising Dixie as a wife and a mother, as well as noting her positive influence on him when it came to remaining level-headed in the face of his incredible popularity. He adds that "it was no sacrifice for her to leave show business" (47) because "she didn't like show business and the hokum that goes with it" (46-47). Without eschewing the general loving tone he uses when talking about his wife, he then goes on to describe her as an extremely shy, private person who disliked singing in public despite her obvious vocal talent:

Although she was very frank and outspoken, she was also diffident and shy. She had little self-confidence. She never did think she was good in show business. I've known all of the others, and when it came to singing a song, Dixie had no equal. But it was a matter of life and death to persuade her to sing. (47)

Her stage fright is nowhere to be seen or felt when watching her movies or listening to her records, but it may go a long way to explain why she decided to leave show business and why she only sang at parties after a good bit of coaxing. It also explains why she mostly stayed away from reporters, made such few records, and seldom appeared on radio with Bing. However, the Crosbys did enter the studio to record two duets for Decca. The session took place on August 19, 1936, and the songs were two then-recent Fred Astaire-associated numbers written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—"A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight." The great Victor Young took care of the arrangements, and apparently, he had to do quite a lot of juggling with the keys to accommodate Bing and Dixie's very different vocal ranges. As Gary Giddins remarks in A Pocketful of Dreams, Young uses the transitions and changes in the melody of "The Way You Look Tonight" to adapt that melody to the differing vocal qualities of both singers:

Young shrewdly employs those transitions to facilitate and minimize the shift in keys that occurs every eight bars, as Bing and Dixie exchange passages of that length. With his wide range and finesse, Bing carries the burden of those shifts, which are brought off so well that the listener is barely aware of the elevator ride transporting each singer to a harmonically suitable floor. (458)

Bing is in fine form, but he sounds more restrained and softer than usual on these two sides, as though he were trying to adapt to Dixie's sweet, Ruth Etting-inflected vocal style. Giddins rightly notes that Young's arrangement, as well intentioned as it is, actually distances Bing and Dixie on "The Way You Look Tonight": "They sound at times as isolated as if they had been wired in from different studios, she passive and wounded, he expert and strong" (458). This is, to my ears, even more obvious on "A Fine Romance," which is in principle the perfect duet vehicle for Bing's nonchalant approach. However, the kind of rapport that is evident on Bing's duets with Rosemary Clooney, Connie Boswell, Louis Armstrong, or Bob Hope is completely absent here, to such an extent that Giddins' description of their humorous asides as "tense" actually sounds like an understatement. One wonders what Bing and Rosie could have done with "A Fine Romance" if they'd decided to include it in one of their duet albums.

Overall, this summer of '36 session by Bing and Dixie has always been a source of puzzlement to me. One would think that, knowing each other as well as they did, the two of them would click in the recording studio in a much more satisfying way, especially bearing in mind the quality of the material and of the charts. However, the magic is simply not there, at least not in the way that one would expect, and I end up enjoying Dixie Lee's scarce solo recordings much more than her two duets with Bing. Yet, to the Crosby aficionado, they remain two charming sides that never fail to grab the listener's attention, if only because of their historical and biographical significance.