By Neal Justin
Star Tribune (TNS)
A two-hour documentary, “Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” premiering at 7 p.m. today on PBS, should introduce a new generation to arguably the most underrated artist of the 20th century.
Inspired by Louis Armstrong’s phrasing, Crosby brought jazz to the masses, becoming the most recorded singer of all time with nearly 400 hit singles. He was also a movie star, with three Oscar nominations.
Twin Cities singer and jazz scholar Arne Fogel ranks Crosby with Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin among the most influential performers of the past 100 years.
“Jazz was very scary back then, especially in the Midwest. There was this racial aspect to it,” said Fogel, who hosts a weekly tribute to Crosby-era music on KBEM Radio (88.5 FM). “Then along comes this guy with a smiling-neighbor, movie-star guise. He was able to change mainstream pop music.”
But that side of Crosby may be unknown to anyone who wasn’t a teenager by the 1950s. By the end of that decade he was more famous for selling Minute Maid frozen orange juice.
Part of his fade from superstardom was Crosby’s reluctance to bask in the spotlight. He and his family lived away from Los Angeles, and Crosby rarely mingled with the members of the Rat Pack.
“When you think of Sinatra, you think of a man in a tuxedo with a microphone,” Fogel said. “When you think of Crosby, you think of a man with a hat and a fishing pole in his hand.”
Another factor: allegations of abuse by the children from his first marriage. Six years after his death, son Gary Crosby wrote “Going My Own Way,” a memoir that detailed incidents of being beaten with a belt dotted with metal studs. One of his brothers said the accounts were greatly exaggerated.
“Robert Trachtenberg (the director) really dealt with the elephant in the room, which was Gary’s book,” said his stepsister Mary Crosby. “I had lunch with (Gary) shortly after it came out, and he said agents told him he would sell more books if he made a bigger deal about it. My first thought was: How could you vilify your dad just to sell more books? My second thought was: Thank God my dad isn’t around to see a child betraying him.”
The three children from Crosby’s second marriage have never publicly said anything negative about their dad’s parenting. In fact, they’ve barely said anything at all.
“Dad was really an under-the-radar kind of guy, and that’s what we believed in,” Mary said.
The film relies in large part on recordings, home movies and letters that were gathering dust in the basement of Bing Crosby’s second wife, Kathryn.
Mary was impressed with the way Trachtenberg treated the family collection – as well as other aspects of her father that conflicted with his happy-go-lucky public persona.
“This movie doesn’t put Dad up on a pedestal,” Mary said.