Metropolitan Room – Jan. 12, 14. 26, 28
Have you noticed how few tributes have been given lately to Bing Crosby? Everyone knows his name and the songs he sang, but perhaps Crosby’s laid-back, casual approach has just not been firing up current performers. So thanks to baritone Joel Ginn for “Singing Bing” at the Metropolitan Room, a thoughtful collection from the Crosby repertoire. Stress that this collection is “from” the Crosby repertoire” because there obviously was a lot of pickin’ and choosin’ to do, considering the vast Crosby songbook. Not an easy task, Ginn pointed out, although he whittled it down to a hefty 27 songs associated with Crosby from the ’30’s to the ’50’s.
Dapper in black tie, Joel Ginn makes it clear that he was not there to imitate Bing Crosby but to salute his contribution to the American songbook. With his legendary seemingly easy assurance and his soft, warm baritone, Crosby gave birth to the intimate tradition of “crooning.” His conversational phrasing moved popular songs out of the operetta world, erased pretentiousness, and made the tunes familiar and accessible for recordings, radio, television and films. He inspired many of the pop baritones of the 20th century, especially after his main crooning competitor, Russ Columbo, died, in 1934.
The show was directed by Lina Koutrakos. Ginn’s songs have been arranged in categories separated by short biographical patter. There are the must–haves, like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” and since Crosby was a blue-eyed Irishman, there was the inevitable link to “Danny Boy” (Frederic Edward Weatherly), sung a cappella, and “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” (James Royce Shannon). Ginn sealed his show with what became Crosby’s signature song, “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,” by Roy Turk, Fred Ahlert, and Crosby himself. It was the only song that Crosby helped write.
Ginn’s strengths are the uptempo and light-hearted songs, like “Jeepers Creepers” (Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren) and “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)” by Harry Warren, Mort Dixon, and Billy Rose. Ginn comments that Crosby was not comfortable singing “I love you” in his films and he recorded many spirituals and sunny pick-me-ups. Not a he-man type, Crosby was surprisingly drawn to cowboy songs like Al Dexter’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” He recorded some mega-hits, among them Johnny Mercer’s “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Home on the Range” (Brewster Higley, Daniel Kelley), and the now barely remembered but catchy “Sioux City Sue” (Dick Thomas, Ray Freedman). Though hardly a Stetson type himself, Ginn appreciates Crosby’s affinity for the genre and he brings to them a sense of fun and a pinch of wryness.
With few exceptions, like his tender approach to “Pennies From Heaven” (Johnny Burke, Arthur Johnston), Ginn is less effective with the ballads. His voice is not always secure and his vocals tend to veer off pitch. With so many songs to choose from, he could have easily avoided his weaknesses.
Ginn does not discuss how he was influenced by Crosby or why he chose him for this salute. Also unfortunate is that no mention is made of jazz and its importance in Crosby’s singing. In “Call Me Lucky,” his autobiography written with Pete Martin, Crosby noted that he learned phrasing from listening to jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and hanging with top players like Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang. His years with Paul Whiteman helped him develop his casual swing style. The show had able musical direction by pianist Jeff Cubeta and some impressive riffs by Matt Wigton on bass; Ginn failed to take full advantage of their musical chops and go for one of the catchy jazz numbers from the 1956 film High Society. Instead, he selected the Cole Porter ballad “True Love.”
Joel Ginn displays a studious appreciation for the Crosby legacy and the songs made famous by a man who was not perfect or lovable, but who possessed a talent that remains legendary. Hopefully, Ginn will continue to hone this show, edit out the ineffective songs, get more comfortable with the emotions in the lyrics, and keep reminding listeners of Bing Crosby’s role in the American songbook.