Monday, July 28, 2014

Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin’ with Frank & Bing

What sort of a tune does a test pilot write? Well, there was the Sinatra staple “Come Fly with Me.” Sinatra fans might already know the vocalist recorded more tunes by Jimmy Van Heusen than anyone else, but the extent to which the composer served as Old Blue Eye’s Obi-wan could still come as a surprise. Van Heusen’s life and body of work are surveyed in Jim Burn’s Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin’ with Frank & Bing (promo here), which airs on participating PBS stations at various times throughout the month of August.

In a sense, Van Heusen is an apostolic link from Tin Pan Alley and the original Great American Songwriters, like Irving Berlin, to the Swinging Madmen 1960s. As a man who felt instinctively at home in a nightclub or tavern, Van Heusen was ideally suited to be a song-plugger. Tunes like “Darn that Dream” quickly caught on, but it was his association with Bing Crosby that took Van Heusen’s career to a higher level. Following the crooner to Hollywood, Van Heusen wrote scores of hits with lyricist Johnny Burke, including the Oscar winning “Swinging on a Star,” for Going My Way. Shrewdly, the accomplished aviator volunteered as a test pilot for Lockheed during World War II, as a way to maintain his high-flying Hollywood lifestyle while serving the war effort.

When Crosby cooled off, Van Heusen found himself at loose ends, along with his old pal from New York, Frank Sinatra. Rumor has it, Van Heusen interceded during the baritone’s darkest hours and he would pen tunes with his new regularly lyricist partner Sammy Cahn that defined the Sinatra comeback. Swingin’s best segments trace the surprising origins of some of their most popular songs, such as “Love & Marriage” written for a television musical production of Our Town, featuring Sinatra as the Stage Manager and Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as the teenaged lovers, which frustratingly is not likely to be released on home video anytime soon.

Burns also talks to all the right people, including Frank Sinatra, Jr., Woody Allen, jazz musicians Dr. Billy Taylor and John Pizzarelli, jazz-cabaret crossover performers Jane Monheit and Eric Comstock, and Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine to vouch for Van Heusen’s charm. There are also generous helpings of performance clips, largely focusing on Sinatra and Crosby, for obvious reasons.

Swingin’ will make viewers nostalgic for the glory days of the hard partying yet patriotic Rat Pack. In fact, writer-director Burns makes a persuasive case for Van Heusen as Rat Packer Zero, the one who started it all. Clocking in around the hour mark, the special could have run fifty percent longer without overstaying its welcome. The entertaining and informative Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin’ with Frank & Bing airs on various PBS outlets throughout the month of August, so check local listings.