The enduring power and appeal of great mid-20th century American pop music, shows no signs of abating, which is a kinder way of saying that boomer music is outliving the boomer generation. Just as the Great American Songbook giants produced indelible art now clocking in at the century-old mark, the songwriters, singers, groups, musicians and producers of what was first called Top 40, then oldies and now simply classics, have created a legacy that fuels everything from Broadway hits to biopics to commercials and TV shows.
One of the most talented, colorful, and in many ways tragic figures of that era was songwriter-producer Bob Crewe, who also happened to be an uncommonly talented and serious visual artist, a medium he turned to after drugs helped derail a career that for a time was a force of nature behind the meteoric rise of the beloved vocal group, the Four Seasons and their dynamic lead singer Frankie Valli. If you’ve heard “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” or seen the Tony-winning musical “Jersey Boys,” you’ve heard this pop maestro’s greatest hits.
A newly published book, “Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound: Compositions in Art and Music” by Donald Albrecht, Jessica May, Andrew Loog Oldham, Peter Plagens (Rizzoli Electa) helps illuminate Crewe’s powerful creativity both in the studio and on the canvas, but also sensitively tells the heartbreaking tale of a gay artist struggling with the widespread homophobia of his era and social strictures that internally deformed a brilliant man gifted with Adonis-like good looks.
Book Soup in Los Angeles is celebrating the book’s launch April 9 by hosting a virtual conversation with three of the book’s authors, Peter Plagens, Donald Albrecht and Jessica May, along with Crewe’s brother and former business partner, Dan Crewe, who describes Bob Crewe as “a foreigner in a foreign land. Bob had an abhorrent self-image because he was gay.”
Dan’s view of Bob goes far beyond professional collaborations and even sibling associates. As a gay man himself, he vividly recalls the crippling era of closeted performers when he and his brother came of age as a time when “Bob was too pretty for him to try and duck the criticism. Being super pretty is not an asset, unless you hang out with an enclave of super models.”
Still bristling from how Bob Crewe was depicted in “Jersey Boys,” as a campy mincing stereotypical “queen,” Crewe acidly describes the musical as (Four Seasons member and Crewe songwriting collaborator) “Bob Gaudio’s revenge.”
“To be honest, during my brother’s worst behavior, he was a shit to Gaudio. So, after we first saw the musical in La Jolla, Bob and I talked about it. He was very upset with how he was depicted, and I was angry and felt it was a cheap shot. It was also completely wrong. Bob was so self-loathing; he was the opposite of flamboyant. Frankly, Bob was homophobic, and he never attended an event without a great looking woman on his arm.”
Formerly a top New York model, blessed with chiseled movie star looks, successful in the competitive New York music scene even before the Four Seasons, having co-written the pop classic “Silhouettes,” and several hits for pop rocker Freddy Cannon before the Four Seasons entered the studio, Crewe also scored a mega-hit by co-writing “Lady Marmalade” for Patti LaBelle. It’s hard to accept that all these decades later, his own brother chalks up his brother’s descent into addiction and myriad lost creative opportunities to our society’s failure to provide safety and support for those outside the heterosexual mainstream.
“Oh my God, yes,” proclaims Crewe. “If Bob hadn’t been born in 1930, he probably wouldn’t have experienced 30 years of self-loathing and deceptive behavior.”
Perhaps even more disturbing is Crewe’s view that even in 2005, when “Jersey Boys” premiered, the cheap laughs around Bob Crewe’s campy antics were an accepted form of entertainment.
How could that kind of demeaning portraiture have been created in the 21st Century? “I would be guessing now,” says Crewe, “but I believe that today there’s no way you could depict Bob that way. We have the LGBTQ movement, and the world has changed. Today, you couldn’t allow those cheap shots about Bob, but 17 years ago, it was OK to make the gay man the comic, sort of the gay Stepin Fetchit, a total ditz.”
But there are at least two giant silver linings to the story of Bob Crewe, who died in 2014 at age 83. He did embrace sobriety, he did find solace and expression in painting, a creative endeavor he first began in the 50s when no less than Andy Warhol helped him land his first gallery show. “Bob had an emptiness that could never be fixed,” recalls Dan Crewe. “And ironically, it destroyed his career. But his paintings are very structural and contain a very powerful strength. He was looking for something he couldn’t find in life and he found it in painting.”
And secondly, “Jersey Boys” gave the Crewe’s a chance to “pay it back.”
“I remember after we calmed down from our initial reaction to ‘Jersey Boys,’ we realized it was never going to be about Bob Crewe and that’s as it should be. And Bob turned to me and said, ‘Dan, just cash the checks.’”
Those “checks” led to the creation of the Bob Crewe Foundation in 2009, a nonprofit organization led by Dan Crewe, funded by Crewe’s “Jersey Boys” royalties and centered in Maine where it helps fund that state’s arts and LGBTQ communities.
Crewe wistfully recalls one of his brother’s last wishes: “I want on my tombstone, ‘There was never enough.’”
Let’s hope there’s been “enough” change since Bob Crewe’s youth to make it easier for a beautiful, stunningly creative “Jersey Boy” today to simply be himself in song, on canvas or any damn way he pleases.