In preserving his brother’s legacy, Dan Crewe wants to complete the picture of the legendary songwriter
CUMBERLAND — Bob Crewe didn’t like how he was portrayed in “Jersey Boys,” the jukebox musical about The Four Seasons. Though it was based on the music he co-wrote for the chart-topping ’60s rock band, he had no creative input in the story. Crewe, who was guarded about his sexuality, was angry that he came off as a stereotypical campy gay man.
“It was a cheap-shot kind of thing,” says his brother, Dan Crewe. “My brother being a public person, there was very little he could do about it – but we knew we had a winning show. We couldn’t control the show, but we had the residuals of the show. We owned the copyrights and all that kind of stuff. There’s a practicality to it, a pragmatism. I said to my brother at one point, ‘Bob, what do you want to do about it and what will you achieve by doing it? If it’s important enough to you, write a show about yourself. Just deposit the checks.’”
Bob Crewe took his younger brother’s advice, and those checks now translate into about $1 million a year of philanthropic work in Maine by the Bob Crewe Foundation, which is based in Cumberland Foreside and run by Dan Crewe, who also chairs the foundation board. Funded largely by the royalties earned from the success of “Jersey Boys,” the foundation gives grants to organizations that increase access to and visibility of the arts, and also supports and promotes LGBTQ projects and initiatives.
A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Bob Crewe died in Maine in 2014 at age 83. He began writing doo-wop hits in the 1950s (“Silhouettes” by the Rays) and had a run in the ’60s of writing and producing massive hits for Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and others. His most famous song, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” co-written with Bob Gaudio and ever-popular at weddings, was written for his lover. Crewe also co-wrote the disco classic “Lady Marmalade,” which made his niece, Reid Crewe, extremely popular at Gould Academy in Bethel when Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim took a remake to No. 1 in 2001 with the “Moulin Rouge!” movie soundtrack.
New Jersey born and raised, he split his music career between New York and Los Angeles, and lived his final years in Maine after suffering a brain injury in a fall. Dan Crewe, who moved to Maine in the 1990s and is now 86, has spent much of his time since then coming to terms with their complicated brotherhood, which was marked by a distant childhood, an enormously successful rock ‘n’ roll partnership in the 1960s, a bitter breakup over drugs and alcohol in the 1970s, and then a long and circuitous mending over many decades, which has only come full circle in the years that have followed Bob Crewe’s death.
The reconciliation is part of Dan Crewe’s ongoing, long-term effort to preserve his brother’s legacy, both as a songwriting legend and talented painter, accurately and for the sake of history.
“He was the biggest pain in the ass I ever had to deal with in my life,” Dan Crewe said of his brother, whom he described as a narcissist “who did everything to excess. He was a real drunk. He could get out of hand. It’s the story of his life. It’s racing to the moon and then crashing. … But I owe him – he and I owe each other. We did something together that was incredible. He was a pain in the ass who was also brilliant, and if I don’t honor that, I am being selfish.”
Like many artists, Bob Crewe was creative across media. In addition to his work as a songwriter and producer, he spent several decades creating lush, layered and complicated large-scale paintings and sculptures, many examples of which now hang in a foundation-owned home in Cumberland Foreside that Dan Crewe has recently converted into a private gallery to showcase his brother’s art. Some of his brother’s art is so large, Crewe had to install a 7-foot door and raise an archway to accommodate it. The foundation gallery, at 250 Foreside Road, is adjacent to Dan Crewe’s home as well as the home of Reid Crewe, Dan’s daughter, who is the foundation’s vice president and grant director.
In Portland, Cove Street Arts is showing 18 of Bob Crewe’s artworks through July 10. A selection of his work is also on view at Hollis Taggart gallery in New York.
Wildly successful as a musician, songwriter and producer, Bob Crewe was modestly successful as a visual artist. He was a friend of the pop artist Andy Warhol, who helped land him gallery shows in New York, and he showed his art in Los Angeles as well. Dan Crewe is bringing renewed attention to his brother’s visual artwork in hopes of placing his paintings in museums to begin telling a fuller story of his brother’s creative genius. “The purpose of this gallery is not to sell art. The No. 1 goal is museum placement and recognition,” he said.
Working with the New York publisher Rizzoli Electa, the foundation has published “Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound – Compositions in Art and Music,” a 239-page catalog with images of the art by Maine photographer Luc Demers, as well as essays by painter and writer Peter Plagens, curator Donald Albrecht and Jessica May, the former chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art and now artistic director at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Also contributing an essay is Andrew Loog Oldham, the former manager of the Rolling Stones and one of Dan Crewe’s closest friends, who writes about Bob Crewe’s lust for life and his musical acumen. He calls him the “Energizer bunny of pop.” Dan Crewe and May will discuss and sign copies of the book from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. June 24 at Cove Street.
The legacy-building effort also involves the sale of Bob Crewe’s songwriting credits to a music publisher last year, with the money going to the foundation. Eventually, the effort will include organizing the Bob Crewe archive in Maine.
When Dan Crewe moved his brother to Maine at the end of his life, he also moved 200 pieces of abstract art that Bob Crewe obsessed over and mastered just as he obsessed over and mastered putting words to music and finding ways to express in song what he was feeling in his heart. There is dimension to this work, and it is replete with the dynamics of repetition, structure and order, just like his music. With marks in wood and with the intentional precision of applied paint, Bob Crewe created abstract visual masterpieces as perfect as his pop songs.
In the music studio, he was known for describing what he wanted to hear in visual terms. “No, no, no, you don’t understand,” he famously told his arranger in a scene captured in “Jersey Boys.” “I want to hear clouds.”
Or, “I want to hear sky blue, and you are giving me brown.”
With these paintings, he created the same feelings, but with tactile materials.
Bob Crewe dabbled in visual art in the 1960s, and turned to it completely 20 years later when he lost interest in the music industry – or it lost interest in him. He fully immersed himself in his visual art practice, first making totemic sculptures, assemblages and geometric paintings that evolved into finely constructed and generally monochromatic abstract work.
Kelley Lehr, who runs Cove Street with her husband, John Danos, described Crewe’s artwork as elegant, sophisticated and compelling, and said she sensed connections between his paintings and his music. “Excavation Triptych” from 1996 is a mixed-media piece of concentric circles, contained within vertical rectangles. Each panel looks like a subwoofer, with sound waves emanating out.
“I think there wasn’t much of a wall between his music and his visual art,” Lehr said. “Music is the most abstract of the art forms – it doesn’t represent or correspond to physical objects in the material world, but instead conveys emotional states. And it’s built on symmetry and repetition. So, for me, it seems significant and natural that Crewe found his artistic voice in a visual language that is also purely abstract and non-objective.”
For Lehr, the magic of Crewe’s visual art lies in the tension between the restrained palette and complex textured surfaces.
Four years apart in age, Bob and Dan Crewe weren’t particularly close growing up in Belleville, New Jersey. Bob was the handsome older brother, a star performer in the school and popular with both the girls and the athletes. Dan had talent, too, but lived in the shadow of his older brother. Bob moved to New York after high school and began his life in music and art, enrolling at Parsons School of Design. Dan Crewe was accepted in the U.S. Naval Academy after graduating, and later joined the Air Force.
Out of service, Dan landed in Manhattan, going to work for Bell Laboratories. That’s when he became friends with his older brother. They began socializing, and one day Bob asked him to lunch. “This record I have looks like it’s going to be a hit,” Bob told him, and suggested Dan quit his job so they could start a music company together. Dan Crewe hesitated, but briefly. Ever practical, he weighed giving up a secure job for the risky life of rock ‘n’ roll – and chose rock ‘n’ roll.
“So much of life is serendipity, but it doesn’t become serendipitous if you say no,” Dan Crewe said. “If you don’t say yes, you never know. So I said yes. I had nothing to lose.”
They made mountains of hits together, with Bob Crewe handling the artistic end of things and Dan taking care of the business. And it wasn’t just Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons they made into stars. They worked with Diane Renay, Lesley Gore, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and others.
“We were incredible together before the drugs and alcohol,” Dan Crewe said. “We were zooming. We had so many god-blessed hits, it was one right after the other. In the early days of the Seasons, we had three Top 10 records all the time. We were always on the charts. It was endless. We had so many different acts, all the time.”
Eventually, alcohol gave way to pot, which led to cocaine. “And once cocaine came into the picture,” Dan Crewe said, without finishing his sentence. “With my brother, you always worried what was going to happen.”
He became unreliable, and Dan Crewe stopped doing business with him. But blood is thicker than dollars. He still helped his brother – he got him a job with Motown, they worked toward sobriety together, and Dan arranged all of his brother’s medical and end-of-life care in Maine. But their business association ended, until they formed the foundation. Now he is working with his brother again, every single day.
This is the second time Dan Crewe has reconciled grief as a way to turn it into a positive force for change. In 1996, Crewe’s 11-year-old daughter with musician Cidny Bullens, Jessie Bullens-Crewe, died from complications of cancer. Crewe shut down, went dark. He lost faith in himself, and said he might not have “stuck around” if not for his parental duties to another daughter, Reid. Dads are supposed to save their kids, and Dan Crewe, a lifetime fixer, couldn’t do a thing for Jessie.
He came out of it when he realized he was shaming Jessie’s memory by dwelling on his own pain. He created the Jessie B-C Fund to raise money for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program and began what has become a full-on commitment to philanthropic causes in Maine. Among the organizations he has worked with are Maine College of Art, the University of Southern Maine, the ACLU and the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
He and his brother began the Bob Crewe Foundation while Bob was living in Los Angeles. It has become Maine-centric with time. Dan Crewe has begun turning more responsibilities over to his daughter, Reid, who is 39.
Reid Crewe and her father share their own complicated history, with each other and with Bob Crewe. Reid was very close to her uncle.
“He was one of my very favorite people growing up because he indulged me and he was interesting and different than anyone I had ever met, and I loved it,” she said. “And I was one of the only people he ever let in, because I was not a threat and I loved him unconditionally. His last words ever were ‘I love you’ – to me – and love was hard for him. Love was not something he could do easily.”
That sense of love is what Reid Crewe carries forward in her work with the foundation that her father and uncle forged together. Families are complicated. Legacies are complicated. Love is complicated.
But philanthropy can be simple. It’s about making people’s lives better, despite those complications.
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