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Gary Giddins on Bing Crosby

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was truthfully said that no hour of the day or night, year after year, passed without the voice of Bing Crosby being heard somewhere on this earth. – Gilbert Seldes, The Public Arts (1956)

His last words were characteristic. Walking off the eighteenth green of the La Moraleja Golf Club, in a suburb of Madrid, Bing Crosby said, "That was a great game of golf, fellas", and then took a few steps and was gone. The three Spanish champions who made up the foursome had ribbed the old crooner about his ratty red sweater and white hat, but Bing and Manuel Pinero won by a single stroke and collected ten dollars. Bing had been in a good mood all afternoon, singing and laughing during the four-and-a-half-hour match, shooting a respectable 85, a lot better than his 92 the day before. He was scheduled to hunt partridge in the countryside the next day; then, on Sunday, fly west to the island resort of Palma de Majorca for more golf before starting home to San Francisco.

But after what was to be his last game, shortly after 6:00 pm on October 14 1977, about twenty yards from the clubhouse, Crosby silently crumpled. The others thought he had slipped. When they realized he had suffered a massive heart attack, they frantically administered oxygen and cardiac tonic injections. An hour later, at Madrid's Hospital de la Cruz Roja, Bing Crosby was pronounced dead on arrival – "cardiac insufficiency due to coronariopathies and valvular sclerosis."

His death was front-page news everywhere. In the United States and Great Britain, his passing was treated as comparable to that of Churchill and de Gaulle. Newspapers then were edited and written by the generation of men and women who came of age during World War II. They remembered Crosby as a shining light during those years, not merely because Der Bingle had made the largest number of V-Discs and army broadcasts, toured in England and France in 1944, and raised $14.5 million in war bonds (a Yank magazine poll declared him the individual who had done the most for GI morale) but because perhaps more than anyone else he had come to define – at a time when national identity was important – what it meant to be American.

Yet to the swarming generation born after the war, all the reverence was a mystery. He was known to them as a faded and not especially compelling celebrity, a square old man who made orange-juice commercials and appeared with his much younger family on Christmas telecasts that the baby boomers never watched. He had long since disappeared from movies and the hit parade. If children of the sixties knew his work at all, it was from his perennial hit record of "White Christmas", TV reruns of his Road pictures with Bob Hope, and his duet with David Bowie on "Little Drummer Boy". They would have been amazed to learn how advanced, savvy, and forceful a musician he had been in his prime.

That was the cost of having played Everyman too long and too well. Harry Lillis Crosby was the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century. His was the voice of the nation, the cannily informal personification of hometown decency – friendly, unassuming, melodious, irrefutably American. In his looser and wilder years, when the magnitude of his stardom was without precedent or equal, he had been reckoned the epitome of cool. But universal acceptance demanded of him a willful blandness that obscured the full weight of his achievement. Of the few musicians who had synthesized modernism in popular music and jazz, Crosby received the least serious attention from biographers and critics after 1950. What Edmund Wilson wrote of Charles Dickens's standing in the 1930s describes Bing Crosby's at the time of his death: he had become so much a "familiar joke, a favorite dish, a Christmas ritual" that pundits no longer saw "in him the great artist and social critic that he was."

But more than familiarity laid waste to Crosby's reputation. Popular culture plays by the numbers, and Bing's numbers – and the aesthetic they represented – were shaded by those of rock. His art was now as remote from demotic tastes as classical music or jazz. Four of the last century's most treasured singers died in quick succession in the late summer and fall of 1977: Elvis Presley on August 16, Ethel Waters on September 1, Maria Callas on September 16, and Bing Crosby on October 14. All were American-born and all were celebrated beyond the idioms with which they are primarily associated. Of them, Bing's stature seemed especially secure: his obituaries triggered so many record sales that MCA (Decca) could not handle the orders and farmed them out to other plants, requiring more than a million discs per day. Yet on the twentieth anniversary of their deaths, only Elvis's memory was widely acknowledged in mass media. Two years later Newsweek devoted forty-plus pages to "Voices of the Century: America Goes Hollywood", in which Crosby was not mentioned, except to caption a photograph with Frank Sinatra.

In the decade following his death, Crosby's personal stature had been tarnished by a one-two punch. First, there was a savage, ineptly researched biography that ignored his art in its haste to show that yet another departed hero had feet of clay. It was soon followed by a resentful memoir by his alcoholic eldest son, Gary Crosby. Under the law, the dead cannot be libeled, and those books, published in the early 1980s, generated an irresponsible piling-on. Unfounded rumors were passed off as fact. The fading portrait of the imperturbable crooner, the soul of affection, the totem of cool, was replaced by the crude rendering of a pinchfaced, right-wing, child-beating philanderer.

His contemporaries had a more accurate sense of him. Crosby was a phenomenon in the cultural life of the United States long before the war. He had helped lift morale while elucidating the American temperament during the Great Depression, the worst years of privation in the nation's history. Combining musical cultures as no one had ever done (he sang in every idiom short of grand opera), he made the country a more neighborly and unified place. After the war Crosby became an even bigger star, selling more movie tickets and records than ever, serving as a steady barometer of the postwar mood, a bulwark against the reign of paranoia, an outrider of the affluence that followed. Without any dramatic outward change, he had somehow been the right man for successive crises, assertive and optimistic through Prohibition, the Depression, and hot and cold wars. He had the chameleon's ability to reflect his surroundings and the artist's discernment to illuminate them. If Churchill, in his Savile Row pinstripes with his cigars and learned oratory, incarnated the British lion, Bing, in his peculiar motley (shirttails, beat-up hats, torn sweaters, mismatched socks), with his pipe and preternatural calm, embodied the best in American individualism. In 1943 H. Allen Smith observed, "He has been the antithesis of all that the Sunday schools and the Boy Scouts and the 'Y' secretaries taught – and look at him!"

Of the handful of artists who remade American music in the 1920s, Crosby may be said to have had the broadest immediate impact, if only because he reached the largest number of people. He played a decisive role in transforming popular song from a maudlin farrago steeped in minstrelsy and vaudeville into a swinging, racially nuanced, and internationally accepted phenomenon that in one form or another dominated the age. He was by no means alone, yet he attained a matchless orbit of popularity. Most histories of the Depression and the New Deal never mention Crosby, as if the rantings of Huey Long or Father Coughlin exercised greater impact on the public temper than "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", "The Last Round-Up", or "The One Rose". Yet as many as fifty million people tuned in every Thursday evening to hear Bing's Kraft Music Hall (1935-46). Consider that the hottest TV series of 2000, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, peaked with thirty-six million viewers.

Popular art listens, absorbs, reflects, harangues, and can, in troubled times, console. Crosby's records were as reassuring as President Roosevelt's "fireside chats". In a national poll conducted in the late 1940s, Crosby was voted the most admired man alive, ahead of Jackie Robinson, Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, Harry Truman, Bob Hope, and the Pope. Bing was less impressed with himself. He remarked in 1960, "As far as I am concerned, with the exception of a phonograph record or two, I don't think I have done anything that's really outstanding or great or marvelous or anything that deserves any superlatives." Emerson wrote, "Every hero becomes a bore at last." Even to himself.

Except for a confederation of minstrel troupes and chains of vaudeville theaters, the entertainment industry barely existed when Harry Lillis Crosby was born in 1903 to a lower-middle-class Anglo-Irish-American Catholic family. The wax-recorded disc was three years old, and the first nickelodeon was two years down the road. The first regularly scheduled radio broadcasts didn't begin until 1920. Over the next half century, the United States forged the first empire dependent not on strategic colonies but rather on the irresistible sway of its popular arts. Crosby's prestige was crucial in shaping that empire, in spreading a New World style and image. Not the least of his achievements was his role in ensuring the prosperity – in some instances, the very survival – of several major entertainment corporations, including CBS, NBC, ABC, Decca Records, Paramount Pictures, and Ampex tape.

Crosby was the first white vocalist to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong: his rhythm, his emotion, his comedy, and his spontaneity. Louis and Bing recorded their first important vocals, respectively, in 1926 ("Heebie Jeebies") and 1927 ("Muddy Water") and were the only singers of that era still thriving at the times of their deaths, in the 1970s. When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. The term pop singer didn't exist; it was coined in large measure to describe a breed he invented. Bing perfected the use of the microphone, which transfigured concerts, records, radio, movies – even the nature of social intercourse. As vocal styles became more intimate and talking pictures replaced pantomime, private discourse itself grew more casual and provocative. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent.

The great cultural critic Constance Rourke identified the three regional stereotypes of nineteenth-century American humor as the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel. Bing remains the only entertainer to embody all three, producing in the bargain a twentieth-century composite, often described in his day as the Common Man. Bing's discography, a compilation of 1,668 songs (not including hundreds more he sang on radio), is astonishingly comprehensive. It enfolds the Yankee's Tin Pan Alley, the backwoodsman's western laments, and the minstrel's Old South ballads. It explores every idiom, class, and precinct of American song, from hymns, anthems, spirituals, and novelties to Hawaiian, Irish, light opera, and r&b; he even took a fling at rock 'n' roll. No other performer's catalog is comparable.

During his most prominent years, from 1934 to 1954, Crosby held a nearly unrivaled command over all three key entertainment media, racking up legendary phonograph sales, radio ratings, and motion-picture grosses. At no time was he marketed to one generation or faction of the audience. He may have begun as a Jazz Age emoter for the College Humor set, but by the mid-thirties, he was America's troubadour. Bing's influence can be heard in the work of numerous singers in diverse idioms, including Armstrong, whose first foray into popular songs in 1929 was in part a response to Bing's achievement, Jimmy Rushing, Connie Boswell, Perry Como, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Wakely, Roy Rogers, Herb Jeffries, Billy Eckstine, B. B. King, Mel Tormé, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Hartman, Tony Bennett, Ruth Brown, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley, who recorded more than a dozen of Crosby's signature hits. Instrumentalists from Jimmy Dorsey to Sonny Rollins have attempted to mimic a semblance of the Crosby cry.

Popular culture, like sports, is beset with statistics, a fixation on chart and box-office rankings, grosses and salaries, and prizes. But whereas sports statistics live forever, pop stats are ultimately transitory and meaningless – no recitation of past sales figures can incline us to listen to Billy Murray records or to read Lloyd C. Douglas novels or to buy Walter Keane paintings. The only pop stats that continue to matter involve artists who continue to matter.

It is impossible to regard Bing Crosby as a historical figure without considering some of his statistics. If nothing else, they reveal his dominance over popular entertainment from Prohibition until the mid-1950s, when his decline as the nation's preeminent muse was signaled by the comeback of a newly charged Sinatra and the arrival of Elvis – the former marketed to adults, the latter to their children. During Crosby's reign, that split did not exist.

He was the first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra.

He made more studio recordings than any other singer in history (about 400 more than Sinatra).

He made the most popular record ever, "White Christmas", the only single to make American pop charts twenty times, every year but one between 1942 and 1962. In 1998, after a long absence, his 1947 version hit the charts in Britain.

Between 1927 and 1962 he scored 368 charted records under his own name, plus twenty-eight as vocalist with various bandleaders, for a total of 396. No one else has come close; compare Paul Whiteman (220), Sinatra (209), Elvis (149), Glenn Miller (129), Nat "King" Cole (118), Louis Armstrong (85), the Beatles (68).

He scored the most number one hits ever, thirty-eight, compared with twenty-four by the Beatles and eighteen by Presley.

In 1960 he received a platinum record as First Citizen of the Record Industry for having sold 200 million discs, a number that doubled by 1980.

Between 1915 and 1980 he was the only motion-picture star to rank as the number one box-office attraction five times (1944-48). Between 1934 and 1954 he scored in the top ten fifteen times.

Going My Way was the highest-grossing film in the history of Paramount Pictures until 1947; The Bells of St. Mary’s was the highest grossing film in the history of RKO Pictures until 1947.

He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times and won for Going My Way.

He was a major radio star longer than any other performer, from 1931 until 1954 on network, 1954 until 1962 in syndication.

He appeared on approximately 4,000 radio broadcasts, nearly 3,400 of them his own programs, and single-handedly changed radio from a live performance to a canned or recorded medium by presenting, in 1946, the first transcribed network show on ABC – thereby making that also-ran network a major force.

He financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry.

He created the first and longest-running celebrity pro-am golf championship, playing host for thirty-five years, raising millions in charity, and was the central figure in the development of the Del Mar racetrack in California.

Such reckonings count for little and would mean nothing at all if Crosby's art did not merit rediscovery. He was, first and foremost, a masterly, innovative musician – an untrained vocalist of natural charm and robust power with impeccable instincts about phrasing and tempo. He pared away the rococo mannerisms of bygone theatrical styles in favor of the clean melodic line. Lyricists thought him a godsend because he not only articulated words but also underscored their meaning. Crosby, who never learned to read music and could play no instrument except rudimentary drums, had an apparently photographic and audiographic memory. He had only to hear a song to know it.

As an actor, Crosby broke the rules. He was the antithesis of a Hollywood matinee idol – small and average-looking with outsize ears, thin lips, pointed jaw, and a padded midsection that belied his graceful athleticism. He created a new prototype: the unflappable maverick with a pocketful of dreams, a friend to men and catnip to women. The immense success of his 1940s movies has overshadowed his often daring work in the 1930s, when he developed into an accomplished farceur and an exceptional improviser of physical shtick.

A performer of such enormous popularity becomes, inevitably and in spite of himself, a social critic. Crosby, an unreasonably modest man who never took credit for anything musical, let alone social or political, nonetheless played a coercive role in the acceleration of civil rights. He encouraged and pioneered racial integration on stage, radio, and records and in movies; in 1936, after winning the contractual right to produce his own pictures, he hired Louis Armstrong and gave him star billing, a Hollywood first for a black entertainer. A Jesuit by training and temperament, Crosby had enjoyed the benefits of a classical education. He lived in a small parochial world until he was twenty-two. He was a classroom cutup and lover of old show business, not least minstrelsy, but by the time he dropped out of law school, he understood that American popular music was a stew of intermingling ethnicities. He absorbed the influences of performers so diverse that few would have mentioned them in the same sentence, among them, Al Jolson, John McCormack, the Mound City Blue Blowers, Ukelele Ike, Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Van and Schenck, Bix Beiderbecke, and, most decisively, Armstrong.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Crosby's neglected role in integrating American show business was his calculated decision to attach himself to an ethnic wing. At the time of his death, he was widely remembered as Irish American. Yet not until he reached his mid-thirties did Bing show any inclination to embrace that identity. His mother's forebears had left Ireland for Canada three generations earlier, and his father's Protestant family had been in the United States since 1635. Paramount Pictures had nurtured his persona as the all-American man, without ethnic attachments. The primary semblance of Irishness in his work was his signature vocal technique, the upper mordent, a broken-note adornment imported from Ireland and Scotland that became known as the Crosby cry. Not until 1939, on the eve of the war, did he truly embrace his Irish heritage. Thanks to the antisemitic venom spewed by the radio priest Father Coughlin, Irish American Catholics had come to be associated with intolerance. Bing quietly stepped up to embody a larger truth. As he began to sing Irish songs and play Irishmen and priests, he required no rhetoric to stress the point that nothing was more all-American than its minorities.

Crosby rarely allowed stereotypical Catholic pieties to interfere with the scampish irreverence that informed much of his best work, from the romantic comedies to the Road movies. It was even present in his finest screen performances, as the golfing, imbibing, indulgent, yet determined Father Chuck O'Malley in Leo McCarey's great films, Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Bing's casual Huckleberry Finn demeanor as a pipe-smoking idler who never dresses up or removes his hat was portended by his odd name, which eclipsed cultural divisions with its unmistakably North American yet faintly Asian (the open-mouthed aw surrounded by two grin-making ees) arrangement of consonants and vowels: an Anglo-Danish surname modified by a nickname's New World audacity. In a world of Skips, Whiteys, Blackies, Reds, Pinkys, Shortys, Macs, Butches, and Chips, Bing was a standout moniker, a name that underscored his easygoing modesty. He taught the world what it meant to live the American common man's dream. Aside from his music, that was the best part of his art, perhaps the best part of himself.

Bing was a remarkably autobiographical performer. Yet while the public thought it knew him intimately, his intimates conceded that Crosby was, in many respects, unknowable. They would often remark on his intelligence, humor, and generosity, and then marvel at his contradictions: the melting warmth and chilly reserve, the conservatism and liberality, the piety and recklessness. Bing liked people who made him laugh (he expressed bewilderment that anyone might think him, as many did, a loner) but avoided public displays of affection and introspection. After he lost the soul mate of his early years, guitarist Eddie Lang, he could no more have bared his soul to another man than submit to psychoanalysis. Iron-willed and self-made, insouciant and obstinate, gregarious and remote, he was thoroughly enigmatic, yet hardly unknowable – no man with a legacy as large as Crosby's could be that. Neither saint nor monster, Crosby survives his debunkers along with his hagiographers because the facts are so much more impressive than the prejudices and myths on either side. Bing Crosby was, after all, a poor boy from a Catholic working-class district in turn-of-the-century Spokane who caught the attention of the world and made it better. "Call me lucky", he said. But it was never just luck or even talent. It was also the determination and brains of an alert young man who came along when American entertainment was at a crossroads. He showed it which road to take.

© 2009 Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Gary Giddins has contributed articles about jazz to The New Yorker and JazzTimes and a column about film directors as represented on DVD for the DGA Quarterly, the publication of the Director’s Guild of America. He has also written for The New York Times, The New York Sun, The Atlantic, The Nation, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and many other publications. His first book, Riding on a Blue Note, appeared in 1981, and was followed by Rhythm-a-Ning, Faces in the Crowd, and short critical biographies of Charlie Parker (Celebrating Bird) and Louis Armstrong (Satchmo) that he adapted into documentary films for PBS. He won a Peabody award for writing the PBS film John Hammond: from Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen, a Grammy Award for liner notes to Sinatra: The Voice, and a 1987 Guggenheim Fellowship.


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