I admit. I didn’t come to appreciate Bing until about 10 years ago. I was born in the early ‘50s. By the time I was rocking out to the MC5 and Iggy Stooge at the Grande Ballroom, I had pretty much dismissed Bing Crosby in my mind as an untalented hack that had only lucked into a singing and acting career. He was the guy that was so easy to imitate—so ubiquitous—that anyone saying “buh buh buh blooo” was referencing him. You couldn’t escape the muther. He would pop up as a caricature in kiddy cartoons of my youth. Nothing says “has been” more to a kid than a caricature someone popping up in a cartoon. Nothing demonstrates this better than the Warner Brother's cartoon, "Bingo Crosbyana."
Of course, this was long before I knew what “homage” meant.
Another thing I disliked about Bing Crosby is that he owned Christmas. As a Jewish boy being called kike in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was sure that Bing was somehow connected with it all. Hell, maybe he was behind it all, for all I knew. According to Gary Giddins (see below) Crosby “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.” And let’s not even talk about all the Christmas movies. However, worst of all, Bing Crosby was the guy who almost ruined David Bowie for me for all time. I heard Bowie was going to make a rare appearance on a Bing Crosby Christmas special. Wait! What? Yes. True. It took me a long time to forgive Bowie for that. Crosby’s Christmas specials occupy its own niche in the category of Hollywood kitsch. On reflection, with so many years to assuage hurt feelings, the harmonies are lovely and the arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” medley is clever. Still, you have to admit this is the low point of David Bowie’s career, especially the 1st minute, forty nine. Watch:
Here’s what I’m trying to say: I had absolutely no appreciation of Bing Crosby. This, despite being a huge Frank Sinatra fan. I just didn't think Bing was fit to hold Sinatra's trench coat. This began to change about 10 years ago. I was watching a documentary on Louis Armstrong (a musical hero of mine) and in it Mr. Armstrong made 2 remarks: 1). All singing begins and ends with Bing Crosby; 2). Bing’s voice was like honey being poured out of a golden cup. Well, Louis Armstrong ain’t no slouch and he knows his Jazz. If he’s saying these wonderful things about Bing Crosby, maybe I should reassess my opinion. I started doing a little reading and found that pretty much every singer subsequent to Bing said they merely imitating Crosby and owe it all to him. Elvis name-checked him as an influence, as did both Sinatra and Dean Martin. Here’s a clip from “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” where Sinatra and Martin have a whole lot of fun with Bing’s sartorial choices in “Style.”
Now I was more curious than ever. What was I missing? Coincidentally (or just another instance of synchronicity), right at this same time I happened to see a book on my local retailer’s remainder table called “Bing Crosby; A Pocketful of Dreams; The Early Years; 1903-1940” by Gary Giddins (who was quoted extensively in that Armstrong documentary referenced above). Amazingly this 592 page book (published in 1991) ends at “White Christmas" and is merely the first volume in a proposed 2-volume set. While reading the book, I also immersed myself in Bing’s earliest recordings, something I had never taken the time to do before.
The light went on!!! I am now a believer!!!
There were recordings I knew, but didn’t realize they were by a young Bing Crosby because his voice had changed so much over the years. His “Pennies From Heaven” or “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” are transcendent, blissful, and (here’s the most important part) are full of pathos. His voice carries the drama of the songs in a way that few singers have ever been able to pull off. For so many people of my parent's age these songs, and Bing Crosby’s version of them, represented the Great Depression. Everyone knows the dreadful David Lee Roth rip off of the Louis Prima arrangement of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” however those arrangements make the song swing and being a gigolo doesn’t seem like such a bad life. Even Louis Armstrong’s version swings. However, I never really understood the song until I heard Bing Crosby’s version of “Just a Gigolo” To begin with, it’s a very, very sad song, something you don’t get from Prima, Roth, or Armstrong. When Bing sings it, you hear every ounce of the pathos in the song. Bing also sings the introduction, left off most other versions. I can’t listen to Bing’s version without feeling great empathy for that sad, unemployed, World War One doughboy. Get out a hanky:
I now own a great deal of Bing Crosby’ recordings and I hear something new in them every time I listen. Finally, here’s a partial list of Bing’s accomplishments, by Giddin in the Introduction to his book, I find most impressive, especially the second-to-last, because that changed Show Business forever:
- 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 28 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 had 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” 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 WABC --- 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.