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In this photo, Bing tees off on the La Moraleja golf course near Madrid, Spain, on the afternoon of Oct. 14, 1977. He finished 18 holes of golf -- carding an 85 -- and, with his partner, club president Cesar de Zulueta, defeating 2 Spanish golf pros, Manuel Pinero and Valentine Barrious. After his final putt Bing bowed to acknowledge the applause of some fans and remarked ""That was a great game of golf, fellas." As he was walking to the clubhouse about 6:30 he collapsed from a massive heart attack. Bing made no attempt to break his fall and landed head-first on the red-brick pavement, producing a large bruise on the left side of his forehead. "We thought he had just slipped," said one of his golfing companions. "Bing had shown no sign of fatigue. He was happy and singing as he went around the course." His 3 golfing companions carried Bing the remaining 20 yards to the clubhouse where a physician administered oxygen and adrenalin without success.
Bing's funeral began at 5 a.m. Oct. 18, 1977 at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California. Bing's will specified that only his wife and 7 children should attend, but Kathryn invited Bing's siblings as well as Bob Hope, Rosemary Clooney and Phil Harris. The ABC reporter who covered the funeral, Geraldo Rivera, noted the early morning hour was when the blue of the night met the gold of the day.
Bing Crosby, the Unsung King of Song
By GARY GIDDINS
The New York Times, January 28, 2001
For the last decade, whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was working on a life of Bing Crosby, the usual response was, "Why?" I can't say I was surprised.
For 30 years, between 1927 and 1956, Crosby was a looming presence in America's cultural landscape. At the peak of his career, in the 1930's and 1940's, he was thought by many to be the most famous American alive. For much of that period, he was undoubtedly the most admired. The cycle of "Road" pictures with Bob Hope established Crosby as a great comic actor. Yet by the 1960's, the ocean began to roll over Der Bingle, and though he continued to sell millions of records chiefly holiday songs he had morphed into a grand old man while retaining little of the bite of his contemporary, Louis Armstrong, or his aging offspring, Frank Sinatra. Crosby's reputation faltered along with his music after his death, in 1977. When his eldest son, Gary Crosby, published a bitter memoir describing the unflappable Bing administering vigorous corporal punishment, his halo tilted and crashed. Soon the afterlife of his career imploded. Jazz lovers kept his memory alive, mainly because of his early records and the later collaborations with Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Les Paul and others. But jazz lovers are by nature classicists, and Crosby had spent most of his life on the other side of the divide: the pop world, where success is measured in numbers a world remade by rock, in which even the oldest of oldies postdate "Heartbreak Hotel."
Yet consider this: in 1946, three of the five top-grossing Hollywood pictures ("The Bells of St. Mary's," "Blue Skies," "Road to Utopia") were Crosby vehicles; for five years running (1944 to 1948), he was No. 1 at the box office; his radio programs (1931 to 1962) attracted at their wartime peak as many as 50 million listeners; he recorded nearly 400 hit singles, an achievement no one not Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles has come close to matching. Could a man who spoke so deeply to so many for so long have nothing to say to us now? For a biographer, Crosby's career offers more incentive than mere statistics. He is the ideal figure for tracking the rise of American popular culture. He played pivotal roles in the development of the recording, radio and film industries, while virtually defining the microphone as a singer's instrument. His influence on other singers including Sinatra, Elvis and John Lennon, avowed fans all would be hard to overstate, and he managed to maintain his popularity through several major cultural upheavals in 20th-century American history: Prohibition, Depression, World War II, the cold war and the affluent society.
Like many in my generation, I was drawn to the enunciated clarity, effortless swing and insouciant scat-singing of Crosby in his jazz years while ignoring his later work as meretricious. After listening to his exhaustive discography, more than 2,000 recordings (including radio broadcasts), it became apparent that his voice and style peaked not in the 1920's, when he joined Paul Whiteman's orchestra as the first ever full-time band singer, but a decade later, in Hollywood. Jazz-born prejudices are often inadequate in evaluating a popular idol. Irving Berlin once said he wrote music for the "mob" and that as far as he was concerned, the mob was always right.
Crosby's Dickensian appetite for every kind of song obliges us to savor the validity and verve of music created not by or for the elect but for the delectation of the millions. The mob is not always right. Its infinite longing for rote repetition and screwy novelties ("Three Little Fishies," anyone?) is matched by its impatience with music that demands concentration. Yet the ability of the millions to discriminate is not negligible. Examine the pop records released between 1934 and 1954, and compare the major hits to the numberless misses: you cannot help admiring the mob's batting average.
The public had little trouble distinguishing between Crosby and his rivals in the 1920's. His first solo record, though not a hit, showed those who were paying attention that the times were changing. A year after Armstrong recorded "Heebie Jeebies," the explosive scat-driven number that put his vocal style on the map, and three months after Crosby had begun touring with Whiteman, he was allotted a chorus on "Muddy Water." The session took place on March 7, 1927, at Leiderkranz Hall in New York. Crosby's record, unlike Armstrong's, no longer seems as radical as it once did unless you listen to it in tandem with the other white pop records of the time, in which case his debut seems absolutely astonishing. The song itself is a conventional idyll about life "down Dixie way," created by an integrated team, the white composer Peter DeRose and the black lyricist Jo Trent.
In Matty Malneck's arrangement, "Muddy Water" opens with a trombone and a bold unison ensemble chorus, promising a jazz performance; yet only the vocal, backed by viola and rhythm, makes good on that promise. Compared to his mature work, Crosby's chorus is stilted, almost formal. But his rhythm and articulation are sure, especially on the bridge, in which he emphasizes "there" and "care" with a trilling vibrato that displays his innate affinity for swing. Giving each word its due, his winged phrasing banishes sentimentality. The sound of his voice is unlike that of any of his contemporaries: a vibrant, virile baritone, completely at odds with the effete tenors and semifalsetto warblers who dominated male popular singing in that era. After hearing him, Duke Ellington vowed not to hire a male vocalist until he found one who sounded like Crosby.
The modern style of American popular singing, as distinct from the theatrical emoting of the minstrel and vaudeville eras, was originated by four performers, each to some degree rooted in jazz and blues. All but one were African-American: Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Armstrong and Crosby. In their day, Smith, who was born in 1894, in Chattanooga, Tenn., was the least widely known. Yet as the finest heavy-voiced blues singing (some said shouting) contralto of the era, she established vocal techniques intrinsic to the American style, most notably an undulating attack in which notes are stretched, bent, curved, moaned and hollered. She perfected and popularized an old style of melisma that had been described by the writer Jeannette Robinson Murphy in an 1899 issue of "Popular Science Monthly." Trying to instruct white singers in the art of "genuine Negro melodies," Murphy insisted it was necessary "that around every prominent note [the singer] place a variety of small notes, called `trimmings.' " She said the singer "must sing tones not found in our scale . . . careful to divide many of his monosyllabic words in two syllables." Smith had a limited range, but she proved that emotional power does not depend on conventional vocal abilities.
Ethel Waters, born in Chester, Pa., in 1896, was another story. Though initially characterized as a blues singer, she came to embody the aspirations of black performers determined to make it on "white time." With her higher range and light supple voice, she lacked the weighty sonority of Smith, but her superb enunciation, gift for mimicry and versatility allowed her to switch between irrepressible eroticism (she was the queen of double entendre) and high- toned eloquence. Smith and Waters dazzled the young white jazz acolytes of the 1920's, and Crosby was exposed to their records early on by another highly influential singer, Mildred Bailey, the benefactress of his apprentice years. What's more, Bailey told him that if he was really serious about singing, he would have to find out about Louis Armstrong, a young trumpet player and singer in Chicago; the grapevine was buzzing about him, though he had made few records none of them vocals.
ARMSTRONG, born in New Orleans in 1901, was the most extreme force American music had ever known. Having absorbed every valuable tradition in the 19th-century vernacular, sacred or secular, he offered a new vision that liberated American music vocally and instrumentally. Armstrong transformed everyone who heard him; musicians who came under his spell felt freer, more optimistic and ambitious, willing to take risks. He anchored, as Bessie Smith could not, the blues as the foundation for a new American music; and he revealed, as Ethel Waters could not, that swing, a seductive canter as natural and personal as a heartbeat, would be its irreducible rhythmic framework.
Harry Lillis Crosby nicknamed Bing at the age of 7 because of his fondness for a syndicated newspaper parody, "The Bingville Bugle" was born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1903, the fourth of seven children in a working-class family governed by a strict Irish Catholic mother. It was their easygoing Protestant father, however, who brought home the appliance that changed Bing's life: an Edison phonograph, purchased to commemorate the family's move to Spokane, in 1906. Bing listened to every record he could get his hands on, especially those by Al Jolson; when he got to watch Jolson in action a few years later, he began to contemplate the life of an entertainer. He eventually dropped out of law school to play drums and sing with a local band, before leaving Spokane with his partner, Al Rinker (Bailey's brother), to try for the big time.
When he encountered Armstrong in Chicago, in 1926, Crosby had barely a year of vaudeville under his belt, and he was utterly transfixed. Crosby was the first and, for a while, the only singer who fully assimilated the shock of Armstrong's impact; Crosby would later call Armstrong "the beginning and the end of music in America." One of the most important things Crosby learned from Armstrong was that the contagious pulse known as swing did not have to be exclusive to jazz. It was a universally applicable technique that deepened the interpretation of any song in any setting. Crosby's uncanny ability to hear "the one" the downbeat of each measure was unheard of among white singers in the 1920's, and it never left him. Jake Hanna, Crosby's drummer in the 1970's, observed: "Bing had the best time, the absolute best time. And I played with Count Basie, and that's great time." Most singers who imitated Crosby in the 1920's and 1930's Russ Columbo, Perry Como, Dick Todd took the superficial aspects of his style without the jazz foundation, which is why so much of their work is antiquated.
To the mix as developed by Smith, Waters and Armstrong, Crosby added three elements that were crucial to the fulfillment of pop singing: his expansive repertory, expressive intimacy and spotless timbre. He grew up in a time and place when young music lovers were not concerned with the snobberies of high versus low, hip versus square, in versus out. The phonograph was a new invention, and each record was a mystery until it was played. Every record collection was a canon unto itself. Crosby saw no contradiction in his love for the great Irish tenor John McCormack, the Broadway minstrel Al Jolson and the jazz and blues groups that excited his contemporaries. Yet he offered something different from them.
Crosby had begun his career just as the condenser microphone was perfected, replacing the silly looking megaphones he had used in his school band. He realized that the mike was an instrument. He understood instinctively the modernist paradox: electrical appliances made singing more human, more expressive, more personal. They also enriched his unique style: rich, strong, intimate and smart. Listeners who were put off by vernacular growls and moans could enjoy his relatively immaculate approach. His focus on the meaning of lyrics helped reshape the popular song. With his combination of intelligence and rhythmic acuity, Crosby could transfigure trite songs tritely arranged ("I Found a Million Dollar Baby"), but also underscore the banality of June/moon bromides, hymns to a mother's tears and "dark town" caricatures. A new generation of lyricists Larry Hart, Cole Porter, Leo Robin, Al Dubin, Mitchell Parish, Yip Harburg and the self-renewing Irving Berlin found in Crosby an interpreter who brought their subtlest verbal conceits to life.
Everything came together during the Depression, when Crosby proved you could be all things to all men and all women. At the same time that he reached jazz peaks in his flights on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Some of These Days," he transformed other songs into Depression anthems, including the vivid protest song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "Home on the Range," a little known saddle song that he turned into the most renowned of western ballads. As the most popular singer in the world, he recorded an unparalleled variety of songs: hymns, minstrel arias, singspiel, rhythm and blues not even Sinatra, who would deepen the interpretation of lyrics, could handle such a spectrum.
On a 1943 edition of "Command Performance," a radio series recorded on transcription discs for shipment to overseas forces, the M.C., Dinah Shore, remarked, "You know, Bing, a singer like Frank Sinatra comes along only once in a lifetime." Bing's famous response: "Yeah, and he has to come along in my lifetime." From 1931, when Crosby first triumphed on network radio and his rivals faded, through 1940, when Tommy Dorsey took the country by storm with "I'll Never Smile Again" and other records featuring vocals by Sinatra, Crosby ruled mainstream pop. Armstrong, Bailey, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing prospered in jazz, just as other singers found audiences in country, gospel and other idioms. But Crosby was king of the mountain the national voice, America's troubadour. In Sinatra, he had at long last a worthy heir, a contender. By the end of 1943, Sinatra beat him in the Down Beat poll of popular singers. High school and college clubs as well as professional pundits routinely debated their respective merits.
Yet, contrary to the Sinatra myth, at no time in the 1940's did Sinatra seriously crimp Crosby's popularity. This was the period when Bing was twice nominated for best-actor Oscars (he won in 1944 for "Going My Way"), when he recorded the most successful record of all time, "White Christmas," and when he was named in a poll of servicemen as the man who had done most for Army morale. (Enlisted men had little use for Sinatra, who was disparaged as a draft dodger and seducer.) When the troops came home, Crosby enjoyed a new crest in popularity, while Sinatra's career dimmed and almost faded to black. It was Crosby who best captured the tenor of the times in recordings like "It's Been a Long, Long Time," a definitive home-from-war anthem, which never mentions the war.
By 1955, things began to change. The previous year had been a glorious one for Crosby. He had starred in the top-grossing picture of the year, "White Christmas," and scored his third Oscar nomination for his stunning portrayal of an alcoholic has-been in "The Country Girl." Yet what a difference a year made. Sinatra revived himself, retooled as a jet-age hipster balladeer, with a deepened voice and style and a poise fine- tuned by tribulation. Elvis Presley was knocking them dead in the South and about to break nationally. Crosby's vocal style had changed little. He could still croon with swinging ιlan, as demonstrated on his 1957 album, "Bing With a Beat," and he continued to enjoy other triumphs. He joined with Sinatra, Armstrong and Grace Kelly for the musical film "High Society," in 1956, and was widely thought to have outshone his rival he once chose his duet with Sinatra ("Well, Did You Evah?") as his favorite movie scene. Crosby's television specials, through the mid-1960's, were highly musical and invariably successful. Yet in this new climate, his greatest strength was considered a liability. Sinatra rang the rafters, Tony Bennett poured out his heart and Presley rocked, but Crosby's preternatural cool, his canny gentleness, was too laid-back, too easy for the nuclear age.
By then he had begun to retreat from the stage. He now had a young wife, Kathryn Grant, and three small children, and he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of his first marriage to Dixie Lee, when his work kept him away for long stretches and he tried to compensate by imposing strict disciplinary measures on his four sons. He continued to broadcast Christmas specials, which led to a famous duet with David Bowie ("The Little Drummer Boy") and was seen frequently on the variety show "Hollywood Palace." Yet his film career came to an end with "Stagecoach," in 1966, and American record companies no longer wanted to record him; his 1970's comeback was fueled with albums made and released in England, including a treasurable 1975 duet with Fred Astaire, "A Couple of Song and Dance Men." At Crosby's death, two years later, his contemporaries mourned him, but to a younger generation he had become a Norman Rockwell poster, an irrelevant holdover from another world.
His art, however, retains its power in unexpected ways. His versions of late-19th- century and early-20th-century songs are oddly compelling, and it is difficult to imagine another singer Sinatra, for example attempting them; I once saw an opera expert reduced to tears by Crosby's "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." His great Depression waltzes ("Mexicali Rose," "The One Rose") recapture the dark side of that era as nothing else does. Crosby's early collaborations with Bix Beiderbecke and Ellington and later ones with Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Connie Boswell, Johnny Mercer, Woody Herman, Bob Crosby (his kid brother), Eddie Heywood, Bob Scobey, Rosemary Clooney and many others retain their ingenuity and rhythmic zest. No matter how popular he became, his prowess and his jazz beat kept him honest. For that reason, he continues to speak to us, and in that sense, he remains our contemporary.
Bing, for Starters
One obstacle to a serious reconsideration of Bing Crosby's music has been availability: many of the best performances were never reissued on LP, let alone on CD. Here are 10 splendid avenues into the immense labyrinth of Crosby's recorded legacy.
`BING CROSBY 1926-1932' (Timeless CBC 1-004). A representative sampling of the Whiteman years, expertly remastered.
`BING HIS LEGENDARY YEARS 1931-1957' (MCA MCAD4-10887). An essential four-disc survey of Crosby's most fruitful period with Decca Records.
`BING CROSBY 1928-1945' (L'Art Vocal 20). A French import and the best single-disc introduction to Crosby in print.
`BING CROSBY AND SOME JAZZ FRIENDS' (Decca/MCA GRD-603). A one-volume anthology of the Decca years, focusing on jazz collaborations.
`BING'S GOLD RECORDS' (MCA MCAD-11719). Also from Decca, a collection of all 26 Crosby million-sellers.
`I'M AND OLD COWHAND' (ASV AJA 5160). Western songs, including his hymnlike "Home on the Range," a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt.
`BING CROSBY KRAFT SHOWS' (Lost Gold Records LGR 7598). Two complete radio broadcasts, with Duke Ellington and Nat (King) Cole as guests.
`HAVIN' FUN' (Jazz Unlimited JUCD 2034). Highlights from Crosby's radio broadcasts with Louis Armstrong.
`BING WITH A BEAT' (RCA Victor LTM-1473). A masterly 1957 album with Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band, long out of print. Write BMG or your congressman.
`THE VOICE OF CHRISTMAS' (MCA MCAD2-11840). The ultimate mistletoe collection, two discs, complete with a rejected take of "White Christmas."
Gary Giddins, a columnist for The Village Voice, is the author of ``Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams -- The Early Years, 1903-1940'' and ``Visions of Jazz.''
Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Other Books by Doug Anderson
A Psalter A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories
Betbόchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book
Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection
Devotions for the Advent 2009
The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition
Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Christmas is a wonderful, cheerful holiday. Whether we spend it by a real tree or some Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, at the end of the day what matters is that we enjoy our time together with our loved ones.
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