May 2, 2004 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bing Crosby, whose recorded voice continues to sing "White Christmas" every Yuletide.
Other singers who came after him, including Sinatra and Elvis, had their day but it was Bing Crosby who first put American popular songs on the map around the world. At one time, more people had heard the voice of Bing Crosby than that of any other human being.
Part of this was due to the times but much of it was due to the man himself. Bing Crosby came of age just when radio, recorded music, and motion pictures were coming of age during the 1920s and 1930s. Though he was one of many entertainers of that era, Crosby clearly became Number One -- and remained so for years.
Bing Crosby's casual, even breezy, style of singing was part of the reason for his great popularity -- and it influenced later singers who followed in his wake. It was a kind of singing that seemed as if anyone, amateur or professional, could do.
That was part of the greatness of his art, that it looked like it wasn't art. He didn't make a fuss about it but he made history with it. It was a little like the way Joe DiMaggio played centerfield, making it look easy, even when it was superb.
Bing Crosby is remembered for a certain style of singing but he was in fact the master of many styles. He was called "the crooner" because of his sweetly plaintive love songs, including his theme song, "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day." But his raucous novelty songs were also classics -- from "I'm an Old Cow Hand" to his duets with Bob Hope, such as "Road to Morocco."
Then there were songs with an ethnic tinge like "McNamara's Band" for the Irish and "Small Fry" for blacks. No one associates Bing Crosby with country music but his rendition of "Walking the Floor Over You" stacks up against any of them. Frankie Lane sang the classic theme song for the TV series "Mule Train" but Crosby's version is right up there with it.
Bing Crosby could do it all. His versatility was unmatched by anyone before him or after him. Moreover, his versatility extended beyond singing to comedy -- as in his series of "Road" movies with Bob Hope -- and even to tragic drama, as in his portrayal of an alcoholic in "The Country Girl."