Bing Crosby: Singer of the century

Posted: Apr 29, 2004 12:00 AM

 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."

 Later generations of young people turned to very different styles of singers and entertainers in general: more brassy, flamboyant, down and dirty -- not only on stage, but in their private lives, which became in fact quite public in an age of widely read scandal sheets.

 Bing Crosby was by no means goody-two-shoes, especially in his younger years. But his peccadilloes were not for public display and his style was not in your face.

 It is hard to remember that even super stars are not born super stars. For years, Bing Crosby was simply a singer with Paul Whiteman's band. Nor was he prepared to follow the advice of those who told him that he could go make it on his own.

 It was only after Crosby's youthful peccadilloes caused Paul Whiteman to fire him that he had no choice but to go out on his own. The rest, as they say, was history.

 Some indication of Bing Crosby's standing before then may be suggested by a headline about his first marriage in the show-business publication "Variety": "Dixie Lee Marries Band Singer." Some of her friends warned that she would end up having to support him.

 What of Bing Crosby the man? Some have depicted him as a strict, or even harsh, father. But standards of parenting were very different then -- and the end results not necessarily worse than those of today.

 Perhaps the best measure of anyone is how they treat those who can do nothing for them. When Bing Crosby was the brightest star in show business, he was protective of young singers and actors with whom he worked.

 When a young singer with whom he was singing a duet made a small slip, Crosby would immediately make a bigger booboo and say: "Oh, I messed up! Let's do that again." Anthony Quinn remembered how, back when he was "nobody," Bing Crosby saved him from a bitter attack from Dorothy Lamour. That's class.

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