Do You Like Pop Music? If So, You Should Thank Bing Crosby!


If the name “Bing Crosby” kindles any response at all among younger readers of this post, it is likely the image of “that old-style crooner” who regularly surfaces once a year at Christmas time and sings the best-selling recording of all time (by far) – “White Christmas.”

Single_Bing_Crosby_-_White_Christmas_cover[1]The very same sparse reaction would be registered by most middle-aged readers who experienced Crosby in their youth and, even then, regarded him merely as a “pleasant crooner,” a purveyor of pop music. Such images fall far short of the reality of the man and his accomplishments. “Der Bingle” is factually remembered in show business as one of the great innovators in jazz and pop music and THE most versatile, prolific, and popular vocalist…ever.

Bing Crosby’s era is not defined solely by the familiar nineteen-forties, a decade in which he became the most popular singer of all time: Yes, that’s right – even more popular than his successor and closest competitor, a young fellow named Frank Sinatra. Crosby’s rise to prominence began way back in 1925 when bandleader Paul Whiteman first took note of the newly formed, young vocal duo of Crosby and buddy, Al Rinker. Whiteman hired them on the spot to perform with his “orchestra” which was already experiencing a steep rise to fame by capturing the public’s fancy while pioneering the newly-emerging jazz idiom along the way.

 The Greatest Male Pop Singer of Them All?

No, the greatest was not Bing Crosby: That is history’s verdict and my personal opinion, as well. That honor belongs to Frank Sinatra. The younger Sinatra followed Crosby, and by taking cues from the best vocalist of the nineteen-thirties and early forties, Sinatra learned much about style and phrasing. Style, phrasing, and attention to song lyrics were first introduced into vocals by Bing Crosby; Sinatra improved upon Bing’s model and added his own panache, as well.


 Crosby, Grace Kelley, Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong in “High Society”

Tommy Dorsey who, besides having the finest big-band of all time, was also a very savvy and shrewd musician. Dorsey counseled his band vocalist, a very young Sinatra, to pay close attention to song lyrics – “like Bing Crosby.” Another great (white) big-band leader, the irrepressible Artie Shaw, singled out Bing Crosby as “the first hip white person born in the United States.” Contrary to the modern image of Crosby, Shaw was right-on: Crosby had what it takes.

Listen to Bing’s predecessors, vocalists like the band-leader Rudy Vallee and hear the difference. Early songsters sang “on the beat” – the precise way a song is notated on paper… and the style of the nineteen-twenties – but a style that soon proved tedious and unexciting. Crosby changed all of that with his innovative phrasing, style, and respect for lyrics. With his fine, mellow, baritone voice, Crosby set the standard for vocalists – until Mr. Sinatra came along and “did it his way.”

 The Thrill of “Finding Out” Such Things

If you have followed this blog, you already appreciate the effect that Ken Burns’ excellent film documentary, “Jazz,” has had on me. I am a “musician”… of sorts, and as I began to progress with my trumpet playing late in life, I reached out to learn more about the music I love – the early forms of jazz which led to swing and the big-band era. Along with much musical history, I learned one very important lesson from that film: Some of the performers who were already regarded as “old, tired, and predictable performers” when I was young in the nineteen-fifties had, in their own young, dynamic years, actually pioneered the new music called jazz and swing, and, by their influence, set the standard for much of the music heard ever since.

armstrongThe prime case in point is Louis Armstrong, a cornet/trumpet man from the slums of New Orleans via Chicago in the early twenties whose youthful talent on the instrument were both stirring and trend-setting. There was no one who played better trumpet and possessed the musical creativity/improvisation that Armstrong displayed. Indeed, the Burns film credits Armstrong with his power-playing, creative phrasing, and improvisation skills as the single individual most responsible for the evolution of jazz as we know it. What Armstrong did for instrumental music and the jazz idiom, Bing Crosby did for vocalizing. That is powerful stuff, and little did I appreciate the historical importance of these two legendary performers and just how far back in time they did go. These days, when I think of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, a wholly different image of each appears in my mind’s eye. After many hours of pleasurable reading /researching the history of jazz and entertainment, I became very aware that both Crosby and Louis had great respect for each other’s talent and place in the history of music and entertainment. To experience that mutual respect, take a look at the famous segment from the fine movie, “High Society,” in which Crosby, with Armstrong and his small group perform the famous “Now You Has Jazz” number – not a bad performance for two old-timers, already well past their prime in 1955. In that same movie and vein, also take a look at the terrific “Swell Party” duet performed by Crosby and Sinatra which hints at their different styles while projecting great mutual respect and fantastic showmanship.

The Just-Released PBS American Masters Documentary
on Crosby: “Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

I watched the new PBS documentary last night and very much enjoyed it. Bing Crosby traveled many, many miles during a vibrant life. It was not always good, and it was not always pretty along the way, but the man left this earth with his feet firmly planted, and he deserves to be remembered for his contributions to music and to our culture. His life-long, chiding comic cohort, Bob Hope, put it this way referring to his pal, Bing: “Never before has someone done so much, for so long, with so little, for so much.” On the contrary, Crosby accomplished much over his lifetime…with much talent, talent deceptively masked by his greatest asset: The ability to make it all look so easy!

1024px-Bing_Crosby_star_HWF[1]Twenty-three gold and platinum records and forty-one hits reaching #1 on the charts is far beyond the stats of any other vocalist or group: That includes Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. And then there are the three separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which speak to his versatility as a performer. It is said that Crosby’s is the most electronically-recorded voice in history. Yes, I can believe that, and he did much more during his career than record vocals on lacquer by also triumphing in the movies, radio, and television – truly an amazing life. The best-actor Oscar in 1945 for his priestly role in the fine film, “Going My Way,” speaks to the depth of his talent. As with Louis Armstrong, I quickly grasped Crosby’s importance to the music and entertainment culture after watching the Burns film, “Jazz.”

Bing BioAccordingly, I purchased Crosby’s definitive biography by Gary Giddens. I still recollect my parents relating attending Catholic mass with Bing, his second wife, Kathryn, and their family at Our Lady of Angels in nearby Burlingame, California. My parents lived just blocks from the church and the Crosbys lived in nearby Hillsborough.

Now, realizing just how extensive were Bing Crosby’s travels through a long and very colorful life, I am transfixed by the image of his gravestone in Culver City, California. It all ends right there: His long journey is over. Have a peaceful eternity, Bing…and thanks for the memories.

800px-Bing_Crosby's_grave[1]   010aDrama[1]

For more of my posts on music and entertainment, go to the “Home” page, click on “Categories” in the right-hand column and then select “Music.”

The Beatles: What Has Become of Pop Music?

Fifty years ago to the day I began writing this post, an obscure quartet of young, musical lads from across the pond landed in New York, their first visit to the “New World.” Following three successive Sunday night appearances on the venerable Ed Sullivan television program, the winds of excitement created by their fresh, ebullient musical performances caused a severe “muss” to America’s musical hairdo.

The Beatles

Put simply, they took America by storm while creating a new musical genre and a boost to the recording/entertainment industries that was unparalleled. How did they, in three weeks, go from virtual unknowns out of Liverpool, England, to being the toast of America? Thank America’s then-burgeoning television and communication networks for spreading the word, but look for the real answer in the entertainment value they offered. They played great music – tunes with melody, harmony, and that ever-present beat supplied by Sir Ringo on drums. They also turned out to be very competent song-writers in the personas of John and Paul.

As was the case with a very young Frank Sinatra who set the tone in the early nineteen-forties, young girls went Ga-Ga over the lads with the long haircuts. Like Sinatra, they played to screaming audiences and girls who fainted. The same enthusiasm was not forthcoming from some of the older set who, at first, viewed the Beatles’ English mod-style and haircuts with some apprehension; what else is new under the sun? Before long, many of them were also on-board, at least musically.

As individuals, the Beatles were an interesting lot. There was Paul, who, on first impression, seemed to be the extrovert and “face” of the group. There was Ringo, whose mop of hair swung happily to-and-fro as he knocked-out the Beatle’s backbone-beat on his Ludwig drums. Ultimately, George was the quiet, private one of the group while John was revealed as the mystic, the free-thinker, the hippie.

The colorful personas of the Beatles did not hurt their cause, but there was much more than that involved: They played good music…with a flair. I still get a chill watching that first Ed Sullivan television show, the night America was introduced to the lads from Liverpool. When Sullivan waved his hand toward them and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen… the Beatles!” and they launched into their flagship song, you immediately knew that this was something special. You felt the excitement of something new, something different, something that would not quickly blow-over and be gone. The Beatles offered-up unforgettable music and genuine excitement that first night in New York.

The same was true of Sinatra after he left Tommy Dorsey’s band to go out on his own in 1941 as a vocalist. Performances featuring Sinatra, a vocalist with musical support behind him, were a radical departure from the then-pervasive concept of a big-band spotlighting occasional brief vocal interludes. Sinatra made it big on his own, right from the beginning, ultimately arriving to the point in the nineteen-fifties where big studio bands and orchestras provided background support for his most famous recordings. He demanded and got the best studio musicians and musical arrangers extant, and the results reflected that fact. Despite all the first-class backup, Sinatra could really SING…and interpret the music. It all came from him. Like the Beatles, Sinatra was the real deal. Oh yes, there was another fellow who came in-between Sinatra and the Beatles and also stirred up some real musical excitement; his name was Elvis Presley.

Two events prompted me to write this particular post: The fiftieth anniversary of the Beatle’s arrival in New York, and the appearance of an editorial in our local newspaper written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Washington Post. The byline reads: Music has lost its edge – even today’s youths agree. As a former pop music critic, he is often asked his opinion of music today. He relates to being bored by much of it and goes on to say, “much of it feels corporate, cold, plastic, image-driven, less reflective of talent than tech, more programmed than played.” He goes on to add, “Of course, the old folks are not supposed to get the young folks’ music. That’s the whole point of the young folks’ music.” I believe he hit the nail on the head – on both counts. Even some young listeners have begun to express boredom with today’s performance-extravaganzas which masquerade as pop music.

For me, today’s music is much more a reflection on the talent of the tech-folks behind the scenes who “stage” the performance than on the performer’s “talent.” I see great visuals like programmed lasers and incendiaries, and I hear thunderous audio, distortion-free and balanced, but I hear no melody, no real harmony, and no discernable lyrics from the “performers.” I do hear much shouting, screaming, and gesturing some of which is not so PC. I am not impressed. I believe Pitts got it exactly right in his column. I ask, “Whatever happened to the great songwriters, the great music, the truly-talented performers of yesterday?

Pitts sagely observes part of the answer to the question – that the younger generation has always looked to something new, something different, something their parents either do not approve of or do not understand. I am afraid that attitude, along with the “dumbing-down” and commercialization of the music/entertainment business has taken us off into the weeds.

For me, the rose garden of the music business was the decade which spanned the mid-thirties to the mid-forties – the era of the big bands and the immensely talented songwriters and arrangers whose efforts made their music unforgettable. It was smooth, it was lyrical, it was exciting, it was jazz, it was romantic, and it was all eminently danceable. Although the economics which made the big bands of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James possible are never to return, my fondest hope is that young people will see fit to put aside the generational forces at play and re-discover their fabulous music. Fortunately, much of it is still available on well-restored CD tracks, waiting for new audiences to discover, for themselves, the musical treasure that they represent.

In the meantime, let us rejoice in the memory of those four talented lads from Liverpool who captivated America’s musical sensibilities almost fifty years ago. Unlike so much that we hear today, their music was truly worth all the excitement that ensued. It forged a unique niche in our musical memory and culture and will be fondly recalled and enjoyed for a long time to come.

 For previous blog posts of mine on the subjects of music and the big bands, click on the “Home” page and go into my post archives. Clicking on the red keywords on the right-hand side of the “Home” page can also take you to the posts.

The First Anniversary of Reason and Reflection

This is my 52nd post on this blog! Since I post every Sunday morning, this completes my first year of blogging. Thank you for following me this past year; I plan to keep-on keepin’-on for at least another year. I am not on Facebook or Twitter; if you are and have enjoyed this blog, please pass along its URL to friends and acquaintances who might also like what I write. Remember, too, that comments (replys) are always welcome. Thanks!