The Book on Bing Crosby

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Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra): I have heard, among this clan/ You are called the forgotten man.
C. K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby): Is that what they’re sayin'? Well, did you evah?/ What a swell party this is.

This musical badinage, from the film "High Society," refers to the Bing Crosby character, a Newport aristocrat on the outs with his fellow swells. But it might also refer to the status, then and now, of the original Groaner. In the early '30s Crosby had created, or certainly synthesized, the craft and tone of modern pop vocalizing. The summer of 1956, however, when "High Society" premiered, was the sweltering season of "Hound Dog." Genteel warbling of the Crosby stripe was two generations passé. First it was supplanted by Sinatra's aggressive poignance; then it expired in the steam Elvis' and Little Richard's Afro- eroticism. At 53, Crosby had become a superstar emeritus, a genial irrelevance, a golfer and a duffer — the Ike of pop music.

Since then, Crosby's star has not disappeared, but it has dimmed. In "The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz," a standard reference, Crosby gets less space than his younger brother Bob, who fronted a Dixieland band in the '30s and beyond, and who may be the only bandleader of the time who could not play an instrument. Bing is hardly to be seen in Ken Burns' 19-hour documentary "Jazz," though he employed many jazz masters on his records and radio shows, and teamed with Louis Armstrong more often than any star except Bob Hope. Ask people over 40 to describe Crosby in a few words, and the words might be "crooner," "White Christmas," "toupee," "Bob Hope and the 'Road' movies" and perhaps, thanks to a rancorous autobiography by his son Gary, "child beater." Which is about as fair as remembering Eisenhower the golfer and forgetting Eisenhower the top general of World War II.

Not that Crosby would care. His worldview was famously imperturbable (say the word as Bing would, with the blowfish p's and b's). He’d most likely respond to the rare slur or setback with a blithe "Well, did you evah?" Crosby's last words, before the heart attack that killed him in 1977, at the conclusion of a foursome on a Madrid course, were "That was a great game of golf, fellas."

Even in 1956, it was still a swell party for Bing: "True Love," another song from "High Society," gave him a No. 3 hit and a gold record (his 21st). And in his duet with Sinatra, he teaches Young Blue Eyes a thing or two about the ease of musical and movie-star mastery. "Well, Did You Evah," an old Cole Porter tune dusted off for the occasion, is a clever thrust-and-parry duet, and Crosby effortlessly gets in the best jabs. In one bridge he ends the phrase "baba au rhum" with his trademark "bu-bu-bu-bu-bum." When Sinatra sing-snarls, "Don't dig that kind a croonin', chum," Crosby speaks his response with a withering vagueness, "You must be one of the newer fellas." The Crosby-Sinatra animosity is, of course, all banter — the Hope-Crosby rivalry set to bubbly music — and exquisitely realized.

By the way, none of these asides appears in the published text (as printed in "The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter"). Like so many of the "ad libs" in the "Road" movies, these were doubtless carefully devised by Bing and his writing team. But the point was never that the gags should be spontaneous; it was that they should seem spontaneous — the little inspiration that springs from conviviality, a modernist, ironic commentary on trivial proceedings, a way to keep the performers fresh and make the audience believe they were in on a verbal jam session — improvs that achieve a casual perfection. And that's Bing.

The Most
In 1956, then, Crosby was in the late summer of perhaps the most popular and enduring career of any American entertainer of the 20th century. As Gary Giddins notes in his comprehensive critical biography "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940" (Little, Brown; $30) Crosby notched an unequaled number of milestones: most No. 1 records ever; and most records on the American pop charts (nearly twice as many as Sinatra).

Did we mention that he made the most popular record ever? "White Christmas" was on the charts every year but one between 1941 and 1962. And we'll bet you heard it more in the last few months than the official all-time top seller, "Candles in the Wind." The success of the Elton John disc was due to a convulsive spasm of Di-die worship; Der Bingle singing Berlin is, better or worse, for the ages.

Giddins enumerates a few Crosby firsts you may not have known. When he joined Paul Whiteman in 1927 he became the first full-time vocalist signed to an orchestra. In 1946 he presented the first transcribed radio show and thus, according to Giddins, "single-handedly changed radio from a live-performance to a canned or recorded medium." Crosby also "financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry."

Still, this towering stack of popular and technical distinctions would not have spurred Giddins — jazz critic of The Village Voice, author of "Visions of Jazz: The First Century" and the commentator who logs the most time on the recent Ken Burns project — to spend a decade researching and writing a 728-page study that takes Crosby only 15 years into a half-century career. (The book ends with "Road to Singapore," Bing's first movie with Bob Hope; volume two will cover the big movie years, "White Christmas," his second family and charges of son-whupping, which in interviews Giddins has minimized.)

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