By this time in December, if you have entered any shops, you will have heard this man singing this song at least once (though probably not such a nice version)
Nowadays Bing Crosby is almost entirely associated with Christmas. It’s possible that were it not for this yearly reminder of his talents he may well have completely drifted into obscurity among generations not brought up with his music, and it’s fair to say that Bing Crosby is a largely a forgotten figure when defining artists of the 20th century are discussed, and this is a shame. His later years as the ultimate, cosy, christmasy host have often obscured what was a breathtaking, ground breaking career. The everyman persona that made him the best selling artist for much of that century has much to do with the modern underestimation of his career.
So taking the opportunity that the brief spotlight of Christmas brings, I’d like to make a couple of points about the man and his influence and throw in a few choice clips along the way.
My own introduction to Crosby didn’t really come with ‘White Christmas’, a film I first remember seeing on video only in my early teens. For me it was holiday tv repeats of the ‘Road to’ movies that starred Crosby and Bob Hope and which ran from ‘Road to Singapore’ in 1940 to ‘Road to Hong Kong’ in 1962. These films contain a microcosm of the Bing career; singing, acting, ad- libbing, easy charm and a hint of the rogue. But they reflect the polished Crosby that we see from the 1940s. In his early career singing, first with the Rhythm Boys and then solo, he was part of an exciting, pioneering and youthful musical movement: Jazz. Bing’s early image was very different to his wholesome later one, as he was known for his heavy drinking, partying and womanising, and a touch of that is reflected in those ‘Road to’ movies. This is a nice early clip of the time and though it looks a little cornball today I think it demonstrates what side of the ‘establishment’ Crosby’s music was on early in his career. The clip is from the 1930 film ‘Reaching for the Moon’ and Bing is singing ‘When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down’, Bing kicks in at 0:36-1:29 (the woman who sings after him is hilarious!):
As Crosby’s star began to rise he took Jazz with him. Bing is arguably one of the great crossover artist in figurheading the breakthrough of jazz, certainly jazz vocals, as the dominant force in popular music that it became in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s. Yes, thats right Bing Crosby was the 1930s Eminem (bear with me with this). When Eminem broke onto the scene, people were quick to point to him being the new Elvis Pressley in the sense of taking a genre of music developed almost exclusively by black artists, Hip Hop, and being the catalyst that brought it to a much wider white audience. In his global success he was the breakout artist that turned Hip Hop, and more specifically rap, into trully ‘pop music’ in the same way that Elvis did with Rock & Roll. Here are the lyrics to Eminem’s ‘Without me’:
Though I’m not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley,
To do Black music so selfishly
And use it to get myself wealthy! (Hey!)
But, before Eminem did this with Hip Hop, and before Elvis did it with Rock & Roll, Bing Crosby had done this with Jazz. Replacing Elvis pressley with Bing Crosby even kind of half fits the lyrics (ok it doesn’t). Later on Bing moved to a more sanitized version of the medium, but it ran like a seam throughout his work and he often found occasion to mine it later on.
Another thing that stands out about Bing Crosby, that is not obvious from the conservative image of the man we have now, is that he was one of few artists of his time that attempted to stand up for the rights of black musicians. In one sense he was appropriating a black musical genre, as others were to do, but the difference with Crosby was that he tried hard to bring black musicians with him, particularly the great Louis Armstrong. Crosby came across Louis Armstrong eary in his own career and recognised his brilliance straight away. As his career took off he attempted to find ways to bring Louis with him, but was often blocked. At this time the music and film industry were highly segregated. Mixed race bands were frowned on and most film studios refused to have black artists in their films, as they would make them unmarketable in the southern States of America. Where black artists did find their way into films they were often cut out when the film was distributed south. It is remarkable then, that when Crosby had his first opportunity to control a films production he insisted on Louis not only appearing but receiving star billing, a first for a black artist [(1,) p419]. That film was ‘Pennies from Heaven’:
Bing Crosby came to be the cosy figure that we are familiar with at this time of year. While we should enjoy that side (unsuprisingly I adore the film White Christmas) we should also be aware that he was so much more and left us with a remarkable, often brilliant, body of work. I’ll finish up with this clip, from the Edsel show in the 1950s, which shows a combination of the these elements; the jazz, the humour, the attitude to race (notice the mixed race band):
(1)For more on Bing Crosby get hold of a copy of the quite excellent and comprehensive book by Gary Giddens; “Bing Crosby. A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early years 1904-1940”