Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sexy Beast, I Mean Bing: Happy Birthday, and Goodbye

Bing Crosby died today, October 14, 1977. It was notable in that year because Elvis had died on August 16. More shocking of course, because he was only 42. But Crosby still had enough cultural resonance back then for it to register that two towering legends of American music had died two months apart.

The decades have not been kind to Crosby's musical memory, and American Masters has stepped in to do something about that. Bing Crosby, Rediscovered will air in December.  It is not to be missed.

From the press release:
 Thirty-seven years after his death, Bing Crosby remains the most recorded performer in history with nearly 400 hit singles, an achievement no one — not Sinatra, Elvis or the Beatles — has come close to matching. A brilliant entrepreneur, Crosby played an important role in the development of the postwar recording industry. As one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, he won the Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way and starred in the iconic “Road” films with Bob Hope.

Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film features new interviews with all surviving members of Crosby’s immediate family — wife Kathryn, daughter Mary and sons Harry and Nathaniel. The film reveals Crosby’s struggles with his first wife, Dixie Lee, and their sons Gary, Dennis, Phillip and Lindsay. Mary addresses accusations of abuse first published in Gary’s 1983 memoir, which tarnished their father’s legacy. Gary speaks candidly about both his and his mother’s alcoholism as well as his difficulties with his father in a never-before-seen 1987 interview. Other new interviews include singers Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein, record producer Ken Barnes, biographer Gary Giddins, and writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman, who both share the story behind Crosby’s Christmas special duet with David Bowie.


I wrote this post for Bing's birthday back in May. But no real need to bother reading the words, just play the clips!

Bing Crosby’s birthday is today, May 2, as he cites in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: "Uncle George kept my father company, diverted him with his best stories and raised a comforting glass with him when I was born on May 2, 1904."

OR it's tomorrow May 3, the date all the biographies site for him, including the Gary Giddens. And those bios cite 1903 as his birth year, not 1904. Turns out Bing celebrated May 2 because of a complicated family thing & then Paramount used that in their materials, but he was born on May 3. Unfortunately, this confusion about the simplest of a man’s details is the least of the problems with his legacy.

Like the Olympian gods, Bing Crosby is largely forgotten and unloved today, except for the descendents of some loyal fans. Gary Giddins made a valiant attempt to focus attention on this Mozart of the popular song with his very ample 2001 biography Pocketful of Dream. And for a brief moment, pop culture glanced at “the first white hip guy born in America” (as Artie Shaw called him). But the attention has not been sustained. And yet . . . when people discover his work in the 1930s, new fans are born.

"Please" . . . A Real Heartthrob
In the beginning, Crosby was sexy and compelling. He had a distinct, astonishing voice and a way of singing that was unlike any other on the landscape.

He was a genuine heartthrob, best seen in a movie that is almost impossible to get now, the original Big Broadcast (1931, but before they started assigning years to them. Top & left photo from this great site). Crosby plays himself, and the scenes of the women stampeding to kiss him are funny but entirely believable. Women fell in love with his voice on the radio, and the early shorts and movies use that as a story line.

Here he is, in The Big Broadcast, singing Dinah looking like a male model for Banana Republic, and  Please accompanied by the legendary Eddie Lang.

The tragedy of Eddie Lang. Lang met Crosby when they were both in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Eddie followed when Bing left the band. They were very close, and Giddins writes how devastated Crosby was when Lang died, hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy. It was Crosby who had recommended that Lang have his tonsils out to help with chronic hoarseness and so be able to take on speaking parts in future Crosby films. It was an enormous burden for Crosby to bear that Lang died at age 30 from this operation that he recommended.

Important Beatles notes: John Lennon sites Crosby's Please as an influence for his writing Please Please Me: "I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend me your little ears to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please’."

And in Scorsese's Living in a Material World documentary, Olivia Harrison says of George: "He liked the moon, you know. If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing "Sweet Leilani" and just make the moment even better. And then he might hand you a gardenia."

The First Music Video?
In 1932 Marion Davies insisted on Crosby as her leading man in Going Hollywood, a wild pastiche of a musical. It’s maybe best known for the Grand Central extravaganza number, while the Make Hay While the Sunshine number is almost too hard to watch.

But there is one scene that deserves a place in film history: a drunk, disheveled Crosby singing Temptation intercut with close-ups of the smoldering Fifi D’Orsay. It’s dark and evocative, with other cuts to blurry, tightly-packed bodies, swaying to the pulsating rhythms of the song. It looks like an early music video. The comments on YouTube tell it all: “how young he is” and “how sexy he is” and “Crosby has more talent in his little finger than Sinatra has in his whole body” [okay, that one is just a nice swipe at the other guy].

Yeah. That’s what propelled Crosby into the hearts and imagination of an entire generation, three quarters of a century ago.

Stardust, 1931
One more (audio) clip: Crosby in 1931 singing Star Dust (first published as two words, and then one). It’s nothing like the standard Nat King Cole. He sings it with a wild abandon, always pushing on the tempo. Pure passion. Pure despair. Pure, natural talent.

This Crosby of the 1930s is the guy who fired my father's imagination to be a life-long fan.  As well as a guy from Hoboken, named Frank. And that's a pretty good legacy in itself.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

'Mozart of the popular song'.


Does this make Bing Crosby the Mozart of the billiard table?

M.A.Peel said...

CCH--not sure I follow. Crosby had many passions, from golf to serious hunting, but I don't think pool was one of them.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

A long shot, might have mis-cued. I remember some years ago passing BC's house in an extraordinary place called Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, Ca, and not only were the lawns like billiard tables but it took us about ten minutes to walk past his billiard room, where our guide (a friend and neighbour of Gerald Ford, but this may be no guarantee of accuracy) assured us he had six or seven full-sized tables and two full-time liveried markers.

However it's possible I've muddled BC - in this respect - with Hoagy Carmichael or Ginger Rogers, who lived close by. If so I'm sorry, and will spend the next fortnight doing penance.

Back on May 17th or thereby. Happy blogging!

M.A.Peel said...

CCH--that's quite a tour of the stars' homes! I saw your note about upcoming concert. "O to be in England. . . ."

scribbler50 said...

Great, great post, M.A., a richly nostalgic look back at when singing was actually "singing", and Bing Crosby certainly was one of the best.

Also, to add to your list of famous fans (George Harrison,John Lennon) there was none bigger than Dean Martin who admittedly stole his crooning style from Bing.

As always... Cheers!

Ellen O'Neill said...

Hi Scrib, such a nice surprise to see you in my neck of the woods. Yes Dino's admiration. Which is part of what makes the "Style" number in Robin and the Seven Hoods with Sinatra, Bing, and Dino should a lovely moment.