Any list of the most important 20th Century artists would have to include Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby (1903 – 1977) – and he would quite possibly be at the top of it. Nor do I simply mean a list of great or influential recording artists, despite the fact that Crosby currently has over half a billion records in circulation. No, it is because Crosby’s voice and demeanor helped define the American consciousness and identity; he personified an idealized American Everyman. And when seriously assessing the importance of the Great American Songbook, it is impossible to overlook his Olympian presence.
In this post-rock age, Crosby is the ultimate forgotten man. This is all the more incredible considering that he is the direct inspiration for artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. He is the popular singer with the most Academy Award wins and nominations (in fact, he is one of only four actors ever nominated twice for playing the same character). Between 1927 and 1962 he scored 369 charted records under his own name -- yes, 369 charted records. That record has never been beaten; indeed, no one has come close. Even the most diverse musical performers are shy by more than 100: Paul Whiteman (220), Frank Sinatra (209), Elvis Presley (149), Glen Miller (129), Nat “King” Cole (118), Louis Armstrong (85) and the Beatles (68). In fact, Bing continued to have an average of 16 charted singles per year through 1950, peaking in 1939 with 27 (beaten by the Beatles in 1964, with 30), and never falling below double-digits until 1951, when he placed nine singles in the top 25.
Crosby also perfected the template by which recording artists built larger and more multi-faceted careers. It was Bing who first conquered recordings, then radio or television and then Hollywood. This was the model followed by Sinatra in the 1940s, Presley in the 1950s and Barbra Streisand in the 1960s. Though each of them was successful in these endeavors, no recording artist has matched Crosby’s long-term success and influence as an all-media star.
For those of us who are interested in statistics, Bing was:
- The first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra
- The man with the most popular recording ever, White Christmas, the only single to make American pop charts 20 times
- The man who scored the most number one hits ever, 38, compared with 24 by the Beatles and 18 by Elvis Presley
- The only pre-1980 film star to rank as the number one box-office attraction five times (1944-48), and between 1934 and 1954 he scored in the Top Ten 15 times
- He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times and won for Going My Way
- He financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry
But, finally, what does all of this mean? Is popular success the definition of an artist? Do record sales translate into aesthetic achievement? Obviously not, for if that were the case then, good Lord, we would degrade the label artist by using it on the largely talent-free figures that swamp the post-rock scene. (It is significant that the greatest talents of popular American musicians clustered in a period when music was written by and for adults, and not undulating children and adults unwilling to challenge themselves with melody, lyric, sentiment and sophistication.)
Bing was a great artist for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, he had one of the most pitch-perfect voices during the golden era of the Great American Songbook. More importantly, he was a terrific jazz singer, particularly in his 1930s recordings. He was perhaps at his best in duos, and his duets with Connie Boswell, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire and Rosemary Clooney have a collaborative quality that these artists were never able to achieve with another partner.
Bing was also the first artist to really make use of one of the most revolutionary musical tools – the microphone. Bing knew that the microphone was a passport to intimacy, and he was perhaps the first great American popular singer who sang to his audience, rather than at them.
Like most great artists, he was able to achieve a corpus of work that is both timeless and reflective of the time in which it was created. Many Bing aficionados, like myself, prefer the Jazz era Crosby of the 1930s, while others find greatest satisfaction with the American troubadour Bing of the 1940s and 50s. Bing managed to change with the times (until the advent of rock), finding the mode of delivery most resonant to people of three decades, and then defining it.
As a screen actor, Bing had few peers. His film work in pictures as diverse as Country Girl (1954), where he plays an alcoholic actor, and as a journalist in Little Boy Lost (1953) is remarkably adept. His career as a musical comedy star is of a very high order, and is on view in films as different as Holiday Inn (1942), High Society (1956) and Anything Goes (1936). He was also a gifted comedian; indeed, the most fascinating thing about the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope (1903-2003) dynamic in a series of seven Road pictures, is that they are cinema’s only evenly-matched duo. Most comedy teams pair ‘funnyman’ and ‘straight man,’ but Hope and Crosby were never separated by this dynamic, as each were farceurs in their own way. Thus, movie magic is made.
Crosby is the subject of an excellent biography by Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams-the Early Years, 1903-1940, published in 2001. It is the first volume of a two-volume life, and is highly recommended to serious students of jazz, American music and the history of pop culture.
In the final analysis, we must rate Crosby as the consummate popular artist of the 20th Century. I believe his remarkable oeuvre lays in wait for future generations to rediscover, and when it comes, the Bing Crosby renaissance will be a formidable one. One can only hope.
Tomorrow – Fred Astaire!