Der Bingle: A Short Appreciation of Bing Crosby
He was once the most popular singer ever.
He recorded over 1600 songs over a 58 year recording career. His records have sold over one billion copies. He had 38 number one hits, including the most popular song ever.
He appeared on about 4000 radio programs.
His television show regularly was watched by over 50 million people weekly.
He appeared in 83 movies and sold over one billion tickets, which puts him third overall on the most popular actor category, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. He was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won one, and introduced fourteen Oscar nominated songs in these films, which won four.
He is largely forgotten, with the exception of this time of year, where his music is rotated liberally and his name is synonymous with the holiday season.
He is Bing Crosby whose life and legacy still live on among those of us who cherish popular singing.
And that’s what he was, a popular singer, singing songs of every type and genre, with an easy-going style that belied his immense talent. Bing made it look easy and everyone, from all walks of life, would enjoy his music. And man, that voice, that incomparable voice; that deep baritone that takes every musical phrase seriously and glides it to its musical height. Jazz, ballads, blues, cowboy songs, hymns, show tunes – he sang practically everything, captivating his audience with those full, rich notes. They clung to every word, every syllable, as Bing invented what became the crooner. Many tried to imitate. Sinatra started out as a Bing clone.
What made me start thinking of Crosby was the programming of local radio. Several stations here in Cincinnati – as I am sure other cities have done the same thing — have begun playing Christmas music 24/7. I had the occasion to listen to a large block of that programming one night and noticed that, roughly, one out of six songs were songs by Crosby, including at least two versions of White Christmas, the aforementioned most popular song ever, with sales of over 100 million.
I thought about that. I thought about how much I like Crosby’s music and mused sadly that this is probably the only time of the year in which Crosby is played on mainstream radio. SiriusXM radio even has a channel devoted this time of year called “Bing Crosby Christmas Radio”. To be fair, you can listen to Crosby songs on Sirius’ 40’s channel and Pandora and Spotify also program Crosby music into your specific playlists.
TMC does show the occasional Crosby film, Going My Way being the most popular. Sometimes a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” picture pops up, but these are mostly dated comedies and, as much as I love Bob Hope, his humor is very topical and era-specific.
Yes, Bing Crosby has some skeletons in his closet. He could be aloof and dismissive. He probably wasn’t the greatest father to his four sons by his first marriage, but apparently redeemed himself by his second marriage, with three children.
(There’s a biography of Bing called The Hollow Man, which presents a less than flattering portrait of him. For years, during my friends and my annual White Elephant Christmas party, we gave away the same copy of this book each year to some unsuspecting recipient, who was obliged to give it away the following year.
My friend, Rick Simms, né Clem Coffee, said that if “One fifth of what was written in that book is true, Bing Crosby was the most despicable man who ever lived.” And Clem liked Bing Crosby.
A better biography is Gary Giddins’ Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940. This came out in 2001, with a promised second volume that is taking some time to see print.
So, this holiday season, when you hear Bing Crosby sing those delightful Christmas carols that can make the other ones seem lame, pause and reflect just one minute that the man you’re listening to is a superstar in the world of popular music. And if you have Pandora or Spotify, give a listen to some of his other non-holiday music. I’ll bet you’ll end up liking it and wanting more. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my vinyl copy of Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings.