Singing a Crooner's Praises

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Bing Crosby's popularity as a singer was staggering. Between 1927 and 1965, he released nearly 400 songs that made the national sales charts--about twice as many as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley combined during their careers. Even more remarkable is Crosby's influence on popular music. Louis Armstrong adored his singing, and Sinatra called Crosby his greatest inspiration.

So why is Crosby, who died of a heart attack in 1977 at age 74, rarely mentioned when pop singers are discussed today?

That's one question that led Gary Giddins, the noted Village Voice jazz critic, to spend a decade researching and writing a comprehensive, two-volume biography of Crosby. The first volume, "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams--The Early Years, 1903-1940," has been published to mostly glowing reviews by Little Brown and Co. The second volume is due in 2004.

Crosby was also an Academy Award-winning actor and a hugely successful businessman. Giddins, 52, who was featured prominently in Ken Burns' "Jazz" TV documentary series, explores all facets of Crosby's life in the book, but his singing was the topic of our interview.

Question: How good a singer was Crosby?

Answer: He's in the pantheon, no question in my mind, whether you think of him as a jazz singer or pop singer. He had a huge influence on almost everyone who came after him--even the country music market. Roy Rogers told me every cowboy singer changed his style after Bing started singing those western songs. They all wanted to sound smooth and cool. His jazz records, too, stand up well. [Jazz singer] Jon Hendricks said that there were only two jazz singers that he and his friends listened to when they were growing up: Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby.

Q: So why is he ignored today?

A: His greatest asset in the early years became his greatest deficit in the '60s. When you listened to him in those early years, he was so cool, so laid-back, so confident. His audience listened to him and they knew everything was going to be all right, which is what people needed during the Depression and World War II and after the war.

But when you got into the nuclear age and it's rock 'n' roll and it's Sinatra's jet-set hipsterism, Crosby is still cool and laid-back. He suddenly becomes irrelevant. Sinatra went deeper than Crosby in terms of interpreting lyrics. That left Bing no longer fitting in with that period.

Q: In some ways, Crosby defined modern pop singing. What were his contributions and strengths?

A: Besides the gorgeous voice, he had perfect time. He was probably the first white singer who really understood the importance of time, which is something he learned from Armstrong. Even when he recorded junk--and he recorded an awful lot of it--he always knew where the downbeat was. Other singers from his time--Rudy Vallee, Dick Powell and the rest--had no sense of time.

The other thing is, Bing was the first pop singer, to my knowledge, who actually cared what the lyrics meant. He had eight years of schooling with the Jesuits and two years of law. He was an educated man who specialized in elocution, recitation and debate. When he looked at a lyric, he wanted to know what story was being told and make that central to his vocal.

He also recognized the paradox that electricity--the microphone--made music more human, not less. You didn't have to shout out music on the radio. You could focus on nuances of your voice. He knew that you weren't singing to a zillion people out there in "radio land." He was singing to one person in front of the radio--and he transferred that same approach to his recordings.

Q: You've also written a biography of Louis Armstrong, who was the first great singer in jazz. How do they compare?

A: Armstrong is the foundation, because he introduced swing, the spontaneity. Bing took it into the mainstream. He could sing anything. I love Armstrong's voice, but Crosby had a voice that more people could relate to. Armstrong once described Bing's voice as "like pouring gold out of a cup." He loved Bing's singing. It was Crosby's success that influenced Armstrong to sing ballads.

Q: One of Crosby's weaknesses is his material. He would go from great songs to pretty corny ones. Why's that?

A: He just wasn't as discriminating as he should have been. When it came to making records, he let his producer, Jack Kapp, choose the songs for almost all the records. When it came to his radio show, however, Bing would pick the songs and you'd see him doing tunes by Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael.

Q: Did you like both his jazz records and his pop records?

A: Initially, the only Crosby I knew was the jazz stuff. I came upon him by accident. I bought all the Bix Beiderbecke records from the '20s that I could find as a kid, and every once in a while there would be a vocal by Crosby and it caught my ear--very impressive. But that's all I knew about him for years. The rest I thought was just vanilla mainstream.

Q: What made you change your mind?

A: There was a two-record set of Crosby pop material from the early '30s that came out when I was in college and I really liked it, which was strange because I hated most mainstream pop at the time. Then in 1976, he came back for this last hurrah at the Uris Theatre in New York. I covered it for the Voice, and he was so cool and self-possessed on stage. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

At the end of the concert, he did this medley of what turned out to be 46 of his hits, and everyone in the audience was just applauding and cheering. I started getting intrigued. Who else has meant that much to so many people for such a long time in pop music?

Q: What do you think was his greatest period as a singer?

A: Probably the mid- to late '30s. That's the point where he gets rid of all the mannerisms and his voice is at its richest. . . . Songs like "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," which he did with his brother Bob's jazz band. His phrasing on that is sensational. "Someday Sweetheart" is a great jazz record.

The ballad records from that period were also extraordinary. . . . "Mexicali Rose" and "The One Rose." He made them into powerful Depression waltz hymns that suggest a darkness in this period that you don't find in any other aspect of popular music. When we think of the '30s, we think of stomping feet and flying skirts and swing bands. But there was a depth in Crosby's music.

"Home on the Range" is a record I play for my most skeptical friends. He took this song, which was virtually unknown in 1933, and he turned it into this virtual hymn, which was a longing for some other past that we all shared. That's really the motif in a lot of the Crosby songs when he's in charge of the material. They speak of some distant time and place. There's even some of that in his version of "White Christmas."

Q: Finally, what about Crosby the man? He has frequently been portrayed as aloof and cold. What did you find?

A: That was one of my early interests in the book. I wanted to deal with the idea of a guy who is perceived to be one way--your next-door neighbor, the soul of warmth, your brother under the skin--but who in private life is cold, aloof, virtually unknowable. That was what you always heard about Crosby.

But when I started doing the research, I found all these people, from Rosemary Clooney to Jane Wyman, who spoke so warmly about him. I tried to pursue the dirt, but the more I researched the more I started liking the guy. What I discovered is that Crosby is a lot more like the guy all his fans thought he was than the way he is often thought of today. He was as warm as that voice.

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