Monday, November 28, 2011


There’s no more important subset of American popular singers than the crooner, whose smooth, mellow sound is “easy listening” in the best sense of the phrase. Crooners require no effort on the part of the listener, who can just sit back and spend some quality time with a good voice, some nice tunes, and terrific arrangements. Bing Crosby was the king of the crooners. His sleepy-eyed, “buh-buh-buh-boo,” pipe-in-mouth, hat-down-low style of singing lasted for almost fifty years and we never grew tired of it. Bing was always professional, always busy, filling up every spare moment with either singing or swinging―a golf club, that is.

Crosby was a transitional figure but also his own man and most of all, a great talent. Whereas Jolson wore his emotions on his sleeve, his style stripped bare and without nuance, the next great singer, Bing Crosby, kept his personality in check. He gave us nothing to make us cry, nothing to make us laugh―but he could draw a big smile, a pang of nostalgia, a wistfulness. Crosby dealt in emotions lite, keeping the audience entertained, singing as if he were singing just for you, and all without offering a clue as to who he was or what he thought. We bought it all. He asked little of us and we asked little of him.

Even Bing’s friends and family couldn’t tell what was going on behind his façade. Dogs wag their tails when happy, snarl when they’re mad. Cats flick their tails when they’re annoyed. Bing had his own set of signals and we were forced to look for them in order to discover the person underneath the performance.

For Maxine Andrews, it was his hat: “He could be very moody, and when he came into the recording studio we could always tell what mood he was in by looking at his hat. If his hat was square on his head, you didn't kid around with him. But if it was back a little bit, sort of jaunty, then you could have a ball.”

His own wife, Kathryn, searched for clues in his dress: “People who didn't know thought Bing had difficulty expressing affection. Not at all. As I was to learn much later, the secret was in that top button on the pajamas. If it was fastened, it was going to be a quiet read-in-bed and lights-out-at-10 p.m.-after-chaste-prayers [night]. If it was unbuttoned, however, watch out.”

Hats and pajamas as the windows to a man’s soul? Some claimed he was self-absorbed but perhaps he was just introspective. That’s why Johnny Burke was the perfect lyricist for Crosby, his work full of down-home homilies, the joys of living simply and simply living, the notion that money can’t buy happiness.

Though Crosby was one of the richest men in Hollywood, and certainly enjoyed his wealth, he was never pretentious. As Wilfred Hyde-White reported, “Sinatra would turn up with three or four Karmen Ghias. The doors would open and bodyguards would march down. But Bing would turn up in a little car, stop at the gate for his dressing-room key, and then park it himself! The difference was rather marvelous.”

His image, relaxed and easy-going, was carefully controlled. James Cagney noted, “Here he had been to all appearances perfectly loose and relaxed, but not at all. He was giving everything he had in every note he sang, and the apparent effortlessness was a part of his very hard work.”

We all know about the great friendship between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. They mock-feuded, appeared on each other’s radio and television broadcasts, enjoyed a long relationship on film in the “road” movies, and popped up in cameos in each other’s film and stage vehicles. They honestly enjoyed each other’s company. They clicked. And yet, there’s no record of Bing and Bob ever getting together for a vacation, let alone a meal, in all their years together.

Perhaps he was the only one to truly know himself, but that’s true of most of us. Still, it doesn’t diminish one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. A man who brought us out of the acoustic age and into the electronic. Jolson could take or leave a microphone, his actions meant everything. Crosby embraced the microphone and used it to draw us into the music. He refined Jolson’s emotional peaks and smoothed out the edges on Jolson’s need for approval. He led the way to Frank Sinatra, a complex man who let us into his id. Crosby was a transitional figure but also his own man and most of all, a great talent...


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