Friday, August 30, 2019


Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Phil Berk profilesdeMille laureates through the years.

He was the personification of the laidback, the unflappable, Mr. Cool.

For twenty years Bing Crosby was the world’s most popular actor, even during World War II, when he was affectionately known as Der Bingle by the Germans, a name that caught on in the States once the war ended.

But long before he received his Cecil B deMille award in 1960 Crosby had proved himself as both a crooner and an actor without peer.

He started out as part of a singing trio but eventually went solo with big bands: Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Dorsey. For decades he was the biggest name in music and in one year commanded 60% of all record sales. In fact, his “White Christmas” remains the biggest selling single of all time.

He soon became a fixture in radio and had the top-rated shows on the airways for decades. He even conquered television in later years.

But it was his film career that earned him cultural immortality. His first feature-film role, after having done a number of short subjects, was The Big Broadcast for which he was given top billing. He continued to get top billing at Paramount for 30 years. (The one exception was playing opposite William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies in his second feature Going Hollywood.)

Among actresses acquiescing to second billing in those early movies were Joan Bennett, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, Ethel Merman, and Frances Farmer. During his first decade between 1933 to 1939, he starred in twenty movies, all box office successes. The ’40s, however, were his greatest years. In 1940 he made the first of his now-classic road movies, The Road to Morocco, with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. It was so successful the second, Road to Zanzibar, followed the next year. Even today these road movies are considered worthy successors to the Marx Brothers classics.

By 1943 he was the world’s most popular actor and in fact held that title for five years as Hollywood’s top box office draw. During that period he experienced his first blockbuster and first collaboration with Irving Berlin: Holiday Inn. This time his second-billed costar was Fred Astaire.

But it was Going My Way, in 1944, which established him as a Hollywood icon, winning him a Best Actor Academy Award. After that, his reputation was sealed.

The following year, in a rare loan out to RKO. he reprised his role of Father O’Malley in The Bells of St Mary’s opposite Ingrid Bergman. The two became the world’s most popular actors, and the film the year’s biggest box office hit. Unfortunately Paramount didn’t know what to do with him. He was assigned top directors (Billy Wilder, Frank Capra) but nothing really clicked, although Capra’s Riding High is a fun ride. His last commercial success for Paramount was Irving Berlin’s White Christmas which was 1954’s biggest moneymaker.

But then he was given the dramatic role of his career playing the alcoholic husband in The Country Girl. Grace Kelly, playing his long-suffering wife, got all the plaudits but it was Crosby who gives the film’s great performance. She won the Best Actress in a Motion Picture Golden Globe, Crosby wasn’t nominated.

Six years later he received his first Hollywood Foreign Press honor, the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement. He was 57 at the time.

Country Girl was Crosby’s swansong at Paramount and from then on he freelanced. The highlight of this period was Cole Porter’s High Society for MGM, teaming him for the first time with fellow crooner Frank Sinatra. Grace Kelly was again his costar. During the filming, he pursued her ardently, but she ran off and married Prince Rainier ending her Hollywood career.

Which segues into the only blot on his hallowed career, his conduct as a husband and father. He was married to singer Dixie Lee for over 20 years before her death. She was an alcoholic and the mother of his four sons. For much of that time, they were estranged but as a good Catholic, he stayed by her side. Their eldest son Gary wrote an autobiography detailing the cruel punishments inflicted upon him by his father. Despite his high expectations, none of his kids amounted to much, although Gary had a short career as a juvenile in teenage movies.

After Dixie died Crosby married actress Kathryn Grant, 30 years his junior. They had three children.

Sadly, Crosby died suddenly on a golf course in Spain at age 74.

As a Hollywood icon, he has few equals...

Saturday, August 17, 2019


Here are the rest of Bing Crosby's choices for his favorite performers that he picked in 1977...

6. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (1901-1971)
Bing once said “I’m proud to acknowledge my debt to the ‘Reverend Satchelmouth’ … He is the beginning and the end of music in America”

It is impossible to overstate the influence and importance of Louis Armstrong to the development of jazz and popular music. Indeed, it is the subject of books and documentaries, not of blog entries. Such was Armstrong’s fame and incredible impact as a performer and musician, that I did find a surfeit of quotes by people much more qualified than I to add something meaningful to the dialogue about Armstrong’s legacy.

“(Armstrong was) the key creator of the mature working language of jazz. Three decades after his death and more than three-quarters of a century since his influence first began to spread, not a single musician who has mastered that language fails to make daily use, knowingly or unknowingly, of something that was invented by Louis Armstrong.” – Dan Morgenstern, Oxford Companion to Jazz

7. NAT “KING” COLE (1919-1965)
Nat “King” Cole remains one of the most beloved entertainers and recording artists of the 20th-century. He rose to fame as a jazz pianist in the 194os as the leader of the Nat “King” Cole Trio, before becoming one of the most successful singers of the 1950s and early-1960s and a cornerstone of Capitol Records roster. He died tragically from cancer at the age of 45 in 1965, but not before becoming the first black man to host a TV show and introducing a stunning string of hit songs, including “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “When I Fall in Love,” “Too Young,” “Nature Boy,” “Route 66,” “L-O-V-E,” and “Unforgettable.”

8. MEL TORMÉ (1925-1999)
Mel Tormé was a jack of many trades but a master of them all: preeminent vocalist of standards (known as “The Velvet Fog”), composer (“The Christmas Song,” a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), musical arranger, actor, and author of five very well-written books.

9. JUDY GARLAND (1922-1969)
Judy Garland was a child prodigy who was performing from the time she could walk. So much has been written about Judy Garland that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. No matter what your feelings about the entertainer, one thing is certain: she meant (and to some extent, continues to mean) a great deal to many people. Though she never had the hip factor of a Sinatra, or the mystery of a Peggy Lee, Garland’s gifts were undeniable and. In terms of raw talent, Judy Garland was inarguably in the most elite group of all-time greats, an opinion shared by most all of her peers, including Mr. Crosby.

10. VICTOR BORGE (1909-2000)
Victor Borge is not well-remembered today, but the Danish comic, conductor, and pianist was a major star of radio and television. He lived a very long life and died in his 90s, after 75 years of entertaining. In addition to his musical accomplishments, he wrote several books and was a shrewd businessman. He was apparently responsible for popularizing rock Cornish game hens, a business in which he invested. Who knew?


Tuesday, August 13, 2019


It is so nice that we are starting to see a few more new Bing CDs out there. Here is one where Bing sings Johnny Mercer.

You can purchase the CD through Amazon, and here are the track details. Some of the recordings are from radio, but I do not know which ones yet...

Track Listing
1. Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean
2.  I’m an Old Cowhand
3.  Too Marvellous for Words
4  .Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)
5.  You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby
6.  On Behalf of the Visiting Firemen
7.  Mister Meadowlark
8.  The Waiter and the Porter and the Upstairs Maid
9.  Dearly Beloved
10. Blues in the Night
11. Skylark
12. On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
13. Accentuate the Positive
14. There’s a Fella Waiting in Poughkeepsie
15. The Yodel Blues
16. The Big Movie Show in the Sky
17. Autumn Leaves
18. Lazy Bones
19. In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening
20. The Glow Worm
21. P.S. I Love You
22. Jeepers Creepers
23. That Old Black Magic

Wednesday, August 7, 2019



Harriman, Tennessee – The Tennessee Historical Commission recently approved an application to honor Harriman native and Actress of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Dixie Lee. Dixie was born in the Walnut Hill neighborhood in Harriman near the intersection of Oak and Maple Streets, where the marker will be installed later this year. Unfortunately, the modest wooden frame house that was located on the property was destroyed by fire in 1959. Dixie Lee was born on Nov. 4, 1909 as Wilma Winifred Wyatt, although she later claimed to have been born in 1911. Wilma was the youngest of three daughters born to East Tennessee natives, Evan Wyatt and Nora Scarborough Wyatt.

Throughout her youth her family moved several times due to her father’s career as an insurance agent, eventually ending up in Chicago, Illinois where Wilma entered and won an amateur singing contest at the Sherman Hotel in 1928. This led to her being offered a part in a Broadway play and ultimately to her being discovered by Fox Film Corporation. Her name was changed to “Dixie Lee” to avoid confusion with another actress with a similar name. She made her big screen debut in Fox’s Movietone Follies of 1929. She went on to have major and minor roles in at least 17 known films. In 1930, she met and married a little known up-and-coming crooner by the name of Harry Lillis Crosby, Jr., or “Bing Crosby” as he would later become known. She retired from acting in 1935, and helped Bing raise their 4 boys. She died on Nov. 1, 1952, from ovarian cancer. Over the years, she has been largely forgotten and become a footnote in her famous husband’s story.

However, this talented Harriman native will now be remembered for who she was and the talent she possessed. Details for a public dedication will be released later this year.

The City would like to thank Dixie Lee’s granddaughter in California and Chris Hammond from Powell, Tennessee without whom this application would not have been successful...

Saturday, August 3, 2019


Bing Crosby is often considered one of the greatest singers of all time. It is interesting as to who was some of his favorite performers.  Mr. Crosby contributed this list of his 10 favorite all-time performers to the first edition of The Book of Lists in 1977. As the years go by and some of these great artists fade from the collective consciousness, I think it important and well worth the time to use Mr. Crosby’s list as a reason to revisit their work. After all, these entertainers were the Jay Z and Katy Perry of their own time.

Crosby states: “These are not listed in order of preference, and include no actors, only performers. I could, of course, list hundreds more.”

1. AL JOLSON (1886-1950)
The cantor’s son was considered one of the greatest performers of the 20th-century. He was beloved by millions and a great influence on later performers like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby. In fact, in the 1930s he was the highest paid performer in the United States.

2. ETHEL WATERS (1896-1977)
Ethel Waters was one of the best-loved performers of the last century. A blues, jazz, and gospel vocalist who is associated with many standards, including “Am I Blue?,” “Dinah,” and “Stormy Weather” (a song later associated with Lena Horne). As an actress, she starred in many films including Cabin in the Sky (1942) and Pinky (1949), for which she became only the second African American woman nominated for an Oscar.

3. JAMES BARTON (1890-1962)
Barton is, perhaps, the most obscure performer on Mr. Crosby’s list. He was a lauded vaudevillian and star of film and television. He began in minstrel shows and, according to Wiki, his years working with black performers led him to becoming one of the first white jazz dancers in the country. He played the Palace Theater, the apex of vaudeville, eight times. He later became recognized as serious actor, performing on Broadway in Tobacco Road (1934) and The Iceman Cometh (1946).

Barton was featured as the emcee (and last dancer) in the 1929 Paramount short After Seven. The film also featured the Chick Webb Orchestra and Shorty George Snowden, whom I learned in my research was one of the most famous lindy hop dancers of the period.

4. FRANK SINATRA (1915-1998)
In his superb book Why Sinatra Matters (1998, Little, Brown and Company), Pete Hamill wrote:

“His finest accomplishment, of course, was the sound. The voice itself would evolve over the years form a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones. But it was a combination of voice, diction, attitude, and taste in music that produced the Sinatra sound. It remains unique. Sinatra created something that was not there before he arrived: an urban American voice.”

Of course Frank Sinatra remains one of the most admired, imitated, and absolutely essential performers of all-time. Even if he hadn’t presided over 20th-century popular culture so intensely and for so long—by the 1990s there were t-shirts that said, “It’s Sinatra’s World, We Just Live in It”—he would still have earned a place on this list by dint of his prolific body of work. From 1940s crooner to Oscar-winning actor, Sinatra was an entertainer par excellence and a uniquely American phenomena. His Capitol Records with arrangements by artists like Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins, remain the high watermark of mid-century cool; a different kind of cool from the concurrent sound of rock ‘n roll, but in some ways more timeless.

5. LENA HORNE (1917-2010)
Lena Horne was many things: one of the biggest African American film stars of her generation, a sex symbol, a civil rights crusader, and one of the greatest singers of her time. Like Ethel Waters before her, she began as a Cotton Club dancer before transitioning to films. A victim of the intense racial politics of the mid-century, her studio MGM could not fully exploit her talent and she languished, primarily doing specialty numbers in all-star revues or the occasional all-black musical (Stormy Weather) before becoming one of the greatest nightclub performers of the 1950s and 1960s. (For more on her fascinating life, read my friend James Gavin’s riveting Horne biography Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, which was published in 2009 by Simon and Schuster.)