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.)
TO BE CONTINUED...