Bing Crosby: Thoughts at Christmas

Sunday, December 23, 2007
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Indeed, this video is wonderful (Crosby & Bowie), and I remember watching the song being performed for the first time on Bing’s Christmas special. However, thanks to YouTube and the people who stock it, this fabulous video is also online. This is the scene from White Christmas where Bing, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen sing “Snow” in the train dining car. It’s so special because it showcases Bing’s natural ease, his elocution, his gorgeous phrasing. (Though I never liked the fact that the audio recording of this song replaces Rosemary with Peggy Lee.) Another showcase moment is Bing’s short version of “Count Your Blessings,” as he sings to Rosemary Clooney. There has never been a more marvelous voice. (Though Gary North has argued that Nat Cole is top shelf.)

Clive James comments on the remarkable and unparalleled skill of Bing Crosby:

In high school Crosby learned elocution from the Jesuits. He went on to a college education. He was so at home with a twelve-cylinder vocabulary that his radio and film writers later poured on the polysyllables in full confidence that he could handle anything. But he was saying exactly what he meant when he said he had an ordinary voice. He could do extraordinary things with it, but regarded as a mere sound it was just the noise of a nice man speaking. He put most of his art into making sure that he still sounded like that even when he was performing prodigies. The secret of great success in the popular arts is to bring the punters in on the event, and you can’t do that if you are manifestly doing something they can’t do. You have to be doing something they can do, so that they can dream. It’s just that you do it better, so that they can admire. Essentially they are admiring themselves: it’s a circuit, and too much obvious bravura will break it.

I think many people don’t know how Bing came to be so unique and refined. A New York Times book review of the Gary Giddins biography on Bing states:

Crosby thought that his singing grew more secure through the years — that he had been sloppy in the early 30′s. It didn’t matter: the rich intimacy of the voice, the beautiful phrasing, the perfect elocution and pitch and, crucially, the mastery of the microphone and of radio prevailed over carelessness and weak material. Crosby is both revolutionary, in that no earlier singer sounds anything like him, and assimilative, containing the Jewish Jolson, the African-American Armstrong, his own Irish musical heritage. He’s both a melting pot and uniquely himself.

…Bing attended a Jesuit high school in Spokane, studying Latin and mastering the art of elocution, to which he later said he owed his remarkable phrasing.

Bing, I believe, matured during his mid-40s to mid-50s stage. His voice settled and he did away with the unnaturally high pitches of his Columbia years of the late 20s – early 30s. This is also a great YouTube moment, with Bing singing a live and informal version of White Christmas, in his later years. (You’ll have to ignore the aggravating piano player.) Even in his 60s and 70s he could still swing with grandeur.

Another scene from White Christmas shows Bing and Danny performing the “Sisters” routine of Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. I’ve read all the Crosby bios, and the story is that Crosby, who was rather macho, initially refused to do this scene because they wanted him in full lady’s garb. He finally settled for rolling up his trousers and sticking a gadget in his hair, and thank goodness, because it is a memorable scene from the movie.

There are many terrific videos of Bing out on the web that all fans must see. A must-watch video is this moment with the twins of Cool, Bing & Dean. My favorites. All cool and class. Here’s another Bing & Dean video in various skits. And of course there’s the other great duo, Bing and Louis Armstrong. This video reflects how much fun these two had together in performance. Here’s another one of my favorites, Andy Williams, with Bing in the 60s. Then, this video is especially wonderful as it showcases Bing (whistlin’) and the fabulous Ella Fitzgerald (scattin’) in rare footage of them together. Finally, here is a YouTube video of Bing & Frank Sinatra singing White Christmas, and Bing with the Andrews Sisters.

This TV spot of Bing is especially notable because it would never make it on the air today. In a time when only “holiday” music is appropriate, Bing reminds us what Christmas (yes, “Christmas”) is really about.

I too love Bing, and thank goodness a real scholar – Gary Giddins – set the story straight on a guy who was perniciously portrayed post-death. There has never been a more talented entertainer then Bing Crosby.

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