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.
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. (KB)
Crosby sang this Nacio Herb Brown song in the film, Going Hollywood. He remembered it as “my first attempt at presenting a song dramatically.” It became a huge hit and allowed him to expand his repertoire.Temptation
This song was a favorite with B.G. De Sylva, so he hired Mercer to work at Paramount and later, De Sylva, Glen Wallichs, and Mercer started Capitol Records.Bob White (Watcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)
“Johnny Mercer is a very clever fellow. We wrote some nice songs like ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’–-he gave me that title. I wrote that from the title. And he wrote 'Jeepers Creepers' to the music."You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby
Der Bingle inadvertently inspired this song during a dinner party that included Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. One of Bing’s children acted up and he berated the boy, comparing him to a mule. Burke fashioned that idea into a song the next day and the phrase “...or would you rather be a mule?” was born.Swinging on a Star
One of the top 25 holiday songs of all time, “White Christmas” was written in New York City by Irving Berlin who was inspired by thinking back to his years in Hollywood and how he would long to be in New York for the holidays. He wrote the song in one day, plus a few more hours for polishing the melody and lyric. Introduced by Crosby in the film Holiday Inn, the song continues to be a remarkable success, boasting over 500 recordings that have sold over 30 million copies. More than 21 million of those were Crosby’s version.White Christmas
Though it is considered a ragtime song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” bears little relationship to traditional ragtime. After the huge success of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, the first white songwriter to capitalize on the new rhythms and counterpoint was Joseph E. Howard, in the song “Hello, Ma Baby,” which he wrote that very same year. In 1902, Hughie Cannon wrote the ragtime tune “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” It took Berlin longer to absorb the rag influences but when he finally did he was generally accepted as the first white songwriter to incorporate ragtime. Songs like “Play Some Ragtime” (1910), “Stop That Rag,” and “Yiddle on Your Fiddle” helped establish his reputation.Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Hoagy Carmichael: As I was driving down the highway, coming into Palm Springs, to join Johnny [Mercer] to write this score, I happened to think of an old old joke, not a very funny joke. But it was about a jackass. And it seemed that the king of the jungle, the lion, sent an emissary to the jackass to say, “Jackass, are you coming to the king’s big party?” And the jackass, sitting with a pipe in his mouth and his legs crossed, said, “Tell the king in the cool, cool, cool of the evening, I’ll be there.” Well, I told this joke to Johnny Mercer and in two days we had the song.In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening
Johnny Mercer to the BBC: When I was working with Benny Goodman back in ’39, I had a publicity guy who told me he had been to hear Father Divine, and that was the subject of his sermon, “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Well, that amused me so, and it sounds so Southern and so funny that I wrote it down on a piece of paper. And this was, what, five years later? And Harold Arlen and I were riding home from the studio after a conference about getting a song for the sailors. … And Harold was singing me this little tune he had sung me before. Now, that’s a strange thing about your subconscious, because here’s a song that’s kind of lying dormant in my subconscious for five years, and the minute he sang that tune, it jumped into my mind as if it dialed a phone number. Because it doesn’t really fit. The accent is all different. I just think there’s some kind of fate connected with it.Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive
"Suddenly, the room was as quiet as a grave. Out in the middle of the floor was one of this trio, singing. The crowd was quiet, very quiet, and when he finished the place went into ecstasy. They applauded like mad and this young man walked right off the floor with no expression whatsoever on his face. No triumph! No elation! No conquest!"Rudee Vallee
"Bing’s death is almost more than I can take. He was the father of my career, the idol of my youth and a dear friend of my maturity. His passing leaves a gaping hole in our music and in the lives of everybody who ever loved him. And that's just about everybody. Thank God we have his films and his records providing us with his warmth and talent forever."Frank Sinatra
"I don’t think there's anybody better in the studio than Bing. He and Sinatra are two of the finest people I've ever worked with from that standpoint. When Bing comes into the studio, he's there to perform and nothing else. He's a pure professional and is that much of a pro that he doesn't tolerate anyone else who isn't. Bing is probably one of the fastest studies I've ever seen. He's got great ears. He has something approaching total recall, in that it doesn't take him long to get the feeling of a piece and learn it.”Sonny Burke
"Even if he came in and he was, for whatever reason, in a sour mood, he was always great with us. We always had a wonderful time. Bing was the perfection artist to work with--at least with us. We worked with so many artists that left you wanting. Bing never did."Maxine Andrews