Tom McParland looks at the amazing career of Bing Crosby – the singer, actor and all-round performer who changed the way pop music was performed.
There have only been three performers who, in the 20th century actually changed the way pop music was performed. All of them were known by their first or second names. Two of them, Jolson and Elvis, through a combination of personal dynamism and frenetic movement managed to unleash the genie of genius. The third needed neither. Not even his nickname which, coincidentally happened to rhyme with sing – Bing.
Before Bing there was no such thing as easy listening. Just either finger-clicking dem old cotton fields pretence at being evening-suited black. Or belting performances by diaphragm expanders with the obligatory high note finish. Sonorous singing had its origins in opera. It was a tawdry way of appearing classical when being classy was hip. But ordinary Joes who sang in the bath never felt entirely included in the facade. We, untutored corncrakes bowed to les artistes. What did we know of musical chic?
What is extraordinary is how long ago Bing started – and startled – the music world with his revolutionary singing. His signature tune, Where The Blue Of The Night charted 88 years ago in 1932, the same year he met Bob Hope.
The original Turk & Ahlert lyric Where The Gold Of The Day Meets The Blue Of The Night, Bing instinctively inverted. The recording begins with a recitative (a sung intro) unrelated to the main melody, expressing a yearning to return to the past. That part inclines towards operatic tradition.
But the refrain belongs to the 20th century – as does Bing’s 16-bar whistling improvisation that shames any blackbird.
His aba-daba-doo-ing, hot-jazz scatting – though novel at the time – our sixties generation felt as energising as cold curry. It sounded like throw-away musical bubbles that anybody could blow. But like Blue Of The Night it was all rigorously rehearsed. Bing’s new casualness made it sound that way. His acting too, in Sennett’s eponymous movie short was indicative of yet another casual capability which would propel him to stratospheric heights in the following decades.
In St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Tacoma, Washington State, a Harry Lillis Crosby was baptised on May 3rd 1903. He was the fourth son of a large Crosby family (3 elder boys and two junior girls). His father Henry was descended from Viking Irish settlers. His mother Catherine (neé Harrigan) was second generation Irish American.
He remained happy being Harry Crosby long after he was nicknamed Bingo because of his boyhood giggling over a comic strip Bingo from Bingville in a Sunday paper. Bingo was inevitably shortened to Bing.