Friday, December 28, 2007

Bingo from Bingville

There was a PBS special on Bing Crosby the other night, and Dave mused a bit about how was it that Crosby has become so extraordinarily famous and successful. I blurted, "Because Bing Crosby changed everything."

A bit hyperbolic perhaps, but not as much as you might think. I've been listening to quite a bit of early Bing Crosby lately, courtesy of the late Sheryl Smith's jazz collection, and it has been a revelation. A few months ago, I would have probably shared Dave's puzzlement, as we both date from the time where Crosby's popularity was somewhat like the Cheshire Cat's smile, the remaining glow of a much larger animal.

The first thing is that, before Crosby, no professional singer had ever sounded like that before.

The change was technology driven. The microphone itself was invented along with the telephone, in the 1870s, and voice broadcast radio first appeared in 1906, but the first commercial station came in 1920. The Edison cylinder phonograph dates from 1877, but the Berliner gramophone is ten years later. The early phonographs/gramophones were purely mechanical acoustic devices.

The first electronic public address systems date from 1921. In 1925, the whole shebang came together with radio microphones and vacuum tube amplifiers added to phonograph technology in the Orthophonic system from Bell Labs.

Bing Crosby's first record, "I've Got the Girl," was in 1926, using the older, non-electronic phonograph recording system, a carbon microphone connected to direct mechanical cutting. Every subsequent recording he made was with electronically amplified technology.

Before Crosby, every professional singer in the world needed to sing loud enough to fill a concert hall, or at least a night club. The troubadour might sing softly to his lady, and Uncle Phil might have a terrific voice for the gathering around the home piano, but they'd never make it in show biz. Crosby was the first singer who didn't have to sing loud. A new word was invented: crooner.

And he had the voice for it, a rich and expressive baritone that could dive into the deep bass range when he wanted to. Listening to his early recordings, where he is breaking away from the then-conventional vocal style into this new thing, is a revelation.

The next thing is that Crosby was a jazz singer, something that is less front-and-center in his later work, although he was working with Louis Armstrong pretty much as long as they could both manage it. Crosby loved (and copied from) Armstrong, and the two of them were a mutual admiration society as well as an ongoing force for integration in popular music during thier careers.

In the aforementioned documentary, there's a film clip of him singing "Don't Fence Me In." He uses some very subtle vocal syncopation in his phrasing. It reminds me, weirdly, of Cab Calloway more than Armstrong. Calloway created breaks in the normal lyrical flow and then frequently filled them with incidentals and scat vocals. Crosby sometimes uses the syncopation for sliding one note into another, or just to allow the music to play through, a more minimalist approach. But don't forget that he created his own scat style, the often parodied "buh, buh, boo."

Starring Bing Crosby: Accentuate the Positive and Don't Fence Me In

Cab Calloway: Jumping Jive

How many male vocalists in the following generation were influenced by Crosby? I'm tempted to say, "all of them." Even the ones that continued the "belt it out" style would go crooner once in a while. Sinatra was Crosby as a tenor. Dean Martin was just trying to be Crosby. Even Elvis was doing Crosby when he did ballads. Now that I've pointed it out, just try listening to "Love Me Tender" and not hear Crosby's influence.

So, recording artist, then radio star. Then Crosby conquered the movies, both as a leading man and as part of Hope and Crosby, the most successful comedy team of the era. The Wikipedia article informs me that he is the number three male box office star ever, in terms of tickets sold.

And, of course, there is "White Christmas," (from the movie Holiday Inn; the motel chain took its name from the movie, not the other way around), and "Silent Night" (from Going My Way). "White Christmas" is the highest selling single recording in history.

Crosby, like Bob Hope, outlived his genius, and, to a degree, even his talent. But his celebrity was far too large to disappear. So he was condemned to Christmas and Family Specials into the 1960s and 70s. Look at some of the performances he gave in those and, while he was always the consummate professional, the sheer boredom that looks out from his eyes is almost tragic. He changed the world, and then he was just another guy on a Christmas show.


black dog barking said...

Quite the contrast in tone, those two clips. Bing is so solemn, Calloway and the Nicholas Bros making a brash and joyful noise. Where were the Joads in the visual backdrops to Don't Fence Me In?

James Killus said...

There's a difference in context, of course. Both are from 1943, but the Crosby piece was part of a support-the-troops effort, and he mentions performing for Patton's troops.

Calloway and the Nicholas Bros are from the movie "Stormy Weather," which was supposed to be a confection. Still, if I'd put up Lena Horne doing the title song, there wouldn't have been as much contrast in mood, but then, I like contrasts.

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