Friday, October 14, 2022


The Road to Bingdom began in 1903, in Tacoma, Washington. Bing was the son of a devout Roman Catholic. His real name, Harry Lillis Crosby, refused to stick. According to one legend, he so loved a comic strip called the Bingville Bugle that he became Bing himself. He also became a dedicated sportsman (football, baseball, fishing), a good singer in a house full of singing, and a conspicuous truant. He nevertheless went to Gonzaga University in Spokane as a law student. The only useful part of the course, which ended with his first amateur musical success, was public speaking. Said he, "I owe all to elocution."

Wide recognition came after a few years of modest success as one of the Rhythm Boys featured by Paul Whiteman -- this before the King of Jazz fired him for not taking his work seriously enough. Nor was Whiteman the only early employer that Crosby disenchanted by drinking and carousing too much. He became a national name only after a medical fluke -- the sudden occurrence of nodules on his vocal cords -- caused him to lose his voice just before his first scheduled radio network show in 1931. When the voice came back, it had, thanks to the nodules, what Crosby called "the effect of a lad with his voice changing singing into a rain barrel."

The effect was just what the Crosby sound needed. In earlier work he sang with much jazzier effects. An artist in search of a personal style, he listened hard to Al Jolson, Mildred Bailey and Louis Armstrong. Finally Bing developed that mellifluous tone, a mere phrase of which causes millions of Americans to imagine the gold of the day meeting the blue of the night. Here was the voice that has sold more records than any other on earth save that of Elvis.

There was also the voice, suddenly made famous on radio, that inspired Hollywood to cast Crosby in the feature picture (Paramount's) The Big Broadcast that was to launch the flip side of Bing's career. In the movies as onstage, Crosby seemed always to come on singing happy, upbeat, don't-worry songs that the trouble-weary public loved during the Depression. He scored successees in such movies as Pennies from Heaven and Waikiki Wedding, but it was as the lazy, goodhearted ne'er-do-well in Sing You Sinners, in 1938, that he found the casual acting mode the public relished.

Crosby's biggest critical success was Country Girl, but his personal favorite among his movies was High Society (1956). It found him singing and dancing with Frank Sinatra at an "elegant swellegant" party and playing a concertina and crooning True Love, as only the first crooner could croon, to not-yet-royal Grace Kelly. Unlike many stars, Crosby surrounded himself with other big talents. He worked with Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn (in which he sang White Christmas), with Ethel Barrymore in Just for You and with Ingrid Bergman in Bells of St. Mary's.

It may be absurd to attribute modesty to anyone in the egomaniacal world of show biz. Yet a certain diffidence adhered to Crosby even as a celebrity. In his artistry, he owned the natural jazzman's gift of blending with, rather than blaring against, an ensemble of fellow performers -- a knack never used better than in the scatty and mellow duets (Gone Fishin, for one) that he recorded with Armstrong. A similar trait made his private life seem actually private in contrast to the typical Hollywood star's. He had his troubles, heartbreak at times in his first marriage to hard-drinking Dixie Lee, who died of cancer in 1952, and again in dealing with his four sons with a penchant for mischief. In 1957 he married Kathryn Grant, 30 years younger than he, and started another family. Crosby never claimed to be an exemplary singer or exemplary anything else, and once he attributed his good reputation to his practice of admitting his sins only to the "father confessor."

He had slowed down in recent years but had proclaimed an intent never to retire completely: "I'll keep singing as long as they'll have me." A grieving Bob Hope noted that the two old Roadsters, along with Dorothy Lamour, had just finished working up plans to try one more for the Road. The film, said Hope, was to be called The Road to the Fountain of Youth...


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