Bridges to Bing

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Bing Crosby, perhaps the most influential of all singers of American popular music. Two years ago Thomas Sowell took time out from his usual beat to pay tribute to Bing Crosby on the occasion of his hundredth birthday: “Bing Crosby: Singer of the century.” Confirming a point Sowell makes concerning Crosby’s eclecticism, I was elated to hear Crosby taking a couple turns with blues/jazz singer Louis Jordan (on “My Baby Said ‘Yes'” and “Your Socks Don’t Match”) on the wonderful, inexpensive five-disc Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five compilation that came out on JSP Records in 2001. Suffice it to say that Crosby never sounded cooler — although he sounded as cool on many occasions.

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At Christmas that year Diana West paid tribute to the evergreen popularity of Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” in “The enduring legacy of Bing’s ‘Christmas.'” In her column West recounted the success of the song and played Crosby off against Elvis Presley in a tale of pop versus rock. She related Rosemary Clooney’s lament that “Elvis is still a presence in the American consciousness, while only aficionados still make an icon of Bing.”

West’s excellent column touched on subjects close to my heart and is worthy of serious consideration. Let it be noted, however, that jazz critic Gary Giddins is in the process of writing a multivolume biography of Crosby that I believe will do much to restore Crosby’s reputation to its proper dimensions. The first volume of the Giddins biography — Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams–The Early Years, 1903-1940 — was published to substantial acclaim in 2002. West’s column did not explore any of the complicating ironies that attend the story of “White Christmas” — the story of a Jew writing a secular song about Christmas, using mass media to project a fantasy of a Christian idyll of America in the nineteenth century. See generally this excellent review of Jody Rosen’s White Christmas: The Story of an American Song.

In their 1993 book Merry Christmas, Baby: Holiday Music from Bing to Sting, Dave Marsh and Steve Propes placed “White Christmas” at the head of the class of secular Christmas songs of which Elvis’s hot, hot version of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” is itself a classic contribution. Marsh and Propes also drew my attention to Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 recording “Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney” — perhaps the naughtiest song on a Christmas theme ever released. They persuaded me that whatever gulf exists between pop and rock, there are many bridges.

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