Another spellbinding Steyn music post.
Where did it all go? Within a decade of his death, you could wander into a record store and find the biggest-selling record artist had dwindled down to a couple of compilation CDs on weird European labels you’d never heard of. To most Americans under a certain age, the name is meaningless except for one song heard for one month every year, underpinning every lite-rock, country, oldies or whatever station that switches in December to a seasonal sleighlist of “Holiday Favorites”, than which no favorite is more favored than “White Christmas”. That’s what a half-century golden day shriveled down to in the blue of the night: Bing Crosby? The guy who sings “White Christmas”? Does he do anything else?
When a star that bright dims so quickly, it’s usually because the keepers of the flame aren’t any good at keeping it. A decade or two after the death of a singer or composer or novelist, any diminution in reputation is as much to do with the inept stewardship of his estate by the next of kin and their various advisors as it does to any judgment by posterity. What Nancy, Frank Jr and Tina have done with the Sinatra catalogue, for example, is in marked contrast to the withering of Bing’s legacy. It’s not necessary to retell the grim story of Crosby’s first family, and his second bunch of kids were barely out of short pants at the time of his death. But his eclipse is sad and unnecessary.
So on this anniversary let’s go back before the pipe and cardigan and golf gags and Christmas show banter, to the young Bing of the late Twenties and early Thirties. Artie Shaw described him as “the first hip white person born in the United States”. “Ever since Bing first opened his mouth,” said Louis Armstrong, “he was the Boss of All Singers” – which is one reason “Mr Satch and Mr Cros” (to quote “Gone Fishin'”) made so many records together. And the first time William S Paley of CBS heard Bing open that mouth, it changed the course of his fledgling radio network. Paley was on the transatlantic liner the SS Europa, on his third day at sea, strolling along the deck, when he heard a phonograph record coming from a nearby stateroom – something about somebody surrendering, dear – and he was transfixed. He tracked down the source of the sound and persuaded the stateroom’s occupant to let him look at the label on the disc: “I Surrender, Dear. Vocal refrain by Bing Crosby.” Then he went straight to the ship’s telegraph office and sent a cable to New York: “SIGN UP SINGER NAMED BING CROSBY STOP”.
As Steyn says elsewhere in the piece, if you’re under a certain age you most likely don’t even know who Bing was other than (maybe) as the guy who sang “White Christmas,” and that’s a damned shame. Read on for a worthy education. It’s an intriguing story, and nobody spins ’em quite like Steyn.