Critics writing of Bing Crosby almost invariably describe him as forgotten and deplorably underappreciated. And he probably
is by most people -- but not by me and undoubtedly not by many others of my generation.
Bing Crosby has been with me just about all my life, a calm comfort for almost as long as I can remember, beginning with
my adolescence in the last years of the Great Depression and the World War II years that followed.
I never met Crosby, never even saw him perform in person. Yet he's been in my head, on call, so to speak, since the first
day I heard him sing.
That was over a radio in the kitchen of my family's modest Victorian flat in an alley at the edge of downtown San Francisco.
Back then, radio was as important as television is today -- maybe even more important in neighborhoods like ours, where there
was precious little money for movies or other outside entertainment.
No one entering our flat could doubt radio's importance. A radio stood as the focal point of the living room, like a prized
statue in some provincial museum -- a tall rectangle of tan, highly polished wood with a line of numbers spread across the
top under a narrow lighted strip of green glass, just above a row of push buttons embossed with the call letters of local
stations, KYA, KGO, KRC and the rest.
I was greatly impressed with the cherished living room radio that was almost my pre-teen height, but I preferred to do
most of my listening in the kitchen. The little table radio there, case cracked and tuning knob broken in half, wasn't much.
But there was a cast-iron stove in the kitchen that provided the only heat in the drafty flat, by means of its gas burning
oven and, more frequently, a wood-burning compartment on the side.
I remember that room as the coziest place I have ever been, and I have never forgotten the sounds that were so much a
part of the great comfort and security I found there.
Crosby -- "Bing," as she always called him -- was a great favorite of my grandmother, who presided aver the
kitchen. She was there virtually the entire day, preparing meals, keeping the fire going and -- above all, it often seemed
-- listening to the radio.
Almost never was the radio silent, certainly never when Crosby was to be heard -- and that was a lot. His records were
played more than those of any other single artist by far, and several stations broadcast daily programs devoted solely to
them. On Thursday nights, we gathered in the living room to hear Crosby live on the weekly Kraft Music Hall show on NBC, along
with 50 million others nationwide.
Despite today's general public indifference to Crosby, I don't for a minute question the poll taken in the 1940s that
found him the world's most admired man. Nor do I doubt the genuineness of the laid-back and unassuming manner that had much
to do with his many years of high popularity.
Crosby was more than a singer, of course. His appearance in more than 80 films ranging from fluffy comedies and musicals
to heavy dramas also brought him popular acclaim.
But Bing Crosby's singing -- that's what counted above all with me, as an eight-year-old in a cozy kitchen, as an adult,
Over the years, I've learned of Crosby's great contributions to music, bow he transformed pop singing through his mastery
of the emerging technology of the microphone in the late 1920s and early 30s when most singers were stiff, loud, highly mannered
tenors. His deep baritone voice, casual, conversational style, emphasis on lyrics and the spontaneity and creative innovations
of jazz set a new, truly revolutionary standard.
I understood none of that, of course, when I first heard Crosby. I didn't even understand the often romantic lyrics. All
that mattered anyway was the incredibly comforting way in which crooner Crosby delivered them. Yet to this day I often recall
at will many of the words -- and most of the music. I play the recordings now, though I really don't need to.
It's difficult to single out any of the dozens of tunes I've never forgotten. But surely few popular musical performances
are more memorable, even now, a quarter-century after Crosby's death, than his scat-singing duet with the Mills Brothers on
"My Honey's Loving Arms." Few tell an important story better than his poignant version of the Depression anthem,
"Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?" And Crosby's 1933 rendition of "Home on the Range" is ballad singing
at its very finest.
Listen to those recordings. Listen to other Crosby performances. If enough people did that, I'm convinced Bing Crosby
would be restored to his rightful place as one of the most influential figures in the history of American popular culture.
Copyright © Dick Meister