New Biography Chronicles Bing Crosby's Most Beloved Years

Dec 4, 2018
Originally published on December 5, 2018 10:14 am

Bing Crosby was one of the most popular figures of the 20th century. His record sales were in the hundreds of millions, his movies were blockbusters, his weekly radio show topped the ratings. The way Crosby sang paved the way for Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin and many others. A new biography called Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1940 -1946, out now, focuses on Crosby's life and career in the 1940s when the crooner's star shone the brightest. Written by jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, the book is the second in a multi-volume project chronicling Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby Jr.

Crosby was a singer first and foremost; his appeal started with his voice. "He had wonderful high notes. He had amazing low notes. He was like a cello when he was really in good voice," Giddins says.

Early in the decade, Crosby created the template for the multimedia entertainment superstar. He was seemingly everywhere, but despite the singer's enormous fame, he was humble and self-effacing, which made audiences embrace Crosby as one of their own.

"He really did come across as somebody — even though he's smarter than you are, and more talented than you are — as somebody that you really might know. As somebody who might live down the block," Giddins says. "That was one of the things he did on radio. He really gave the vernacular American voice back to Americans at a time when the networks wanted these mid-Atlantic 'How Now Brown Cow' kind of speakers."

In 1972, Crosby told a British television interviewer that when he began acting in movies, producers tried to improve his looks. They said that Crosby's ears stuck out too far, and got the makeup artist to pin them back with glue. Nevertheless, Crosby became a matinee idol. He won an Oscar for best actor in the 1944 film Going My Way. In the film, Crosby plays a parish priest in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood who works miracles with the human heart, transforming a gang of street toughs into a boys' choir.

In his 1942 film Holiday Inn, Crosby sings an Irving Berlin song that would solidify his fame for years to come. "White Christmas," which remains the best-selling single of all time, struck a nerve with millions of Americans whose husbands, sons and lovers were fighting on a distant continent and dreaming of spending the holidays at home. Three years later, Crosby made a song, "It's Been A Long, Long Time," about the end of World War II, without explicitly mentioning war.

Crosby recorded between 50 and 70 singles per year in the 1940's. During World War II, he hosted golf tournaments and gave benefit concerts to sell war bonds and recorded special programs for the Armed Forces Radio Network. Just months after the D-Day invasion, Crosby traveled to France to entertain the troops wherever they were. Giddins says the singer's devotion to those fighting was tireless, and the public loved him for it. In a 1948 poll, Americans declared Bing Crosby the "most admired man alive."

"Nothing moved me more than when I was sitting in the Crosby house, going through his letters, and seeing how many parents, wives, siblings of dead soldiers felt they had to write to Crosby," Giddens says. "'How much my son or brother or husband loved you. How happy you made him when you went over there. I just want to say God Bless you.' Crosby was beloved."

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Bing Crosby was one of the most popular figures of the 20th century. His record sales were in the hundreds of millions. His movies were blockbusters. A new biography focuses on Crosby's career in the 1940s when the crooner's star shined the brightest. Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Bing Crosby was a singer first and foremost. His appeal started with his voice, says Gary Giddins, author of the new 700-page biography of the crooner called "Swinging On A Star."

GARY GIDDINS: He had wonderful high notes. He had amazing low notes. He was like a cello when he was really in a good voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO-RA-LOO-RA-LOO-RAL (THAT'S AN IRISH LULLABY)")

BING CROSBY: (Singing) Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral too-ra-loo-ra-li, too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry.

VITALE: Early in the decade, Crosby created the template for the multimedia entertainment superstar. He was everywhere and, says Gary Giddins, audiences embraced Crosby as one of them.

GIDDINS: He really does come across as somebody - even though he's smarter than you are and more talented than you are, as somebody that you really might know, that somebody might live down the block. That was one of the things he did on radio. He really gave the vernacular American voice back to Americans at a time when the networks wanted these mid-Atlantic, you know, how-now-brown-cow kind of speakers.

VITALE: Here's Crosby on the air with bandleader Spike Jones in 1944.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPIKE JONES: Touche.

CROSBY: Oh, the kid makes with the French too - touche.

JONES: Absolument.

CROSBY: Absolument.

JONES: While you were over there, didn't you learn to parlez vous Francais?

CROSBY: I have never been too sharp with the parlez part...

(LAUGHTER)

VITALE: Despite his enormous fame, in public, Crosby was humble and self-effacing. In 1972, he told a British television interviewer that when he began acting in movies, producers tried to improve his looks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CROSBY: They said my ears stuck out too far - looked like a taxi with both doors open.

(LAUGHTER)

CROSBY: And so they got the makeup man to study it and he glued them back. Of course, in those days, they used a lot more light when they were lighting the set than they do now. And it's very hot on a set. And that'd make the glue come loose, and they'd pop out.

VITALE: Nevertheless, Crosby became a matinee idol. He won an Oscar for best actor in the 1944 film "Going My Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOING MY WAY")

ANITA SHARP-BOLSTER: (As Mrs. Hattie Quimp) What's your name?

CROSBY: (As Father Chuck O'Malley) Father O'Malley - Charles Francis Patrick O'Malley.

VITALE: In the film, Crosby plays a parish priest in New York's Hell's Kitchen. He transforms a gang of street toughs into a boys' choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOING MY WAY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, vocalizing).

CROSBY: (As Father Chuck O'Malley, singing) Would you like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar and be better off than you are...

VITALE: In his 1942 film "Holiday Inn," Crosby sings an Irving Berlin song, which remains the biggest selling record of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOLIDAY INN")

CROSBY: (As Jim Hardy, singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.

VITALE: "White Christmas" struck a nerve with millions of Americans whose husbands, sons and lovers were fighting on a distant continent and dreaming of spending the holidays at home. Three years later, Crosby made a record about the end of the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING CROSBY'S "IT'S BEEN A LONG, LONG TIME")

GIDDINS: One of his greatest recordings, I think, it's about the end of this long separation between the armed forces and the people at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING CROSBY'S "IT'S BEEN A LONG, LONG TIME")

CROSBY: (Singing) Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again. It's been a long, long time.

GIDDINS: Bing insisted on doing it with a jazz quartet, Les Paul, and gives him a full chorus solo. It's a fantastic guitar solo. The recording is just perfection. You can't improve on perfection.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING CROSBY'S "IT'S BEEN A LONG, LONG TIME")

VITALE: Crosby recorded between 50 and 70 records a year in the 1940s. During World War II, he hosted golf tournaments and gave benefit concerts to sell war bonds. And he recorded special programs for the Armed Forces Radio Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CROSBY: It's the old "Kraft Music Hall" friends bound around the world to wherever our soldiers are stationed. I say soldiers because the Army isn't overlooking a bet - spread the news to you men that plenty of soldiers are wanted and are eligible to volunteer as paratroopers. It's a chance to join the outfit that hits the enemy first where it hurts them the most.

VITALE: Just months after the D-Day invasion, Crosby traveled to France to entertain the troops wherever they were.

GIDDINS: The fact that he was within a thousand yards of the fighting in France, a man who hated going to hospitals and was squeamish about those kinds of things, spent so many days in wards seeing young boys that he had traveled with now with missing limbs, this gave him a mission. It turned him into a different kind of man.

VITALE: Gary Giddins says Crosby's devotion was tireless, and the public loved him for it.

GIDDINS: Nothing moved me more than when I was sitting in the Crosby house going through his letters and seeing how many parents, wives, siblings of dead soldiers felt they had to write to Crosby - how much my son or brother or husband loved you, how happy you made him when you went over there, I just want to say God bless you. Crosby was beloved.

VITALE: In a 1948 poll, Americans declared Bing Crosby the most admired man alive. At the Crosby home, it was more complicated, but that's another story. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING CROSBY'S "I CAN'T BEGIN TO TELL YOU")

CROSBY: (Singing) I can't begin to tell you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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