Troy Media – by Pat Murphy
For people whose earliest radio memories come from the 1940s or early 1950s, Bing Crosby and Christmas are inextricably linked. Whether it was White Christmas, Jingle Bells or reverent pieces like Silent Night, the Crosby voice was ubiquitous every December.
But Crosby was much more than a seasonal crooner. Indeed, he was probably the first example of a multimedia global superstar, having what was once described as the most recognizable voice in the world.
Crosby set the musical template
Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was the most consistent hit maker around, shifting tens of millions of units in an era without the convenience of downloads and where many homes had no ability to even play records. On radio, then the dominant medium of daily communication, his weekly network show ran for 23 years.
In the process, he popularised an easy microphone-friendly approach that set the musical template for a host of followers, including the young Frank Sinatra. Instead of belting with sufficient volume to be heard in the cheap seats, vocal styles became more intimate, even conversational. The critic Henry Pleasants called it “singing in American.”
Crosby was also a movie star of the highest magnitude. Between 1934 and 1954, he placed among the annual top 10 box office stars no fewer than 15 times. Indeed, for five straight years (1944-48), he was at the very top of the list. He even got three Academy Award nominations for best actor, winning once.
In a broader cultural sense, he had an unmistakable resonance, that of the easygoing American Everyman. With his colourful shirts, ever-present pipe, and passion for golf and the racetrack, he was the epitome of a regular guy. And in Ireland, he was also seen as “one of ours ” – an Irish-American Catholic who had scaled the heights while keeping the faith and remaining true to his roots.
So how does it happen that one of the most famous people in the world becomes a semi-forgotten figure, trotted out once a year as just one voice in a multitude?
Part of it can be put down to the simple passage of time. Crosby has been dead for over 30 years and had become musically unfashionable 20 years prior to his death. A half-century is a very long time in popular culture.
In addition, his public image took some posthumous hits. Allegedly, the casually charming Everyman was a stingy womaniser with a penchant for alcohol, and for inflicting severe physical discipline on his children.
But while it’s one thing to recede from general consciousness, it’s quite another for someone of Crosby’s stature to be almost written out of the history of popular culture. In the lead-up to the millennium, Newsweek did a series of retrospectives on people and events that defined the 20th century. Amazingly, the June 28, 1999, issue – Voices of the Century: America Goes Hollywood – managed to fill 40 odd pages with nary a mention of Crosby, other than as a caption to a photograph with Sinatra!
It’s tempting to wonder whether this neglect has something to do with political sensibility. Crosby, after all, was emblematic of an assertive, self-confident America, a society with an heroic sense of its own history and a keen appreciation for what it viewed as its positive uniqueness. To modern cultural commentators, it would be something of a foreign country, and not a particularly attractive one at that.
But the likelier explanation is more prosaic. Analyses like that in Newsweek are just poor journalism, the product of an inability to imagine a world that was not only different from one’s own but also different from what the received wisdom thinks it was. The combination of a lack of knowledge and the influence of groupthink can produce some pretty shoddy results.
Publications like Newsweek should know that. Perhaps they once did.
So if Crosby’s voice comes at you from the radio or the shopping mall sound system this Christmas, take silent note of the transience of fame. And remember that a mere 60 to 70 years ago, the voice’s owner had an overwhelming presence in the popular culture. Indeed, it was on a scale that today’s icons would kill for.
Pat Murphy is a history and economics graduate from University College Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed articles to the National Post, History Ireland, Irish Connections Canada, and Breifne.
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