According to Bob Hope, his grandmother described the voice of Bing Crosby as sounding "like a passionate cow being milked with suede gloves." To Louis Armstrong, it sounded like "gold being poured out of a cup." That mellifluous baritone, with the texture of velvet, the color of mahogany, and a bubbly vibrato with the resonance of a built-in echo chamber, became the most instantly recognizable musical sound in the world.
As the electronic age matured, he became the world's first multi-media superstar and one of the most resonant figures in an American popular culture that he created. As far as Duke Ellington was concerned, he was simply "the biggest thing ever!"
Bing Crosby had a casual demeanor and an enigmatic grace that were typically American; Artie Shaw called him "the first hip white person born in the United States." He was, in fact, the complete personification of cool; and his ability to sustain for three decades the image of his generation's jaunty youth enabled him to maintain his hold on an enormous public. But the world isn't celebrating Crosby's 100th birthday because he was "cool."
The man they called the Voice of the Century single-handedly created the music we love best and revolutionized the entire electronic entertainment industry. He would have been 100 years old on May 3, 2003, and more than 600 Bing fans from all around the globe converged on Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, in May for the Big Bing Bash called "Bing Crosby: A Celebration of His Life."
Remembering the man who shaped the face of show business for the 20th century, many came from the United Kingdom: England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, while others came from Denmark, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina.
They enjoyed a weekend of exhibits and displays from the Crosby Collection in the Crosby Student Center -- "The Crosby", for short -- housing many of Bing's cherished items, including his Oscar for Going My Way. We had panel discussions, musical performances, screenings, symposiums, and book signings. We heard the Crosby voice all weekend, broadcast throughout the campus. On Friday, they rededicated the statue of Bing, first dedicated on May 3, 1981.
Saturday night was the White Christmas Banquet, where comic/impressionist Rich Little and singer/bandleader Frank Sinatra, Jr., paid special tribute to Bing. Sinatra refused both payment and travel reimbursement: "I wouldn't have missed this for the world."
In a special presentation, Little put on a special showing of film clips from Bing's 1976 appearance on his television program, highlighted by his televised duet with Bing in which Bing sang as Bing, and Rich – the man of 200 voices – sang as Fred Astaire, as Louis Armstrong, as Bob Hope, as Dean Martin, and...well, as Bing. Imagine two Bing Crosbys going out together on Swinging on a Star.
Jazz scribe Gary Giddins – currently working on the second volume of his Crosby biography – was a featured speaker, as was Britain's Ken Barnes, who produced Bing's last six albums in the mid-1970's, including his masterpiece album of duets with Fred Astaire. Jazz writer Will Friedwald (author of Sinatra! The Song Is You and the Tony Bennett autobio, The Good Life) spoke of Bing's superiority over all other singers. And jazz recording artist Buddy Bregman, a close friend to Gary Crosby, recalled recording a 1956 jazz album with Bing. Bregman was a particularly fascinating man to meet: he arranged and produced two albums that are consistently rated among the top 25 albums ever made: Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter, and Ella Fitzgerald Sings Rodgers and Hart.
Bregman among many, dispels the Daddy Dearest demonizing of Bing that followed his death. Bregman is one of many – including Phillip Crosby, Bob Crosby, Phil Harris, Bob Hope, nieces and nephews, and Giddins – who have flatly (and angrily) dispelled the lies. Bing was no monster, and he did not brutalize his sons.
Leading the cast was, of course, Bing's widow, Kathryn Grant Crosby, still ravishing at 70, a registered nurse, a certified teacher, a free-lance writer fluent in Spanish, French, German and Russian, a very successful actress, and the brilliant and witty author of three books on her favorite subject: Bing and Other Things, My Life With Bing, and most recently My Last Years with Bing. However, she maintains (and I believe her) that she is also something of a scatterbrain, and a determined one at that. After they were married, Bing told her, "You deceived me. You acted like a fragile little Southern flower, and actually you're a tank on the loose without a driver."
We will soon read things of upcoming Crosby Centennials because the world believes he was born in 1904, as his tombstone says. Actually, he was born May 3, 1903, three weeks before his Road buddy, Bob Methuselah Hope. There have already been other centennial celeb-rations by folks who got it right, one at Hofstra University, another in Seattle, Washington, an Irish Fest in Milwaukee. But, generally, Bing is forgotten. He died 26 years ago. His music was old hat years before that. His reputation was trashed. And, as Rich Little put it, "You're only as big as the generation that remembers you." Bing's generation is all but gone.
He should be remembered. Today's American pop culture began with Crosby. He revolutionized radio, phono-