Books: The Meaning of Recognition — The Hidden Art of Bing Crosby |
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The Hidden Art of Bing Crosby

From its bare billing in Radio Times, Bing, the Greatest of Them All doesn’t sound like the kind of event that might win gangsta rap fans away from their alleged interest in gun crime. But for anyone who has ever wondered how a simple-seeming song lyric can invade the mind with such poetic force, here is some essential listening. Going to air in three parts on BBC Radio 2, the series manages to raise most of the issues about what happens when a superficially ordinary, non-operatic voice shapes and guides the words of a song so that they get into your head and stick there. The most niggling issue of all is raised by the choice of presenter. In the enforced absence of the actual Bing, his story is told by Pat Boone. It would be fair to say that Boone himself is by now heading for the last round-up, yet his voice still sounds young. It always did. When he was on top of the hit parade half a century ago, his voice spelt unspoiled youth. It was pure and pretty: far prettier than Bing’s. So what did Bing’s voice actually do, if it couldn’t do the whole job just by itself ?

The answer is that a popular singer’s voice should have a lot more going for it than just its quality. Too much natural beauty, indeed, can get in the way, flooding the aural reception system of the listener before the actual song gets a chance to register. Pat Boone was lucky with his biggest hit, Friendly Persuasion: the archaic diction (‘Thee I love’) injected some aural roughage into his usual effect of squirting the audience with perfume. Leaving even Boone sounding rugged was Johnny Mathis, who made angelically soaring journeys up the charts in the fifties with the kind of big ballad that enabled him to show off his effortlessly gorgeous upper register. (In its land of origin, the Mathis approach fell into the category of ‘make-out music’, meaning that it could be safely left to sound vaguely romantic in the background without diverting any of the attention necessary for the unhooking of a bra.) By the time I was old enough to be in control of the Bakelite knobs on our lounge-room radio in Sydney, Bing, across the Pacific in Los Angeles, was getting into his next to final phase. After more than twenty years of averaging three movies and forty records a year on top of a radio show every week, he was finally slowing down enough to look like the lazy son-of-a-gun he had always cannily pretended to be. But I didn’t have to do much research to find out what he had that the newer fellows hadn’t: or, rather, what they had that he wasn’t burdened with. They were doing it the pretty way. He was just doing it, although ‘just’ is a word we will need to dismantle with care.

‘I have just an ordinary voice,’ he said in one of his carefully uninformative interviews. ‘Anyone who can carry a tune thinks he can sing as good as I do.’ His use of the word ‘good’ for ‘well’ is a tip-off that his gift for the common touch could sometimes lapse into the common lunge. Sinatra was a more typical band singer in having no book-learning to speak of, or with. In high school Crosby learned elocution from the Jesuits. He went on to a college education. He was so at home with a twelve-cylinder vocabulary that his radio and film writers later poured on the polysyllables in full confidence that he could handle anything. But he was saying exactly what he meant when he said he had an ordinary voice. He could do extraordinary things with it, but regarded as a mere sound it was just the noise of a nice man speaking. He put most of his art into making sure that he still sounded like that even when he was performing prodigies. The secret of great success in the popular arts is to bring the punters in on the event, and you can’t do that if you are manifestly doing something they can’t do. You have to be doing something they can do, so that they can dream. It’s just that you do it better, so that they can admire. Essentially they are admiring themselves: it’s a circuit, and too much obvious bravura will break it.

Bing had the bravura, but except in his early days it wasn’t obvious. Starting his career in the 1920s, he was the man on the spot when the microphones got good enough to be canoodled with, as if they had hair to be stroked. Released from the necessity to project, he could concentrate on shaping a sung note so that it sounded like speech. Other singers were slower to catch on, and some of them never caught on at all. In any film musical starring Dick Powell you can hear — and what is almost worse, see — what happened to a singer when, even if miming to playback, he continued to project as if he weren’t being amplified. He looked as if his vocal cords hurt like piles. Bing went in the other direction, as if the microphone could hear him think. In this endeavour, he was lucky with the natural attributes of his voice. Often characterized as a pleasant light baritone, it had a tenor top to it, conferring the precious gift of allowing him to relax into the upper register. A singer can have a note-perfect two and a half octave range and no flexibility at all. What counts is the capacity to negotiate the tricky intervals, and Bing could do an instantaneous octave jump that left the second note ringing as clear and open as the first.

Admirers of the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke would describe the resonating clarity of his attack as bullets hitting a bell. Bing could do what Bix did and often did it with him. They were both in Paul Whiteman’s huge jazz band. Often derided in retrospect by jazz purists as a lumbering rip-off of the black man’s heritage, the Whiteman organization had some funkier components than its name taken literally might suggest. An outfit within the outfit was called the Paul Whiteman Rhythm Boys. Singing sprightly tongue-twisters with the Rhythm Boys, Bing proved that he could string notes together like Bix playing a triple-tongued glissando. ‘There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears’ was supposed to be a woman’s song but Bing turned it into an athletic event. Sometimes he and Beiderbecke performed together, like two instruments, or two voices, vying for supremacy. Bing showed that he could smear a note without blurring it. He could make it dip in the middle like a Chinese vowel, and it would still sound as if it had been spoken. These were prodigious amounts of know-how for a crooner to have, and they were the real secret behind the later success in which he seemed to repudiate them. You have to have it before you can throw it away.

Later on, Bing was as careful not to attract attention with his technique as a hired assassin is with his luggage. He attracted attention to the song, and there he was lucky in his timing, because the American song was in the full flight of its creative energy, still establishing the repertoire whose presence does most to explain the absence of a considerable modern American opera. (Sondheim is exceptional only in proving the rule to its limit: his work is not the dilution of opera, but the furthermost development of the musical show.) Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and the big jazz bands added up to a powerhouse working flat out to supply its own demand for product, and the product was a solidly rhyming, singable lyric personal only in the sense that a singer could adapt it to his or her style. When Crosby sang direct from the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in LA, his audience, stretching up beyond San Francisco on the West Coast, weren’t hearing the barely articulated words of a personal anguish as they would be today, they were hearing a skilful interpretation of a national literature. The same would later be true for Billie Holiday. ‘Strange Fruit’ was rare in her repertoire for expressing the black condition. More typical was ‘Pennies from Heaven’, which expressed anybody’s condition. Bessie Smith and the other blues singers had sung the stock songs of black experience, but although the black experience was almost incomparably awful when set beside the white experience, the stock was restricted. The white repertoire of lovelorn standards dealt with a far narrower range of suffering, but offered a far wider range of opportunity to sing a commercial hit. In anticipation of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday sang mainly from the standard song-book, and worked few variations that could be called black. She hardly even bent the notes. She is hard to parody because she had few mannerisms. Today, Mariah Carey, the culmination of a soul-shouting line that began with Aretha Franklin and started going haywire with Dionne Warwick, gives us nothing but mannerisms: the song is a notional presence in a cloud of melisma.

Clean-cut respect for the song was also the mark of Nat King Cole. A jazz man of stature whose voice was as well schooled as his piano style, Cole won enough general acceptance to live in a white neighbourhood without getting lynched. But he remained a white man’s ideal black. He was so keen to keep up orderly appearances that when he put on his trousers in the dressing room of his TV show he wouldn’t sit down again until he was on the set, in case he broke the crease. Almost all his material came from the repertoire of the romantic song. Treating the bathroom mirror to my version of his monster hit ‘Mona Lisa’, I copied the articulation of his lips, not because I hankered after a black style but because I thought that was how he was getting his mellow tone, from the movement of his mouth rather than from the subtle flexing of his abdomen. Similarly I hoped to get Crosby’s tone by letting my mouth hang loose at the corners. I rather wished that my ears stuck out, like his.

But the great role model of my first bathroom period was Frank Sinatra. He, too, sang from the standard repertoire, but by selection and presentation he dragged it towards the forbidden. One of my fellow study-circle leaders in the Kogarah Presbyterian Church Fellowship was a secret collector of Sinatra records. He possessed the first copy of Songs for Swinging Lovers I ever heard. I helped him to wear it out. I also helped to wear out several seats at the local Odeon, where I watched The Tender Trap over and over. Only much later in life did I realize what Sinatra was doing from the technical angle. The standard item of praise is ‘breath control’ but every professional singer has a certain amount of that. What Sinatra really had was enunciation control. In that department he went beyond Crosby, who even when feigning heavy-lidded gloom was always reassuringly joyful, as if the very act of singing was a guarantee of buoyancy. Sinatra could get the tone of bitter speech into singing words. Almost to its outer limit, he increased the range of naturalistic enunciation, making a song into a spoken statement. (If his voice had been as pretty as his epigone Vic Damone’s, he would have found that a lot harder.) The only realistic element he did not include was inarticulacy.

Though they have never come up with anything quite so slovenly as Estuarine English, even the Americans occasionally swallow their final consonants when speaking. Uniquely among the crooners, Dean Martin adapted the suppression of terminal consonants to his singing style. In London at the moment, an Italian restaurant called Da Paolo in Charlotte Place plays Dean Martin tracks one after the other as background music to the evening meal. For those of us who grew up marvelling at Dino’s ability to exhale a satiated moan along with the fumes of the third cocktail, here is vivid evidence that our memories are exact: he really did keep missing out on the final ‘s’ as if the olive had got into his mouth along with the gin, and he really did bring English into line with Japanese by eliminating the difference between the singular and the plural. Sometimes the consonant before the ‘s’ vanished along with it: ‘Make my dree come true.’ At other points, if you put the ‘s’ back on one word as the sense seemed to demand, it turned out that the rhyme word up ahead of it needed an ‘s’ too. (‘Thrill me with your charm/ Take me in your arm’.) In his own words, it was a magic technee. (‘When we kiss I grow wee.’) Admittedly most of the songs victimized by Dino were already victims. Far from being refined examples of the upmarket repertoire, they were Italian hits translated into an English so indifferent that it was asking to be assaulted. But his calculated maltreatment of received elocution was more creative than I was ready to admit at the time. Only today am I ready to see the sophistication of his approach. Sleepy but unsleeping, he was transmitting the sweetly painful post-coital admission that desire could never be satisfied, but only, temporarily, allayed. Admissions like that weren’t very common around the Kogarah Presbyterian Church Fellowship. No wonder I didn’t get it. Sinatra was more than enough for me.

Every inflection Sinatra sang came from the spoken language. By no paradox, he did the same for screen dialogue. His sense of the music inherent in speech — not the music that can be imposed on it, but the music already in it — made him a revolutionary screen actor. Alas, he was too impatient to become the screen giant he might have been. (In the recording studio he would volunteer for another take: in the film studio never.) Crosby in his screen heyday was number one box office star in the world five years running. Sinatra would have thought that was a stretch in prison. It was one of the differences between them, and you could see all the differences in High Society, one of the great cinematic experiences of my first youth. For High Society I moved into the cinema and stayed there, as if constant attendance would get me an audience with Grace Kelly.

In High Society, Bing, old enough to be her grandfather, and Sinatra, merely old enough to be her father, vie for Grace Kelly’s blessing. Frank got close, but the matter was settled in Bing’s favour after he and the spun-gold goddess sang ‘True Love’ together. A song so undemanding that even I could sing it, ‘True Love’ was constructed by Cole Porter especially for the movie after it was noticed that Kelly could not manage three notes in a row unless two of them were the same and the third not very different. For the standard romantic ballad, ‘True Love’ was a symbolic indulgence so overwhelming that it invited rebellion, like the rumours about Marie-Antoinette’s necklace. Sinatra had been doing his best for years to divert the traditional repertoire in the direction of actual sexual passion, rather than well-behaved self-control. Bing stood for adulthood, with all its renunciations. Sinatra stood for adultery. He could sing ‘One For My Baby’ with a whole heart. When, in ‘Love and Marriage’, he sang that they went together like a horse and carriage, you could tell he thought that the sentiment was a natural product of the horse. Bing, always a great one for the ladies until his second marriage settled him down (I prefer to leave out his off-screen success with Grace Kelly: the matter is still too painful), would probably have agreed with Sinatra on the subject but would never have let himself be caught uttering a non-conformist nuance. Sinatra’s problem was that nuances were as far as he could go. In the world of the well-made song, illicit love, no matter how delicious, was a crime, and the compulsion to sing about it was the punishment. The standard song catalogue was a thousand modulations on the theme of anguish. Rock and roll was the shout of guiltless joy.

Rock and roll took over the hit parade, which would eventually cease to be a show-case for the well-made song, although the period of overlap lasted longer than we tend to remember. Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr were sometimes up there one after the other, Elvis instructing us that we were nothing but a hound dog and Sammy driving the last nails into the coffin of some helpless big ballad chosen to prove that he bought his shirts and shoes in the same store as his friend Frank. But on the whole, and irreversibly, the popular music of the hit parade turned into something only the young could love. The popular music that could still be enjoyed by older people took up a shadow existence, with the album charts as the nearest approach to the glare of daylight. Broadway shows and film soundtracks continued to be written, however, and although Elvis Presley’s album sales soon rivalled the astronomical figures Judy Garland had attained before youth usurped the business, so did the album sales of Barbra Streisand. The rock numbers and the well-made song could co-exist. Some of the rock numbers, indeed, were themselves well made, and not just as calculated throwbacks to the old music industry traditions but as spontaneous products of its tenaciously surviving vestiges. (The Leiber-Stoller numbers in the Elvis opus Jailhouse Rock were put together with a precision that would have been approved of by George and Ira Gershwin.) What really hurt the tradition of the well-made standard was the rise of the singer-songwriter: the very aspect of the sixties popular music revolution that we were supposed to be most happy about. No more mass production! Personal inspiration at last! But it turned out that some of the mass production had been pretty good, and that a lot of the personal inspiration was dire.

If criticism could be divorced from economics, the breakthrough of the singer-songwriters would look like the triumph of expression over music business logic. Actually, music business logic was the first thing the breakthrough expressed. The Beatles, apart from proving that Britain was a good offshore base from which to revitalize the American song, also proved that a singing act of any size would make more money if it wrote its own stuff. The act would get paid twice: once for performing, and again for what it wrote. It was an irresistible dynamic that spelled lingering death for the independent professional songwriter who wrote for all comers. This would be the age of gifted amateurs who wrote mainly for themselves. If someone else later recorded their songs they would be paid a third time, but the fact that they had already been paid twice was what drew new recruits to the ranks. Gifted amateurs proliferated.

Inevitably some of them were less gifted than others. The first thing to say about the rise of the singer-songwriters was that, in depth if not in breadth, it paid off artistically, even by the parameters of the tradition it superseded. Bob Dylan didn’t further that tradition and didn’t mean to, but there were many who did. The best songs that came out of California — John Sebastian, the Mamas and the Papas, and The Lovin’ Spoonful were only some of the active names — weren’t like Broadway show tunes, but they were neatly constructed and full of a new kind of life. Later on, the Eagles showed that millions could be made out of a group sound that didn’t necessarily sound like a song: but the words, when you could figure them out, were often wittier than they needed to be (‘Everybody wants to touch somebody / If it takes all night’). When we talk about a rock classic, we usually mean that it goes on yielding satisfaction beyond the initial impact it must always have. Randy Newman turned out to be a master songwriter, although you had to listen hard. His elliptical mumble set Enigma standards of encryption. But Newman’s rhymes were solid, pure and cunning, even if, when he enunciated them, he compounded Dean Martin’s missing consonants by turning most of the vowels into a common groan. Newman was an extreme version of the singer-songwriter who wrote classic songs but delivered them with such a personal stamp that they were hard to borrow. Alan Price took a few of them over and got away with it. But when Joan Baez did a cover version of the Band’s wonderful anthem ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, it didn’t sound wonderful. It sounded ludicrous, even though Baez’s voice was as pretty as ever. Expressing themselves as nobody had ever done since the first days of the blues, the singer-songwriters had achieved a unity of material and delivery that paradoxically yielded scattered results when it came to building up a new catalogue of standards. It was a literature, but it wasn’t a repertoire.

The country musicians did best: the average country song could be covered by the average country singer, because they were all wearing the same boots and hats, even the women. (Shania Twain sings Merle Haggard is an unlikely album title, but not impossible.) But the average singer-songwriter, for whom individuality was everything, ran a double danger through self-enthralment. Even if the song was any good, it would have small chance of independent life. And the chances were very good that it would be bad.

Popular music has never run out of music. But it has, pretty well, run out of words, and lately there is a widely recognized awareness that the business of writing considerable songs might be a bit more complicated than just bunging down a few thoughts. At the moment, Ravi Shankar’s daughter Norah Jones is selling albums by the million. Her voice is as lovely as her face. It would be too much to say that she can write melodies to match, but they are never less than pleasant. Her lyrics, however, rarely rise to the level of drivel, which is at least clear. On her new album Come Away With Me she sensibly puts in some songs by other people. On Robbie Williams’ new album Swing When You’re Winning all the songs are by other people, most of them long dead. So is the album’s acknowledged hero, Frank Sinatra. Robbie wants to be Frank. It is a laudable aim, but he has a long way to go. On one track, by electronic trickery, he actually sings a duet with his idol, thus cruelly revealing what he can’t do: give the words their value. I should hasten to say that Norah and Robbie have both been doing something right. They make money by the shed-load, whereas I and my collaborator Pete Atkin are in no danger of corruption through affluence. But tonight, when we play the first date of our new song-show tour, we will have our eye on something that must be more satisfactory than cash, or we would have given up years ago. Not that having a budget wouldn’t be nice. (When I say that his new album, Winter Spring, is available through his website at, I am mounting our entire advertising campaign in one parenthesis.) For me, however, the writer of the words, what comes first is the return to the source. Listening to the hit parade when I was a kid was how I started to be a writer. In amongst the cheap artifice there was expensive artifice; in amongst that there was art; and ever since I have always liked the idea of finding sapphires in the mud. Anyone can find them in Tiffany’s.



This piece was something of a departure for the TLS, but there were no protests, and there were several letters of support from impeccably qualified literary people who were glad to see the tradition of the showbiz song lyric receiving its due honour. One such correspondent was disappointed that I singled out Bix Beiderbecke, rather than Louis Armstrong, as the young Bing’s jazz alter ego. I did it because it was true. Bing’s duet with Satchmo in High Society might have been the great and lasting sign that the racial barrier in popular culture was broken for ever, but before the war, though the two men did occasionally appear together, it was always a novelty act. In the music business, de facto segregation continued far into the age of rock and roll, even on radio. Pat Boone’s cover version of ‘Tutti Frutti’ got more airplay than Little Richard’s original because Boone sounded white. Jim Crow was that hard to beat. One of the measures of the iconic status reached by the American entertainers is that we retroactively credit them with powers of influence. But they possessed the influence only on the understanding that it was seldom exercised. Humphrey Bogart was unusual in marching against McCarthyism even once, whereupon he was persuasively informed that his charisma had no existence apart from his career. After that, he campaigned for Adlai Stevenson — a radical enough allegiance for the time — but he did no more marching. Bing, still selling orange juice far into his old age, never forgot that he was only a performer, and lucky to be one.

Permit me to add that Winter Spring is still very much available from the Pete Atkin website. During a recording session for BBC radio’s Loose Ends I thrust a copy of our cruelly neglected disc on Tony Bennett. Ever the gentleman, he examined its cover carefully, in the manner of a Japanese executive taking pains not to insult the owner of a proffered business card by putting it into his pocket after too brief an interval. For all his politeness, it was a doomed move on my part, which I could have compounded by telling him that I had managed to write a whole article about popular singers without even once mentioning him, the most scrupulous technician of the lot. Katie Melua was in the studio too. It was the first time I had heard her sing, and her way with the words made my tiny eyes moist with gratitude. Diana Krall had already affected me the same way. On a flight to Australia I watched a video of Krall’s Paris concert three times in a row. The following year she sold out the Albert Hall for a week. How marvellous that what we thought was gone should come back with confidence, and find an audience even among the young.