A Bingle Shindingle

by Marty Demarest

Bing Crosby was born 100 years ago, on May 3, 1903. There are those who will dispute that date, citing Crosby's grave marker at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles, and the U.S. Postal Service's 1994 Bing Crosby stamp, which gives 1904 as his birth year. But these dissenting opinions matter little when you consider who will be coming to town to celebrate Crosby's 100th birthday: his widow, Kathryn Crosby; his biographer Gary Giddins; and Frank Sinatra, Jr.; other members of Crosby's family, and scholars and fans from around the world. They'll all be gathering at Gonzaga this weekend to celebrate the boy from Spokane, who became one of America's biggest celebrities and who still holds a record with 42 chart-topping singles to his credit.

Unlike many current pop musicians, who base their careers on their clothing and marketing campaigns more than their actual voices, the source of Crosby's success was that voice. Certainly he might not have achieved superstar status without some savvy media moves and careful management, but supporting his climb to the top at every step was his voice. Even today, when musicians shamelessly imitate each other in an attempt to capitalize on anything of value, Crosby's voice remains singular and unshared. Similar to a tenor's ability to set all the air in a room vibrating in synch with his head, Crosby's vocal chords resonated with a kind of dry buzz, but sounding deeper in the chest, and more relaxed. It was the sound of a man at ease, and Crosby, who loved to sing and whistle, spent his entire life celebrating his vocal fortune. Accordingly, this weekend's celebrations will feature ample amounts of music, including performances by the Gonzaga a capella ensemble "Big Bing Theory," along with vocalist Bob Pasch's show "A Tribute to Bing," and Crosby's nephew, Howard Crosby, performing with a nine-piece band.

The birthday bash will kick off with the rededication of Crosby's statue at Gonzaga. Mayor John Powers will be present to do the honors, which is fitting, considering the role that the city played in shaping Crosby's life. While Spokane might not be able to lay any claim to developing Crosby's distinct vocal timbre, Gonzaga University can at least take part of the credit for the ways in which he used it.

"He was a brilliant musician," stated Gary Giddins -- the author of Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams -- The Early Years -- in an interview last year on KSFC's On the Record. "That's the main thing. That's the main reason I wrote this book. We forget what an extraordinary musician he was. This goes back to his education at Gonzaga. The fact that he specialized in elocution and debate -- he thought about what the lyrics meant. He's the only great pop singer I guess who had a classical education, including two years of law. And so, he was the first singer who really interpreted lyrics for meaning."

Giddins, who will also be speaking several times this weekend, also points out that Crosby was one of the first white musicians performing jazz. And despite Crosby's deep personal connection with the music, he still needed a teacher. He found one -- at least spiritually -- in Louis Armstrong.

"He's the first white singer, and one of the very first white musicians, who really understood Armstrong's message, twofold. He understood Louis Armstrong's time -- swing, as we call it -- and just had a natural affinity for it. And he also understood Armstrong's message that jazz is what you are. He never attempted to imitate Armstrong or anybody else. He used the jazz techniques -- spontaneity, swing, humor -- as an expression of who he was, of a young provincial Irish-Catholic kid from Spokane, Washington."

Like any jazz musician, Crosby loved to perform. Local musician Bruce Davis, who speculates that he's "probably the only person left in town who worked with Bing," remembers the first time that he performed with Crosby. "We were playing in Elko, Nevada, where Bing had a ranch at the time. And he came into the place that we were playing, and after a while, he got up on stage and started performing with us. And he did that for several nights, and it was easy and just fun."

Evidence of Crosby's sense of musical adventure can be found in the many live radio programs that he made during his career, where both surprise and disappointment occasionally register in his voice when the performances turn out unexpectedly. But no broadcast in his career was more innovative or surprising than when Crosby was featured on the first taped radio broadcast, using technology that was developed with his funding. Tired of performing his shows twice for audiences on both coasts, Crosby helped usher in an era that helped give the music and communications industry the forms that they have today. It's a topic that Giddins is likely to discuss in his Saturday afternoon lecture, "Bing the Technologist."

As Giddins observed, "He was the king of radio. All media, he was number one. And the country just adored him throughout the 1930s and the 1940s. He was a stabilizing force that helped the country get through the depression and then the war."

While Crosby used his fame to further causes that he supported -- including making several generous gifts to Gonzaga, and serving as a lifelong booster -- he still maintained the spontaneity and simple approach of a working musician.

"I remember one time I was fishing at Klamath Falls with my son," Davis says, chuckling at the recollection. "And Bing was there with some of his henchmen. And my son asked me, 'Don't you know him?' And I said that I did, but I didn't want to bother him. He knew I was there. Well, after a while, Bing came over and asked me, 'Well, aren't you going to even say hello?' So we talked for a few minutes, and he asked where we were going, and I told him that we were going up north into Canada for a fishing trip. And Bing said it sounded like fun, and asked if he could come along. So he came with us, and we dropped him off in Spokane on our way back down."

Even with a lifelong easygoing attitude, however, there was no denying that Crosby was a major star. In retrospect, it's difficult to discern the full range of his talents, since he allowed his manager to determine what songs would get recorded -- resulting in a largely forgettable catalogue of official recordings -- and only concerned himself with his radio broadcasts.

But there are also the films, which span much of Crosby's mature career, many of which will be shown this weekend at GU as part of the weekend's events. They find him slapsticking across foreign lands with Bob Hope in the Road to comedies, or in Technicolor-drenched settings warbling out laughable-but-infectious numbers like "Zing a Little Zong" from 1952's Just for You. However slight it seems, though -- and even Crosby himself knew he was a limited actor -- it's impossible to dismiss his film career entirely, particularly when you consider his performance as an alcoholic entertainer in The Country Girl, for which he received his third Oscar nomination. His first nomination -- and the award itself, which now resides at Gonzaga's Bing Crosby Collection -- went to his 1944 performance in Going My Way as a priest. Sounds like a Gonzaga graduate to me.

Publication date: 05/15/03