Music

Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and the Narratives of American Popular Song

Ben Ewing

It is now possible to see Bing Crosby’s success not as a prior model against which Elvis Presley would assert himself, but rather, as a template that Elvis would adapt and exploit.

“The best writing about American popular music—like the best popular American music itself—reveals hidden but profound connections between styles, performers, communities, races, and historical periods that at first glance seem all but self-contained.”

-- Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of Cultural Obsession

All Music Guide’s Richie Unterberger suggests that “Elvis Presley may be the single most important figure in American 20th century popular music". This relatively uncontroversial statement is backed up not only by Elvis’s undeniable contribution to the popularization of rock and roll, but also the likelihood that he has sold more recordings worldwide than any other artist of any kind: plausible sales estimates top one billion. The unending streams of literature about Presley and visitors to Graceland, his National Historical Landmark home in Memphis, testify to this icon’s entrenched place in American popular consciousness.

Bing Crosby is today a relic of another era—remembered, if at all, as the old man who sang “White Christmas". A cursory examination of the facts will reveal, however, that this is not how he was viewed in his day, nor does such willful ignorance begin to do justice to his outstanding achievements as a performer and entertainer. As Gary Giddins makes clear in his biography Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams (The Early Years: 1903-1940), Crosby’s dominance over the landscape of American popular song during the 1930s and '40s places him, along with Elvis, among just a handful of vocalists who could arguably be called the most popularly significant in the 20th century. In the words of John Brush, in the same context as Unterberger:

"Bing Crosby was, without doubt, the most popular and influential media star of the first half of the 20th century. The undisputed best-selling artist until well into the rock era (with over half a billion records in circulation), the most popular radio star of all time, and the biggest box-office draw of the 1940s, Crosby dominated the entertainment world from the Depression until the mid-'50s, and proved just as influential as he was popular."

Notwithstanding the noxious coat of dust only beginning to come off Crosby’s reputation, superficial similarities between Crosby and Presley are easy to identify. As John Mark Dempsey notes in a 2007 article, “Bing Crosby: Rock ‘n’ Roll Godfather", journalist Russell Baker was aware of the commonalities between Crosby and Presley as early as 1977, tracing a few of them when the two died that year in close succession:

"Both came from obscurity to national recognition while quite young and became very rich. Both lacked formal musical education and went on to movie careers despite a lack of acting skills. Both developed distinctive styles that were originally scorned by critics and subsequently studied as pioneer developments in the art of popular song."

As his checklist of parallels suggests, these two singers’ rises and evolutions bear a striking resemblance. In fact, the commonalities are at once broader and also more specific than Baker’s observations reveal. It is now possible to see Crosby’s success not as a prior model against which Presley would assert himself, but rather, as a template that Elvis would adapt and exploit. Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that the dominant narratives of American popular song—which project cultural values and tensions onto iconic stars—are embodied by and illuminated in the similar trajectories of their careers.

Both singers helped create the now familiar story of pop music they star in: a recurring, uniquely American tale of influence, integration, idolization and commercialization.

Influence

Though it may surprise certain rock and roll fans untutored in the history of Tin Pan Alley, Crosby exerted a substantial, if indirect influence, on Presley. The man who popularized the smooth baritone style that came to be known as crooning, Crosby was -- in the words of John Potter, in his book Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology -- “[a] natural with a microphone…[who] also managed to incorporate jazz phrasing and style into the commercial music of Tin Pan Alley.” Crosby would have been virtually impossible to avoid and, indeed, during the same Sun session that produced “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky", Elvis recorded a prior Crosby hit, “Harbor Lights". Later, Elvis would adopt a similar vocal style for his many popular ballads such as “Love Me Tender” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight". Though he expressed a preference for Dean Martin (himself a Crosby emulator), Elvis sang at times with Crosby’s lyricism, vibrato and soft high register.

Yet, Crosby’s influence on Presley is but one example of a broader parallel between Crosby and Presley: each man’s ability to absorb and synthesize preexisting models of musical expression and fashion a new one—distinct and later seminal in its own right. As a young man growing up in Spokane, Washington in the late teens and early 1920s, Crosby was taken with then-developing jazz styles that seeped into many recordings. In The Great American Popular Singers: Their Lives, Careers, and Art, Henry Pleasants lists just a few musicians who influenced Crosby as he began singing:

"The great jazz musicians of the time were his idols. He heard them all—Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and many more—and as a member of the Whiteman orchestra he was greatly impressed by Bix Beiderbecke (with whom he roomed for a while), Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, Frankie Trumbauer and Joe Venuti."

Now credited as a pioneering synthesizer of jazz and pop who would transform American popular song during the golden age of Tin Pan Alley, Crosby lent a voice of syncopation to the jazz-steeped compositions of such songwriters as Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. This rhythmic sensibility, coupled with Crosby’s intimate baritone, helped solidify and spread a template for popular singing perfectly suited to the new age of electrical recording, the microphone and radio. Popular singers in Crosby’s wake did not emulate the older model of acoustic belting that Al Jolson had exemplified, nor did they confine themselves to rigid, pre-jazz rhythms. Rather, as Terry Teachout notes, in a 2001 Commentary article, “Whatever Happened to Bing Crosby”:

"Dozens of other pop singers based their styles on his, among them Russ Columbo, Perry Como, Bob Eberle, Billy Eckstine, Dick Haymes, and Dean Martin. 'All of them tried to be Crosbys,' one of them wryly admitted. 'You were either a high Crosby or a low Crosby.'"

Likewise, Elvis, who was born in Mississippi but spent his formative teenage years in Memphis, grew up exposed to a range of musical styles that would manifest themselves in his recordings. Raised in a Pentecostal church, Presley had plenty of exposure to the intensity of gospel singing. As Greil Marcus recounts in Mystery Train, Presley also took in the varied secular styles of Memphis and beyond:

"On the radio, he listened with his family to the old music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, to current stars like Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and to white gospel groups like the Blackwood Brothers. Elvis touched the soft center of American music when he heard and imitated Dean Martin and the operatics of Mario Lanza; he picked up Mississippi blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy, Big Boy Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, and the new Memphis music of Rufus Thomas and Johnny Ace, mostly when no one was around because that music was naturally frowned upon."

Elvis combined diverse idioms, from initial numbers like “That’s All Right", which juxtaposed the harmonic, melodic, and vocal structures of blues with the chop-chop rhythm and arpeggio guitar lines of hillbilly country, to “Heartbreak Hotel", which John Potter notes, “has almost nothing to do with C&W [country and western]…[but rather] has its roots firmly in urban blues and jazz blues” and includes moments of lyrical crooning. Like Crosby, Elvis helped popularize a distinctive new music, the echoes of which could be heard in much of the popular music that followed it—from the energetic rhythms of Brill Building Pop to the second wave rock and roll heralded by the British Invasion.

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