“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.
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.
As should be readily apparent from their influences, the musical threads that Crosby and Presley drew upon in crafting their styles were ones that emerged from African American traditions that had been evolving since before the beginning of the century. Both artists—as well as the formidable musical impresarios who played instrumental roles in cultivating their sounds and careers—were conscious of the racial associations of their musical appropriation. Moreover, this dimension of their stylistic integration became a significant, controversial touchstone in the histories written around each performer—at the time (Presley) and in retrospect (Crosby).
Bing Crosby’s big break as a performer came from Paul Whiteman, a man infamous in the annals of jazz history for his explicit, oft berated mission to turn what he perceived to be the crude inspiration of African American jazz into a sophisticated American art music to rival the best of Europe. In 1926, Whiteman, already a very successful bandleader who dubbed himself the “King of Jazz”, hired Crosby—who had been developing his talent in vaudeville—as a full-time singer. While he sang with Al Rinker and Harry Barris (Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys), Crosby learned from the great jazz instrumentalists in Whiteman’s orchestra. In his biography, Giddins quotes Bing, recalling time he spent sitting in on jam sessions with those band members:
“I didn’t contribute anything but I listened and learned,” Bing recalled. “I felt my style then was a cross between Al Jolson and a musical instrument. I was now being influenced by these musicians…Bix [Beiderbecke], Bill Challis, even Frank Trumbauer would make suggestions to me for my vocalizing and I’d give it a try.”
Though the Whiteman cast that helped tutor Bing was white, several of its members—Beiderbecke especially—are widely considered to have been pioneering artists of “authentic” (read: black) jazz. Crosby was also heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong (who became a lifelong friend) and other aforementioned black jazz artists such as Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters.
In the early 20th century, jazz, and the white appropriation thereof, was controversial in many quarters. As Giddins puts it:
“Not everyone understood the racial collusion taking place in the music world, though many who did were outraged and delivered stringent imprecations. Ladies’ Home Journal located cause and effect between jazz and rape, and cautioned its readers ‘Jazz is the expression of protest against law and order, the Bolshevik element of license striving for expression in music.’”
While Crosby’s style never incited the controversy that Elvis’s did, the racial component was nevertheless clear, and significant. If Whiteman’s whitewashing of jazz accounts for his dismissal by most jazz critics and historians, Crosby’s application of jazz phrasing to popular song (which became such a mainstreamed procedure that it quickly ceased to sound like integration) may help explain why he is seldom mentioned in current jazz histories, which often disparage, or simply ignore, “inauthentic” jazz appropriation. Crosby is overlooked despite recognition of his importance by such esteemed jazz critics as Giddins and Nat Hentoff, the latter of whom writes, in Listen to the Stories:
“Although Crosby is most renowned as what used to be called a crooner—someone who transforms ballads into intimate conversations—he also, when the spirit moved him, sang jazz with buoyant authority. He was not just a “jazz-influenced” singer. Crosby could be the real thing…even on the ballads there are touches of phrasing and rhythm that indicate Crosby was never without—in his head—the company of jazz musicians.”
If Whiteman helped direct Crosby toward his musical miscegenation, it was Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips who modeled that approach for Elvis with similar explicitness. Yet when Phillips engineered Presley’s seminal Sun sessions—the first cuts he released, and the ones that remain best loved and remembered by most critics—he had no pretensions of smoothing out the rough edges of country or blues. A man who had already recorded such blues giants as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, Phillips was intent on presenting Presley in the rugged glory of clacking, wailing, country-blues. Accounts differ somewhat regarding the specifics of the early Sun sessions and Phillips’s part in them, and clarity may be at times difficult to find amid the tangled webs of memory and mythology. By all accounts, however, Phillips played an instrumental, essential role in shaping Elvis’s sound—which included, at the least, pairing him with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. In his classic The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillett offers a glimpse into the scene, quoting the illuminating, if untrustworthy memory of Elvis himself, as relayed to one interviewer:
“‘Mr. Phillips said he’d coach me if I’d come over to the studio as often as I could. It must have been a year and a half before he gave me an actual session. At last he let me try a western song—and it sounded terrible. But the second idea he had was the one that jelled. “You want to make some blues?” he suggested over the ’phone, knowing I’d always been a sucker for that kind of jive. He mentioned Big Boy Crudup’s name and maybe others too. I don’t remember. All I know is, I hung up and ran 15 blocks to Mr. Phillips’ [sic] office before he’d gotten off the line—or so he tells me. We talked about the Crudup records I knew—“Cool Disposition”, “Rock Me, Mama”, “Hey Mama”, “Everything’s All Right”, and others, but settled for “That’s All Right”, one of my top favorites…’”
What is unquestionable is that Phillips and Presley succeeded, setting in motion the latter’s legendary, controversial rise to stardom. The sense of rebellion implicit in Elvis’s music was not just a function of his sexually charged hip shaking but also directly related to the “black” elements of his music, and their appropriation by a popular white performer. It is often said that rock and roll is blues with a backbeat. While this oversimplifies matters, it helps explain how contemporary listeners—especially ones not versed in the nuances of either style—might equate the two, and amid the racism of the time, deride rock and roll as degenerate “negro” music.
Though both Crosby and Presley were beloved as vocalists, their outsized successes cannot be explained primarily in terms of purely “musical” virtues. Both figures also created distinct public identities corresponding to their musical styles that allowed fans to project onto them values and ideals, which in turn became inseparable from reactions to the music itself. Moreover, both figures exploited media constructed images of themselves: uniquely American manifestations of detached, unshakable charisma.
In his early years with the Rhythm Boys, Bing’s debt to African American style helped create a sense of him as hip or cool. Artie Shaw alludes to this in a quote that appears on the back cover of Giddins’s A Pocketful of Dreams: “The first thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.” When Crosby expanded his media presence to radio and movies, he honed the genial charm and mildly self-effacing manner that perfectly complemented the smooth tones and effortless swing of his vocal performances.
Crosby’s movie roles played a particularly significant role in solidifying his image. In “Bing on a Binge: Casting-Against-Type in The Country Girl,” Linda A. Robinson writes:
“Significantly, most of Crosby’s screen roles were all the same role: in the 1930s, he was the easy-going crooner, never taking life too serious, and with Going My Way, this on-screen character was enriched with a warm tolerance that enhanced his insouciant attitude toward formalities and unflappable calm in the face of life’s difficulties… Crosby was also perceived to be the character he played or, putting it the other way, his film characters were perceived to be ‘Bing Crosby’, the individual. Indeed, few stars made as great an effort to collapse his film ‘image’ into the public perception of the man himself.”
In a new introduction to the 2001 edition of Call Me Lucky, Bing’s “as told to” memoir, Giddins adds: “Beyond his mastery of the vocal art and of light comedy, Crosby personified something profoundly and unalterably American. Through fifteen years of Depression and war, he became our voice, manner, and disposition.” Adult-themed, implicitly patriotic songs such as the Depression era lament “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” enhanced listener identification, as did Crosby’s many V-Discs and performances for servicemen in World War II.
From the start, Elvis was “hip” incarnate and the force of his personality matched the rough, instinctual musical aesthetic he molded from the raw materials of black blues. Elvis’s unbridled energy, rhythmic swagger and boyish good looks embodied youth just as teenagers were emerging as a newly liberated, soon-to-be-dominant consumer group. (An adult personality, Bing starred in his Academy Award winning blockbuster Going My Way not long before he turned 42—the age at which Elvis, whose youth eventually seemed to fade all the more quickly for its prolonged vitality, died.) The nearly universal appeal that Elvis eventually engendered, however, arose from a perception of him not just as a rebel but also as an all-American boy—one who served in the Army in the late ’50s and sang a string of Crosby-esque ballads in the early ’60s. As with Crosby, insouciance always remained a key aspect of Elvis’s personality. As Marcus writes in Mystery Train:
“You can hear that distance, that refusal to really commit himself, in his best music and his worst; if the throwaway is the source of most of what is pointless about Elvis, it is also at the heart of much of what is exciting and charismatic.”
The successes of Crosby and Presley often seemed more about image than music. This might never have been lamentable, however, were it not for the fact that their music itself also often seemed more about image than music. Under the influence of notoriously savvy, bottom-line driven businessmen, Crosby and Presley both recorded unfathomable quantities of western, Hawaiian, patriotic, holiday, film, and religious records—many of which have been derided by critics as “novelties”. In each case the clear aim was to use diversification to broaden the artists’ mainstream appeal—and thrust as many recordings on consumers as possible. (This partly explains why both artists’ discographies are unwieldy messes littered with insignificant recordings and confounding repackaging.) Crosby and Presley were always commercial artists, and the profit motive may have been, in the aggregate, as much an inspiration as a diversion. Yet it remains true that both seemed to compromise certain aesthetic values for the sake of commercial gain—and in a way that bore directly on their idolization.
A large part of the commercialization of Crosby’s career, of course, was rooted in his acting career, and the transplanting of his unaltered, regular guy persona onto role after role. Similarly motivated by a drive to make Crosby the icon of “everyman”, though, were the genre-hopping novelty cuts he recorded at the direction of Jack Kapp, head of Decca Records, beginning in 1934. In Giddins’s biography of Crosby we learn that “Jack was denigrated by many insiders as Killer Kapp, for killing Bing’s early greatness in a relentless exploitation to sell more and more records.” But there also seems to be some truth in Kapp’s retort that “if he hadn’t diversified his talent, he would remain just a popular singer of popular songs.” At the least, the Kapp tack seems to have helped elevate Crosby the icon (if not the singer) to the place that Whitney Balliett described, when writing in a Saturday Review piece on Bing’s memoir that
“[Crosby] has emerged as a figure that is often affectionately regarded as the ideal American male…[If] the bigger-than-life common man is a new figure to the world and is the century’s hero, Bing may also be one of the first of the Universal Common Men.”
Career efforts that focused on projecting Crosby’s common man persona, however, risked squandering his distinctiveness: making him everyman but also no man at all.
As Kapp did to Crosby, Colonel Tom Parker did to Presley. Ruthlessly driven to brand and market Elvis, his manager is alternatively seen as the greedy capitalist who spoiled Elvis’s greatness or a prescient mastermind more responsible for the Elvis phenomenon than the king of rock and roll himself. Parker had a much firmer hold on Presley than any business partner did on Crosby, and it was under the Colonel’s management that Elvis appeared in several dozen fluff movies, which, like Crosby’s, successfully cashed in on and spread his iconic image (though none earned critical acclaim as had Crosby’s best). It was also during this time that Elvis began recording more ballads and delving into genre exercises for his western and Hawaiian films. Whether or not the Colonel Parker legend is largely justified, it has come to embody in the collective consciousness of Elvis appreciators the perceived decline—particularly the diversion from performance of pure rock and roll—that took hold of Presley in the 1960s and continued virtually unabated until his death.
The artistic merits of these decisions aside, they undoubtedly added a new dimension to Elvis’s appeal and helped entrench his popular presence. They also seem to have appeared in conjunction with a stretching of Elvis’s musical and cultural persona that took him far beyond the limited appeal of a rebellious rocker. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus traces this expansion of identity to its breaking point in the self-parody of Elvis’s latter day performances:
“The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues; reviews of his concerts, by usually credible writers, sometimes resemble Biblical accounts of heavenly miracles…Elvis [in a late performance] transcends any real America by evading it. There is no John Brown in his “Battle Hymn,” no romance in his “Dixie,” no blood in his slave song. He sings with such a complete absence of musical personality that none of the old songs matter at all, because he has not committed himself to them; it could be anyone singing, or no one. It is in this sense, finally, that an audience is confirmed, that an America comes into being; lacking any real fear or joy, it is a throwaway America where nothing is at stake. The divisions America shares are simply smoothed away.”
If taken out of context, Marcus’s last few sentences could easily be mistaken for a rock and roll era critique of the unchallenging blandness of say, Bing Crosby.
Through the prism of these two careers, one can identify not only major shifts in style and audience in American popular song, but also the dominant, recurring themes of its conventional historiographies. These interconnected narrative threads of influence, integration, idolization, and commercialization are touchstones upon which our collective understanding of pop music in the 20th century hinges—the categories by which we trace the musical and historical importance of pop artists. Whether these frameworks will or should persist or are ripe for reexamination is partly a matter of speculation and to a large extent outside the scope of the present study. Examining Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley by the light of such rubrics seems not only to affirm the supremacy of two figures in 20th century popular music, but also to validate the critical standards themselves. Yet one must be wary of circular logic. These two pioneering men helped birth the very historical paradigms that situate and substantiate them.
Ben Ewing is a student at Yale Law School who writes about music for Dusted Magazine and film for Not Coming to a Theater Near You.