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.


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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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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