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Bing Crosby in the Road to Rock’n Roll - BBC Radio 2, October 2017
Funny things, legacies. How often have you heard an interviewer ask some eminent individual “How would you like to be remembered?”, and the answer is often not what you expect. It happened with Bing, of course, frequently. “An average guy who could carry a tune” was perhaps his most quoted answer, but a more detailed answer came in one of his final television interviews, that with the grande dame of American TV, Barbara Walters in the early summer of 1977. Bing conceded that he had been “ a fair singer, mostly in tune”, had a “good vocabulary”, read lines well and had a good sense of comedy timing, but that was it. Walters was incredulous. “Is that all there is?” she asked, to which Bing shrugged, seemingly mystified that anyone might think that there should be more.
When the British journalist, Alistair Cooke, presented his memories of Bing in his Letter From America, three months after Bing’s passing, he offered the comment that of all the celebrities he had come across in so many walks of life, the one with the least sense of ego about him was Bing. It is of course a laudable characteristic - how many people do you know who have a strong ego about them, and who you actually like? Few, I suspect. But laudable though it may be, it does little to promote remembrance after the average guy is gone. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why, in the 40 years since he left us, Bing seems to be remembered for the wrong things.
One of the perils of being the singer on the most famous gramophone record of all time is that it is always likely to dwarf everything else. In Bing’s case, “White Christmas” has obliterated everything else. Few people now aged under 50 can name another Bing Crosby hit and the people who were there when Bing sat as a colossus on the world of entertainment and popular music get fewer with every passing year. Tony Bennett described Bing in the early 30s as being like “Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Michael Jackson” all added together, but the memory is fading.
What we end up with is a mismatch of memory and status. That the name Bing Crosby is still known around the world, 40 years after he died, is in itself remarkable, but the world seems to struggle at times to find reasons for the enduring celebrity of the man. A growing theme in recent years has been the association and involvement of Bing with the adoption and growth of tape recording in the western world immediately following the end of World War 2, a legacy that at times, seems to position Bing as a technological guru, years ahead of his time. The reality was that Bing, in mid-career, was tired of the restrictions imposed by a live radio broadcast schedule every week and was willing to chance his arm with anything that would give him more time to get out on the golf course. If putting money into a venture that the GIs had brought back from the conquered Nazi Germany was a way of achieving that, well, let’s go for it.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached the BBC’s 40th anniversary tribute, Bing Crosby in the Road to Rock and Roll, expecting to hear an overstated account of Bing and the tape revolution, and not enough about Bing the singer. How wrong I was. The programme itself was arguably the best and most interesting feature on Bing since the dark days of 1977. What made is so good? Three things for me. The first is that it was conceived from the standpoint of the music business. The credit for that goes to Steve Levine, not a name ever previously associated with Bing, or indeed Bing’s era, but a man who began his career at the then new CBS recording studios in London that Ken Barnes used for much of his work with Bing, including the final Seasons album. What Levine and his co-producer and writer, Lewis Borg-Cardona, did was to paint a picture of Bing in his final weeks as he was - an active performer, still breaking new ground, still moving forward. Two particular contributions helped achieve this, one from Steve Taylor, who engineered Seasons and other Ken Barnes projects, and the other from Gordon Rose, now 91, a contemporary of Tony Bennett and someone therefore who shared the same perspective of Bing’s standing as the singer supreme. Rose was the musical director for Bing’s 1977 season at the Palladium - because he was the MD for the Palladium itself, something I never new. Rose’s take on Bing the man was fascinating - initially wary when they first met, then once Bing’s shyness was overcome, a warm and engaging man, “with no side”, and someone who was keen to chat and share stories of a life in music, plus the odd raunchy tale about Bob Hope.
The second thing was the presenter, Elizabeth McGovern, an actress best known recently for her part in Downton Abbey and again, not someone you would associate with Bing, yet she brought a professionalism to her task alongside just enough personal memory and affection for her subject to make it so listenable.
Last but not least was the quality of the research. I suspect I was not alone in finding things I didn’t know, and being pleased so to do. Some were just interesting points of detail - Gordon Rose’s explanation that whilst it would have been nice if the last song Bing had sung at Maida Vale, three days before he died, had been “Once In A While”, as is commonly reported, it wasn’t. Bing’s last song, we now know, was “Summer Wind”. But the real quality of the programme was in the account of Bing’s role in the tape revolution. There was no attempt to paint Bing as a visionary, just a refreshing honesty about Bing’s real motivation, and the programme’s rock’n roll linked-title was soon revealed to be not much more than a piece of tongue-in-cheek bunkum - but again, properly explained via Bing’s friendship with Les Paul, the early gift to him of a tape recorder and the path that did indeed flow from there to rock and heavy metal. Best of all though was the explanation not just of how tape recorders travelled from Germany to the USA, but why the Nazi regime and Hitler himself had placed so much investment into the technology as a vehicle for propagating the regime’s propaganda, plus a technical breakthrough in 1940 that improved the recording quality to a level that was unsurpassed until the advent of digital recording thirty years later. Fast forward thirty-plus years and we had a first hand account of Bing’s final sessions, with Steve Taylor explaining the unusual microphone he had used to accommodate Bing’s wish to sit in with the band. The product, 12 stunning vocals by a septuagenarian singer, was captured onto the same magnetic tape that had started life in a different world. Bravo, Der Bingle, but yes, bravo Steve Levine too.
Article first published in the Winter 2017 BING!, the official journal of the International Club Crosby.