May 3, 2017

Dreaming a Little Dream With Bing Crosby: Nothing Is Dated on John Lennon’s Jukebox

Born May 2, 1903, a household name in his time at the heart of the 20th century; a Best Actor Oscar winner, Hollywood’s top box-office attraction for five years, with 38 number-one records, more than Elvis or the Beatles — Bing Crosby was “a monumental figure,” in the words of his biographer, Gary Giddins. Yet during a 2001 book tour for Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940, Giddins was surprised by the “degree of ignorance about his entire career …. It really became a question of ‘Bing who?’”

With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ monumental Sgt. Pepper album only a month away, no one’s asking “Paul who?” Not when Sir Paul McCartney, who’ll be 75 on June 18, has been filling stadiums during his One-On-One tour, finishing off the last three nights in April at the Tokyo Dome. In July he’ll be in arenas from Miami to Chicago, ahead of a September 11 concert at the Newark’s Prudential Center, followed by concerts at Madison Square Garden, and Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

How big were and are the Beatles? Crosby himself had some thoughts about the dimensions of the phenomenon: “Sinatra was … bigger than I ever was, and Presley was bigger than Sinatra, but there’s never been anything like the Beatles.” That was in 1964, three years before Sgt. Pepper lit up the 60s. Now here it comes again, “the act you’ve known for all these years” trailing clouds of bicentennial glory with a new stereo mix of the album, an expanded deluxe edition as a two-CD set or two-LP vinyl package, and a “super deluxe” six-disc box set. 

Fans of Bing

It was never “Bing who?” for the Beatles. While John Lennon and George Harrison were both self-proclaimed fans of “the first hip white person born in the United States” (so said jazz legend Artie Shaw), it was Paul McCartney who translated the nuances of Bing’s style not only in “Yesterday” and “Michelle,” but in compositions and performances like “Hey Jude” and the jaunty, tuneful “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” both of which Crosby performed on TV in the 1970s. So subtly pervasive was the sound of Crosby’s baritone on the English airwaves when McCartney was growing up, he could have gone to the college of crooning without even knowing it.

Meanwhile, what John was responding to around the same age was the same “la-la-la-how-life-goes-on” Crosby spirit that gave his songs the conversational immediacy Lennon took to the limit in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As for crooning, his rendering of “If I Fell,” with its infectious ascending harmonies, was one of the moments in A Hard Day’s Night when people other than teenyboppers began falling for the Beatles. Asked in a 1980 interview by his eventual biographer Ray Coleman what music he was listening to, Lennon mentioned Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, John Gielgud reading Shakespeare, and “anything that Bing Crosby had ever done.” According to Coleman, Yoko’s gift to John for his 38th birthday was a bubble-top Wurlitzer jukebox he stocked with “as many Bing Crosby records as he could get.” John especially liked the way Bing “would banter and talk in the songs.” According to a friend at the time, the three tracks he played over and over were “Whispering,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

The curious inclusion of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” on George Harrison’s last, posthumous album, Brainwashed, can be explained by his interest in Bing Crosby, who sang the song both on film and record: “He had a lovely voice, a presence that sort of crackles. He always remained popular over here [i.e., England]. I like his stuff very much.” George also covered one of Bing’s most croonful tunes, Cole Porter’s “True Love” from High Society, releasing it as a single. His wife Olivia recalled: “If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ and just make the moment even better!” Harrison’s son Dhani says his “dad’s favorite recording in his later years” was an album of Paul Whiteman’s big band recordings featuring Bing with Bix Beiderbecke called Bix ‘n’ Bing. As it happens, I was playing this exhilarating record during Bush/Cheney’s invasion of Iraq; my favorite track was “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt In My Tears.” I’ve been listening to the same CD again, and again, after 100 days of Trump.

The Charm Thing

If you’re revisiting Bing by way of records or on YouTube, what you see upfront is one of the qualities that led Artie Shaw to use the word hip, not only in the sense of personal style, musical acumen, familiarity with the scene, and a nonchalance that in someone else might be seen as cool or even arrogant but in Crosby feels like charm. The Beatles communicated the same quality, it’s what audiences all over the world responded to in A Hard Day’s Night. This sort of genial, playful charm transcends genres and boundaries; it’s as much a part of rock ‘n’ roll as it is of a Cole Porter lyric or Bing Crosby having a high time sparking everybody-gets-into-the-act numbers like “Let’s Bake a Sunshine Cake” from Frank Capra’s Riding High or the great “Didja Ever” drinking duet with Sinatra from High Society. The same sense of easy spontaneity, where music just takes off from a real-life moment, is what happens when John Lennon starts singing “I Should Have Known Better” during the baggage car card game in the film’s first number. And while John sings, Richard Lester fits in reaction shots from the “clean old man,” Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), not unlike the way Capra intersperses the whinnying horse in “Sunshine Cake.”

From “Please” to “Please Please Me”

One of the most gratifying features of YouTube is that nothing seems dated when what’s instantly available can become instantly compatible. Forget the three decades between Bing’s “Please” from The Big Broadcast of 1932 and the Beatles “Please Please Me,” either of which might be called “dated” by members of the Instagram FaceBook generation. It’s all working because the medium equalizes everything. You’re in charge of the program, it’s your show, with some help from the online users who post the clips.

Here it helps to know that the seed of the Beatles’ first number one hit in the U.K. is in Bing’s number one hit in the U.S., John Lennon’s aim having been to write a song that employed the punning double use of the word “please” as in the line “Please lend a little ear to my pleas.” Never mind that Bing croons while John’s version is powered through drums, amplified guitars, and soaring harmonies. The common denominator is passion, to make the “please” so insistent that the “plea” becomes a command, as in John’s relentless “C’mon, C’mon, C’mon!” No less unrelenting than the force that drives an audience of girls mad with joy when the Beatles sing “Please Please Me,” Bing’s “Please” at the end of The Big Broadcast is directed at a melancholy beauty named Mona (Sharon Lynn), it’s all for her, she can’t escape, he won’t let up, he keeps coming closer, it’s almost like an erotic attack, yet at the same time it’s as if hearing the song is bringing her to life, saving her soul. He’s not out to seduce her, but to rescue her. In the moment when he and the song are closing in, the beat picking up, you can see up close the essence of his power, the force of the genius under the surface of the hip, nonchalant crooner. Perhaps this is what George Harrison meant by “a presence that sort of crackles” — in this moment, Bing’s electric.

Dreaming and Whispering

I’ve been playing Bing’s “Dream a Little Dream With Me” and “Whispering” on John Lennon’s online jukebox. It could be the late hour or one too many trips down YouTube’s memory’s lane but when I was listening just now to “Whispering,” I heard Bing ad-lib “sounds like a Beatle” in the bantering way John enjoyed. He says it as trumpeter Bob Scobey is playing, a little over two minutes into the number. Of course in 1957 when Bing With a Beat was recorded, there’s no way Crosby could have said such a thing, but when John heard it again and again at the Dakota in the late 1970s he must have smiled at the coincidence. It’s a Beatles thing, after all. Fifty years ago people were playing paranoid games inspired by the bogus rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash. The “sounds like a Beatle” moment reminds me of the close-listening some fans were doing, obsessively sussing out hidden hints on The White Album or hearing what sounded like Lennon’s voice saying “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” In 1994 the surviving Beatles recorded two songs with the voice of their dead mate, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love.” In effect, John was crooning both tunes from beyond the grave, which suggests, if nothing else, the irresistible hold these voices have on us, on our sense of time, memory, and reality, something Gary Giddins highlights in the epigraph from Gilbert Seldes he uses for the introduction to Pocketful of Dreams. “There was a time, not so long ago, when it was truthfully said that no hour of the day or night, year after year, passed without the voice of Bing Crosby being heard somewhere on this earth.”

Gary Giddins has completed the second volume of his biography, Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, The War Years 1940-1946, which will be published by Little, Brown in the fall of 2018.