- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

It may be time to escape the political with some grog, another piece of wood on the fire, and "White Christmas" on the turntable, but even that might not work. You see, Talk magazine has taken Der Bingle, he of "White Christmas" fame, and put his name on its cover to announce that he, Bing Crosby, is "hip."
You may want to turn up the volume on the old Berlin ballad and forget about whether Tina Brown et al consider Bing Crosby hip, but think again. He may need us. After all, Bing Crosby, 1903-1977, is many things a voice of unsurpassed musicality who, as Talk reminds us, recorded more No. 1 hits (38) than anyone else, including the Beatles (24) and Elvis Presley (18); an Academy Award-winning actor whose "Road" comedies with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour still crackle; and an enduring radio star who never left the airwaves from 1931 until 1962. (Consider also that between 1935 and 1946, as many as 50 million Americans tuned in weekly to hear Crosby on the Kraft Music Hall program, while, as Talk points out, this year's bonanza hit, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," topped out at 36 million viewers.) But the question remains, is Bing Crosby hip?
"Hip" implies a currency or relevance that Crosby, tragically enough, can't have in the Age of Eminem. (And it is the stuff of tragedy considering that Crosby's decline in popularity neatly tracks the plummet of popular culture.) Could it be that Talk has arrived at an aesthetic appreciation of the golden age of American popular song as created by Kern, Berlin, Porter and the rest that Bing Crosby, among others, brought to shimmering life? Hardly. It is rare these days, if not unheard of, for a dead, white male to be culturally resurrected on artistic merits. There has to be something else.
The title of the Crosby article, an excerpt from a forthcoming biography by Gary Giddens, offers a clue: "The First Hip White Man." Apparently, this little renaissance has something to do with race. Indeed, as Mr. Giddens writes, "Crosby encouraged and pioneered racial integration on stage, radio, and records, and in movies; in 1936, after winning the contractual right to produce his own pictures, he hired Louis Armstrong and gave him star billing." Which is admirable. Since the appearance of both an ugly biography and bitter memoir by Crosby's eldest son Gary, the songster's reputation has been that of a cold and even malevolent figure. Mr. Giddens has seized upon a kinder, juster side of Crosby for biographical exploration.
But that, of course, doesn't answer the question about how Crosby became the "the first hip white man" a gratingly condescending label or why, as the article's blurb reads, he "was also surprisingly, counterintuitively, innately 'with it.' " The answers to both questions have more than a little to do with Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter and beloved entertainer Crosby deeply admired and occasionally worked with.
As Mr. Giddens tells it, Crosby was little more than raw talent before hearing Armstrong. Even before Crosby's career began, he was just waiting for Armstrong if it is true, as Mr. Giddens imagines, that the jazz singer Mildred Bailey told Crosby to listen to Armstrong early on. "It was remarkable advice," he writes, "[since] as of November 1925 Armstrong had yet to record as a vocalist … and Mildred had yet to travel to Chicago or New York to hear him." Remarkable, indeed. "One can only imagine Bing's initial response to Louis's irrepressible genius, especially if Mildred Bailey had primed him for an experience bordering on the Second Coming."
According to Mr. Giddens, "Armstrong was the fount from which Bing's swinging and independent but emotional approach to song developed." Bingo. Or, rather, Bing-o: the first hip white man. The Crosby reappraisal Talk offers is not so much a re-examination of a body of work, but a politically correct re-categorization. That is, it has long been the practice in the jazz world to ascribe originality to black performers and derivativeness to white performers, and now Bing Crosby is getting the treatment.
This is not to say that Armstrong was not a significant influence on Crosby. "I'm proud to acknowledge my debt to the Revered Satchelmouth. He is the beginning and the end of music in America and long may he reign," said Crosby. And the feeling was mutual. "The man was a natural genius the day he was born," Armstrong said. "Ever since Bing first opened his mouth, he was the Boss of All Singers. And still is."
While Mr. Giddens includes both quotations, the article some how undercuts Crosby as lacking originality. This is a shame. In both men, we have two rare, American originals, whose gifts are something to celebrate, not politicize.

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