vs. Bing! Who Really is the King?
on The King: on a regular basis EIN examines a new release or issue
in the Elvis world. In this edition we shine our spotlight on: Elvis
vs. Bing: Who Really is The King?
pop music circles Elvis is generally regarded as the King
of Rock & Roll and the biggest seller of records. His cumulative
chart successes are legendary and cited as the benchmark by
which to compare all other artists.
how true is this position? Its validity has been seriously
tested by biographer, Gary Giddins, in his absorbing book,
"Bing Crosby A Pocketful of Dreams The Early Years 1903-1940".
name Bing Crosby will be familiar to most Elvis fans. Bing enjoyed
an incredible musical and acting career for several decades before
Elvis exploded onto the entertainment scene.
his biography, Giddins presents "facts" on a number of issues that
will rile many in the Elvis world. For instance, Giddins mounts
a strong case suggesting Crosby was one of the first "white" musicians
to popularise "real black music (jazz, not mammy singing) for a
white public. This was ten years before Benny Goodman launched
the Swing era, thirty before Elvis Presley rocked."
another issue, many Elvis biographers have commented on the absence
of a map or blueprint for Elvis and the Colonel to follow in planning
The King's career. Giddins' superb, if flawed, Crosby biography
suggests this was clearly not the case:
emerging house of Crosby served as a template for subsequent entertainers
who gambled on the same trifecta: first recordings, then radio or
television, finally Hollywood. Only Frank Sinatra in the forties,
Elvis Presley in the fifties, and Barbra Streisand in the sixties,
each working the Crosby strategy, came within hailing distance of
Elvis story also suggests the Colonel's negotiations giving Elvis
a cut of the song publishing royalties was an innovation. Giddins
eulogy to Bing exposes this hollow myth: "Bing was in a position
to demand cut-ins on dozens of songs (as Jolson did before him and
on the matter of charted records, Giddins documents a seemingly
unassailable supremacy for Bing Crosby: "Bing would continue to
average sixteen charted singles per year through 1950, peaking in
1939 with twenty-seven (a feat broken only by The Beatles in 1964,
with thirty), never falling below double digits until 1951, when
he placed nine singles in the top twenty-five. This unparalleled
twenty-year accomplishment is not likely ever to be equaled."
noted below, Giddins cites that Bing charted an incredible 369 times
on the singles charts throughout his career. While Bing Crosby's
chart achievements are staggering, it must be stated that the prevailing
music culture, broadcast and distribution structures of the time
were a major factor in the sheer magnitude of Bing's chart success.
weakness in the Giddins argument is to cite the chart sources. Before
the 1950s (and the arrival of Billboard) an effective national singles
chart did not exist. Prior to Billboard (and the now defunct Cashbox),
a range of regional and quasi-national charts were used. However
they suffered from a lack of both rigor and audited sales.
said this, if Crosby did chart 369 times that is a staggering tally
and one that should make all Elvis fans sit up and take notice!
Giddin also expresses some interesting socio-cultural observations
about Bing's impact, observations many Elvis fans will take exception
to: "But career statistics tell only part of the story. No other
pop icon has ever been so thoroughly, lovingly liked - liked and
trusted. Bing's naturalness made him credible to all, regardless
of region, religion, race or gender. He was our most authentic chameleon,
mirroring successive eras - through Prohibition, depression, war,
anxiety, and affluence - without ever being dramatic about it."
I thoroughly enjoyed Giddins work, at times the rose colored glasses
and in-built bias that flavored his prose, riled. Giddins' bias
is particularly evident in a passage celebrating the "many facets
of his (Crosby's) vocal and comedic charms. When he sings "Empty
Saddles" mounted on a horse in Madison Square Garden, his pianissimo
head tones are uniquely affecting, a style derived from John McCormack,
and beyond the ken of most popular singers; Sinatra, for example,
never attempted it, though Presley did."
positive accolade for Crosby's ability contrasts with the lack of
qualitative comment about Elvis' similar ability. Also, the mention
of Sinatra is arguably misleading, as just because a singer didn't
attempt a particular vocal style does not necessarily mean he or
she couldn't do it! It is arguably not unfair to suggest that on
the basis of this passage and one other, Giddins holds little time
for Elvis, or younger music fans.
other passage is cleverly written and potentially derisory about
The King and his followers: "...until the mid-1950's, when his (Crosby's)
decline as the nation's preeminent muse was signaled by the comeback
of a newly charged Sinatra and the arrival of Elvis - the former
marketed to adults, the latter to their children." (emphasis
is interesting to compare reaction to the deaths of Elvis and Bing
who both died in 1977. Overt media and public reaction clearly
favored Elvis but record sales were interesting. It is well documented
how RCA had both its pressing plants and other contracted plants
working 24/7 to meet the demand for Elvis product. But how many
people know that after Bing's death on October 14: "MCA (Decca)
could not handle the orders and farmed them out to other record
plants, requiring more than a million discs a day."
Crosby was an incredible talent and a musician whose influence and
legacy cannot be disputed. Giddins' lists many achievements for
his hero, a list that seriously challenges our view that Elvis is
the undisputed King of recording and entertainment!:
was the first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra
made the most popular recording ever, "White Christmas", the only
single to make American pop charts twenty times
1927 and 1962 he scored 368 charted records under his own name,
plus twenty-eight as vocalist with various bandleaders, for a
total of 369. No one else has come close; compare Paul Whiteman
(220), Sinatra (209), Elvis (149), Glen Miller (129), Nat King
Cole (118), Louis Armstrong (85), the Beatles (68)
scored the most number one hits ever, thirty-eight, compared with
twenty-four by the Beatles and eighteen by Presley
1915 and 1980 he was the only motion-picture star to rank as the
number one box-office attraction five times (1944-48)
1934 and 1954 he scored in the top ten fifteen times
was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times
and won for Going My Way
financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing
the recording industry"
Bing Crosby's movie career outshone Elvis', both in terms of creativity,
artistic success and longevity. With the exception of the formulaic
Hope-Crosby "road" movies, Bing was astute enough to ensure he was
seriously challenged as an actor.
one thinks about Giddin's reverential biography about Bing Crosby,
there is no doubt it is a powerful record of one of the twentieth
century's most loved and influential muses. It is also a book all
serious music fans should read as it opens up the door to a period
of music history and a preeminent artist, largely forgotten (ignored?)
by a contemporary mass media preoccupied with pop culture and gossip.
who was more successful, who was more influential, who was more
is very difficult to compare artists from different generations,
as the prevailing marketing and distribution arrangements are usually
case can be presented to suggest Elvis' had a far greater impact
on the social and musical conditions of his generation and subsequent
generations through the opening up of a dominant youth culture and
Elvis has endured (more than Bing) as an iconic figure, although
it is problematic that this may be partially because of our focus
on 'pop culture' in the past few decades at the expense of earlier
important musical contributions. Similarly,
BMG’s marketing of Elvis has meant superior record sales for The
King since 1977.
is also clear is that both Elvis and Bing changed musical history,
integrated black music into their performances and enjoyed immense
was superior or had the greatest impact? You be the judge.
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