Elvis vs. Bing! Who Really is the King?

Spotlight 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?

In 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.

But 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".

The 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.

In 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."

On another issue, many Elvis biographers have commented on the absence of a map or blueprint for Elvis and the Colonelto follow in planning The King's career. Giddins' superb, if flawed, Crosby biography suggests this was clearly not the case:

"The 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 his success..."

The 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 Presley after)..."

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."

As 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.

One 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.

Having 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."

While 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."

The 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.

The 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 added)

It 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."

Bing 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!:

  • He was the first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra
  • He made the most popular recording ever, "White Christmas", the only single to make American pop charts twenty times
  • Between 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)
  • He scored the most number one hits ever, thirty-eight, compared with twenty-four by the Beatles and eighteen by Presley
  • Between 1915 and 1980 he was the only motion-picture star to rank as the number one box-office attraction five times (1944-48)
  • Between 1934 and 1954 he scored in the top ten fifteen times
  • He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times and won for Going My Way
  • He financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry"

Clearly, 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.

Whatever 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.

Elvis...Bing: who was more successful, who was more influential, who was more loved? It is very difficult to compare artists from different generations, as the prevailing marketing and distribution arrangements are usually markedly different.

A strong 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 mores.

Undoubtedly, 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, BMGs marketing of Elvis has meant superior record sales for The King since 1977.

What is also clear is that both Elvis and Bing changed musical history, integrated black music into their performances and enjoyed immense chart success.

Who was superior or had the greatest impact? You be the judge.

Click to comment on this article

Reader Feedback - from: David Hill
-- I think Elvis was bigger
Certainly, Bing Crosby was the biggest selling act of his generation, and he deserves a lot of recognition for both his success and beautiful distinct voice. I will admit that my first album was a # 1 hits collection by Elvis Presley, and I have studied his career far more than I probably should have, and I will state that I am admittedly biased toward the "hillbilly cat."

While it is impossible to compare artists of different generations; I do believe that Elvis had the more successful career. The RIAA may have started compiling lists after Bing Crosby hit his peak, but they have continuously tried to document acts prior to the organization, and popular acts like the Beatles and Buddy Holly have albums added to their tallies every year.

My point is that Bing Crosby does not sell well at this time, and has not sold well for several decades. Elvis, however, continues to sell millions of records annually, and his 30 # 1 compilation charted in several countries. I
would be very surprised if it turned out that Bing Crosby had sold enough albums prior to to rock n roll era, to compensate for the publics lack of interests in his career following 1954.

If somehow he managed to outsell Elvis during those years, I do know that he never achieved the iconic status that Presley obtained during his 24 year career. The hair, the pink Cadillac, even the flashy vegas jump suits seem to reflect a deep part of American Culture.

I once heard there was an Elvis fan club in every country save for Afghanastan, and I wouldn't be surprised by that notion. Elvis was the first singer to be recognized as a global phenomenon and I think the success of Graceland, and that his continuous album sells prove that his career resonated with America more than that of Bing Crosby.
Thank You, David Hill

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