I know how to keep my pulse on the multitude.
— Jack Kapp (1947) 1
The cornerstone years of the Bing Crosby legend stretch from 1934 to 1954, peaking in the middle and late 1940s. During those two decades his popularity attained an unexampled luster at home and abroad. What changed in 1934, to accelerate the public’s acceptance of him? After all, he had been a successful entertainer for nine years — he had recorded much of his finest music while triumphing on the stage, on the air, and in motion pictures. The answer has less to do with the nature of his work than with Bing’s willingness to redefine his public role. He was now on the verge of reinventing common-denominator aesthetics, creating a national popular music that pleased everyone. The cost, in the opinion of many observers, was encroaching blandness.
Like the once knavish, now suburbanized Mickey Mouse or the once succulent, now prim Betty Boop, Bing had to be housebroken. America’s puritan strain always kicks in when disaster strikes, especially after a long night of partying, as though depressions and plagues and floods and earthquakes were retribution for staying out till dawn. Time to sober up and knuckle down. But whereas Mickey and Betty became so innocuous as to be of no use except as corporate symbols and souvenir adornments, Bing blossomed in the process. His own moralistic streak emboldened him as an actor and personality. What his singing forfeited in muscularity, it gained in poignancy. When he periodically reasserted his jazz chops, he revealed a maturity and eloquence that often trumped his Jazz Age triumphs. In this regard, Bing’s metamorphosis suggests Chaplin, who reduced his Tramp’s original sadistic streak in favor of a pathos that afforded him far greater nuance. Like Charlie, Bing never totally abandoned his scampish irreverence, as became clear in the 1940s Road movies. Nor was his stubborn streak diminished, as corporate chiefs who crossed him or underestimated his resolve learned to their dismay.
The new Bing, projected in the mid- and late 1930s, was propelled on four fronts: movies, records, radio, and public relations. In each arena he was guided by knowing and determined pilots, true believers.
Six months before his death, Bing was asked by a radio interviewer whom he would most like to thank for his success. He gave what had become his standard answer: “I think it would be the A and R man at Brunswick and then Decca Records, Jack Kapp. I was just going on the air for the first time when I signed with him and he had me on a recording program that embraced every type of music — sextets, choral music, light opera, liederspiel, jazz, ballads, comic songs, plays, recitations…. And that kind of diversified record program, I believe, was the most important thing in the advancement of my career. I thought he was crazy, but I did what he told me.” The interviewer observed that Bing simply took hold of every opportunity, to which Bing rejoined: “I wasn’t doing it. He was doing it. He’d say, ‘You ought to do this,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, Jack, this is silly.’And he’d say, ‘You come on down and do it,’and I’d do it because I thought he was a nice guy and he had good taste. I know I didn’t have any. I just did it because he wanted me to.” 2
Jack Kapp and Bing Crosby had at least four things in common: outsize ears, a love of Al Jolson, remarkably retentive memories, and the belief that in matters of taste, the public is usually right. The last did not come naturally to Bing, but Jack patiently converted him, one record at a time, overcoming Bing’s misgivings and downright disdain. Jack did not live long enough to witness the inevitable split between mass taste and his own, though it is entirely possible he might have rolled with the punches for another generation. Bing, who lived long enough to feel abandoned, attempted to roll and even rock, following the dictum of the man he increasingly prized as the principal architect of his career. Kapp’s law was simple: melody. His brother, Dave, during a vacation in Virginia, photographed a statue of Pocahontas with her arms raised in prayer and added Jack’s mantra as a caption, “Where’s the melody?” Dave mailed the picture to Jack, who enlarged it, printed several copies, and posted them in Studio A and other strategic places in the Decca offices.
In Bing. Kapp recognized the ultimate melodist, a true bard for the times. It was Kapp who stubbornly clung to the idea that Bing could become America’s voice, the first Everyman singer. He had to combat cynics who characterized Bing as a mewling crooner, which was easy enough, but he also had to mollify and restrict Bing while convincing him of his potential. Jack, who could not play or sing a note, was Bing’s most formidable collaborator. “I regard his association with me as something of a sacred trust,” Kapp would write in 1949. “Moreover, I believe there has been a mutuality of faith, and from that mutual faith came the renascence of an industry which was once decadent and which is now a source of world-wide entertainment and cultural education.” 3
Bing trusted him unequivocally. “All the song-pluggers that used to annoy the artists asked him to record their songs or sing them on the radio,” recalled Frieda Kapp, Jack’s widow. “But he wouldn’t. He would say, ‘If Jack says I should do it, I’ll do it.’ That’s how loyal he was.” 4 Asked to name the important people in his career, Bing offered a fairly consistent list over the years, including his mother and father, Everett, Leo McCarey, William Paley, John O’Melveny, Buddy DeSylva, and one or two more. But he always began with Jack and always for the same reason: his policy of musical diversification. Bing rarely included anyone in that litany with whom he had a personal or formative association, except his parents and Everett. Unless specifically asked, he did not short-list Al Rinker, Paul Whiteman, Harry Barris, Eddie Lang, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, or even Dixie. He kept a separate mental file for the power brokers and advisers who had helped him mold his career, publicly honoring them yet keeping them at bay. As much as he and Jack liked each other, they rarely socialized. As far as Frieda could recall, they never dined alone.
Frieda could not figure it out: “Bing was very, very fond of my husband, but he was a cold person to know. We bought a house on East Sixty-fourth Street during the war, when the prices were down to nothing, a beautiful five-story house. And Bing came to New York one year, and Jack would have loved to have him come to our house. But he wouldn’t. The next day in the studio, Jack says, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ He said, ‘Oh, I went to a Jewish show.’ So Jack says, ‘What did you do in a Jewish show? You don’t understand Yiddish.’ Bing says, ‘I didn’t have to. The woman sitting next to me told me what was going on.’Jack would have been proud to show him that house, but Bing would never let anyone get that close. But Jack was crazy about him.” 5
Bing was crazy about Jack, too; he forbade his business manager from auditing Decca royalty statements (until after Jack’s death), for fear of embarrassing him. “If he was your friend, he was a good friend,” Frieda said. Yet he could be oddly unfeeling. In the late thirties, the Kapps stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the summer months, while Jack recorded. One night they threw an elaborate party in Bing’s honor at the hotel swimming pool, with Jimmy Durante leading the orchestra. “There must have been about two, three hundred people there that night,” Frieda recalled. “Hours go by and no Bing. Never showed up. Never showed up. Forgot.” 6
Nothing underscored the bond between them more than Bing’s steady refusal of incredibly lucrative offers from rival labels — at one point nearly $6,000 a disc. “The idea of working for anyone else was preposterous to me,” Bing wrote, “and I never gave those offers serious consideration. With Jack I felt that I was in the hands of a friend and that whatever he told me to do was right. “ 7
Bing’s allegiance made Decca possible. The record industry hit rock bottom in 1932 and 1933, and yet — as Kapp complained to anyone he could buttonhole — the companies stubbornly refused to lower the price of discs, which sold for seventy-five cents or a dollar. In 1921, 110 million discs were sold; Paul Whiteman’s “Whispering” alone accounted for 2 million sales. In 1933 the total figure was down to 10 million. Many people were certain that the business was bound for obsolescence. Desperate to recoup a fraction of their losses, record labels merged or dissolved. By 1934 only two were standing: Victor, which was shielded by RCA’s radio network, and the American Record Company (ARC), a branch of Consolidated Film Industries, which monopolized the market for bargain discs (stock arrangements, unknown singers) in chain stores like Woolworth’s. As a holding company, ARC acquired Columbia and several smaller labels. Artist royalties counted for little in that climate, when the average disc moved a thousand copies and hits were tabulated in the realm of 40,000 sales, sometimes as few as 20,000. “Love in Bloom” was considered a smash at 36,000. Yet Bing refused the big advances, wagering that Kapp could restore the industry.
Jack Kapp was born in Chicago on July 15, 1901, the eldest of four children. 8 His Russian immigrant father, Meyer, became a distributor for Columbia Records in 1905 and opened the Imperial Talking Machine Shop, selling phonographs, discs, cylinders, and sheet music. Jack went into the business immediately after high school and displayed a singular flair for sales; he was said to have memorized the catalog numbers of every record in the store’s inventory as well as the addresses and phone numbers of faithful customers. He married Frieda Lutz, his childhood sweetheart, in 1922 and with his younger brother, Dave, opened the Kapp Record Store. Four years later he joined Brunswick-Balke-Collender, a company that made bowling balls and billiard tables and operated Brunswick Records and its race affiliate (distributed largely in black neighborhoods), Vocalion. Put in charge of Vocalion, Jack hired a black recording director, J. Mayo Williams, and scouted, signed, or produced such legendary musicians as King Oliver, Jimmie Noone, Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Andy Kirk, and Louis Armstrong (whose OKeh contract he dodged by releasing the discs as Lil’s Hot Shots), as well as hillbilly, blues, and jug bands. He also worked with established Brunswick stars such as Al Jolson, Fletcher Henderson, and Ted Lewis, developing personal relationships with them all.
In 1930, largely as a result of Jolson’s hugely successful hit “Sonny Boy,” which Kapp recorded over the protests of his employers, Warner Bros. bought Brunswick for $5 million and relocated Jack to New York, where he worked with comptroller Milton Rackmil. As general manager of recording, he hired Victor Young as his house conductor and signed Bing, Mildred Bailey, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Glen Gray, Cab Calloway, and more, an exceedingly smart roster. But Warners had not figured on the Depression and soon wanted out of the record business. While maintaining ownership (the sales value was meager), Warners practically gave the company to ARC on a ten-year lease, hoping for royalties down the road. With Brunswick now established as ARC’s flagship, Kapp recorded more than ever. The company dispatched him to England in 1932, to sell Brunswick’s British franchise to the audacious stockbroker, Edward R. Lewis.
Three years earlier Lewis had taken control of the foundering English Decca Company and turned it around. The mysterious name, Decca, coined in 1916 by a company that produced the first portable gramophone, has no meaning. According to Decca producer and historian Geoff Milne, it was devised, like Kodak, as a word that can be pronounced only one way anywhere in the world. Lewis needed a source for American artists, and Brunswick was ideal. By 1934 Bing sold more discs in England than in the United States; “Please” exceeded 60,000 sales and “The Last Round-Up” 80,000, double the numbers in America. Despite discrete backgrounds, Kapp (the Chicago Jew) and Lewis (the future knight of the realm) spoke a similar lingo concerning records. Lewis endorsed Jack’s conviction that the industry’s salvation lay in marketing premium performers on premium labels at bargain prices. They hatched a plan.
When Brunswick’s president, Edward Wallerstein, disclosed that he was going to Victor, Jack was certain the company would appoint him president. In April 1934 Kapp, Rackmil, and Columbia sales manager E. F. Stevens induced Lewis to finance a 50 percent option on the still independent Columbia for what Lewis described as “the astonishingly low price of $75,000,” plus an option to buy Brunswick from Consolidated Film. 9 The idea was to fold Columbia into Brunswick, creating a new combine that would in turn be purchased by English Decca. Arriving in the United States for the first time, Lewis was greeted at the dock by his lawyer, Milton Diamond, and an underwriter. (Curiously, he sought the participation of William Paley, who declined; four years later, after the industry rebounded, thanks largely to Decca, Paley’s CBS bought ARC for nearly ten times as much — a bargain even at that price.) Kapp assured Lewis that in the unlikely event he was blocked from Brunswick’s presidency, he would resign and take Bing, whose contract had an escape clause allowing him to leave with Jack. Lewis went home thinking the deal was set. But as soon as he arrived in Southampton, Diamond summoned him back. They had been betrayed.
Consolidated Film’s ARC had bought Columbia (for $70,500) and reneged on the Brunswick option. “We decided there and then,” Lewis recalled, “to form a new record company.” 10 Kapp prepared to resign, as promised, and so did Rackmil and Stevens. On the surface, the venture seemed nuts. All but Lewis would be leaving lucrative positions without even having an office to go to; indeed, for several weeks they operated out of Milton Diamond’s suite. But Kapp convinced Lewis they had everything but financing: the most popular singer in the United States as well as the goodwill of numerous top artists, producers, and distributors who liked and believed in Jack. Furthermore, he was certain they could cut a deal with Warners Bros. to buy a pressing plant and office space that had fallen into disuse when ARC took Brunswick off the movie studio’s hands. Above all, they had a radical idea: premium records at discount prices.
Lewis believed, contrary to common wisdom, that “the end of an unparalleled slump” was the ideal time to start a company. He was convinced of a “terrific latent demand for records,” if they were affordable. 11 The men made their plans, and on July 14 Lewis sailed home once again. Two days later Kapp resigned his post at Brunswick. He wired Bing, who agreed to stick with him in the absence of a written contract, for a $10,000 guarantee. Jack immediately announced the formation of a new record company, Decca, with himself president (Lewis grudgingly allowed him the title, believing he held the balance of power as chairman and chief stockholder), Stevens vice president, Rackmil treasurer, and Diamond secretary. English Decca issued 25,000 common shares, holding 18,000, which it used to procure subscriptions to raise a $250,000 operational base. Remaining shares were divided among Jack (1,250), Stevens (750), and Warners (5,000). When Jack declared that a Decca disc would sell at fifty cents, the industry rolled its eyes and groaned. “If Decca can’t get 75 cents for Crosby, Casa Loma, etc., just as Brunswick, then what’s the use?” a nonplussed Variety asked. 12
The loyalties Kapp had cultivated paid off instantly. Brunswick thought its roster impregnable, but every artist represented by Rockwell-O’Keefe followed Bing to Decca — Glen Gray’s Casa Loma band, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Victor Young hired on as Decca’s music director and house conductor. Guy Lombardo, Isham Jones, Ted Lewis, and Earl Hines also made the leap, as did such new additions to the Kapp family as Chick Webb, Ethel Waters, Art Tatum, Noble Sissle, Johnny Mercer, Jimmie Lunceford, and Bob Crosby, a middling singer who, at twenty-one, was appointed front man for a cooperative orchestra that made its name combining swing and Dixieland. Within a year Jack enjoyed the particularly sweet coup of signing Louis Armstrong, the beginning of a twenty-year association with Decca. Kapp gutted Brunswick’s production team, too, recruiting engineers and producers, among them J. Mayo Williams and Joe Perry, who he asked to set up Decca’s Los Angeles studio and supervise recording sessions by Bing and others.
“We lived in Oakland,” Joe’s widow, Elsie Perry, recalled, “and Jack Kapp called us about six o’clock in the morning, and he said to Joe, ‘I want you to go to the office today and quit your job.’ He says, ‘I’m forming Decca and I want you with me.’ And so Joe — ‘cause he loved Jack Kapp, they were like brothers almost, you know — went to the office and he put in his resignation. The next year Jack asked us to move to Los Angeles.” 13 Joe went on to produce such classics as Bing’s “White Christmas,” Jolson’s “Anniversary Song,” Armstrong’s “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” Nat Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Stairway to the Stars,” and Judy Garland’s “You Made Me Love You.” 14 Bing named a racehorse after him, Decca Joe.
Jack also engaged, no less brusquely, his brother, Dave, who was working as a talent representative in Chicago, averaging ninety dollars a week. Jack told him to make a field trip to record a singer in the Midwest. When Dave complained, Jack said, “Don’t you understand? We got a new record company and you’re with us” — at fifty dollars a week. 15 Dave was so effective developing the hillbilly catalog that Decca cornered the country-music market for years. While Jack was recruiting staff and performers, Warners — as he predicted — solved the problem of office and studio space. In exchange for its 5,000 shares of Decca stock, it turned over a New York office building at 799 Seventh Avenue, a factory that made radio transcriptions, pressing equipment, and a $60,000 promissory note. 16
Decca’s key asset, however, was Bing. The entire operation was launched at his feet, literally: the Los Angeles studio was built at 5505 Melrose Avenue, across the street from Paramount’s south gate. Contrary to widespread assumptions, he received none of the precious stock. “Everybody thought Bing had gotten a lot of money, a lot of stock,” Frieda said, “but he never got one penny. In later years he bought [Decca shares] and Jack said to him, ‘Why are you buying stock now?’ Bing laughed, ‘Well, now I know the company is good. Now I have faith.’” 17
Decca barely survived its first year. Brunswick, fearful of Kapp’s pricing, moved some of its own catalog recordings to its twenty-five-cent subsidiary, Melotone. (Budget labels trafficked in cheap pressings of pop tunes by studio hacks or catalog items by established artists.) Kapp responded quickly. Decca Records, he told the trades, would sell not for fifty cents, but for thirty-five cents, three for a dollar. Furthermore, he emphasized, Decca was not a budget label; it did not stint on production costs in ways that affected the product or consumer. Instead, song-publishing royalties were reduced (1.25 cents instead of two), as were advances to artists. Kapp argued that increased sales would more than compensate for those reductions and encourage the artists’ concern with commercial viability.
To ensure higher volume, he pursued the burgeoning jukebox trade, a by-product of Prohibition’s repeal, which — with 25,000 units around the country — had became the largest single market for records. A juke, in southern argot, was initially a roadhouse or brothel, but by the mid-thirties the term encompassed any place with inexpensive entertainment. The boxes replaced live music in bars and branched out to ice-cream parlors and restaurants; they were impervious to the usual seasonal slumps in record sales. The jukes had already proved friendly to Bing’s Brunswicks, particularly in the South and East. Mezz Mezzrow wrote that even Harlem hipsters, who would not play anyone on their jukes but Louis Armstrong, made an exception for “Where the Blue of the Night,’ and not only because Bing was considered one of them: “That was a concession to the sentimental chicks, too, because they were starved for sweet romance and they sure didn’t get much of it from Louis’s recordings.” 18
Kapp also invested in large-scale advertising. He hurled his first print ad straight at Brunswick’s head:
DECCA SCOOPS MUSIC WORLD
Here they are — your favorite stars of radio, screen and stage — in their greatest performances of instrument and voice! Not obsolete records, cut in price to meet a market, but the latest, newest smash hits — exclusively DECCA. Hear them when you want — as often as you want — right in your own home. 19
But for all his apparent confidence, Kapp had plenty of worries. Decca was using old and inferior equipment. Most of the first 200,000 records were intended for jukes but were pressed at ten inches in diameter, one-sixteenth of an inch too large for the standard machines. The distributors returned them. The corrected copies wiped out Decca’s capital, requiring a crucial cash infusion from English Decca. Worse, Kapp’s rivals underhandedly warned dealers not to do business with Decca, insisting that the company was unsound and cheated its creditors. Kapp hit back with a million-dollar defamation suit, specifically accusing Victor, Brunswick, ARC, Consolidated Film, and Columbia of predatory business tactics. The suit never went to court, but the rumoring ceased. Kapp was a man possessed. He scheduled four or five sessions a week, supervising more than 200 records in a few months, almost all by prominent artists. Yet the record that guaranteed the company’s survival was a novelty by two unknowns.
Mike Riley and Eddie Farley led a Dixieland band at the Onyx Club on Fifty-second Street, near Kapp’s office, and wrote a song, “The Music Goes ‘Round and Around,” that pleased their audiences. Kapp encouraged them to work up a lyric and recorded six versions before he deemed one good enough to release, in the autumn of 1935. By December it was the hottest tune in the country, a phenomenon, selling more than 100,000 copies and endlessly covered. (Columbia Pictures produced a dreary musical of the same name.) “At least everyone can sing Whoa-ho-ho-ho,” Kapp wrote, “and that is what made the song a hit.” He recorded a version for children by Mae Questel, one for “swing addicts” by the Boswells, one for “the old time tune trade” by Haloran’s Hooligans, and one for “the evergrowing Armstrong cult.” 20 Variety called “The Music Goes ‘Round and Around” “a freak tune,” 21 but it put Decca in the black in its second year.
By 1938 the number of jukeboxes would increase tenfold, accounting for 13 million records, mostly at thirty-five cents, a price Brunswick and others had to meet to stay in business. That year Kapp would introduce one of his most telling innovations: record sleeves with cover art. Other Kapp breakthroughs included Broadway cast albums and dramatic recitations, songs and playlets commissioned specifically for records, and liner notes. In 1939 the industry would sell 50 million records; 18 million of them — 36 percent of the entire market — were blue-label Deccas. By then Jack’s enterprise would represent more than a corporation. It was the people’s record company. Consumers went to stores and asked for Deccas, ignoring the competition. Parents handed their children a dollar bill and told them to bring back three new Deccas. Brand loyalty inevitably advanced Bing’s status as the people’s singer.
On August 8, 1934, four days after Decca was incorporated, Kapp conducted the session that would produce the label’s first two catalog numbers, Decca 100 and Decca 101. The performer, of course, was Bing, but the material was unusual, to say the least.
Music sales have always been stoked by new material. In the 1930s songwriters, song-pluggers, publishers, radio, and movies thrived on novelty. For his final Brunswick sessions, Bing featured mostly fresh material, not all from his own movies. “Little Dutch Mill,” a lightweight ditty and one of two he recorded as a favor to its composer, Harry Barris, strutted its way to the top of the sales lists, as did his radiant performance of “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” But Bing also enjoyed hits with more venerable numbers, like “Dinah” and “Home on the Range.” Mindful of that, Kapp decided Decca would offer something so old that it was new: not the latest tunes you heard on radio for free, but quality songs of a sort that charmed generations. For Decca 100 he selected sentimental evergreens by Carrie Jacobs Bond, “Just a-Wearyin’ for You” (1901) and “I Love You Truly” (1906).
Subsequent, uncharmed generations have speculated that he chose such weary songs because they were in the public domain and cost-effective, which was far from true. Bond, who died in 1946 at eighty-four, operated her own publishing house and was a bear for royalties. They were not Kapp’s first choices; he resorted to them only when Bing flatly refused to attempt the sham operetta of Oley Speaks’s “Sylvia” (1908) and Victor Herbert’s “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” (1910), arguing “That’s not for me, that’s for the high-class singers.” 22 Kapp was determined to reposition Bing as the foremost interpreter of American classics. It was not enough just to take away his bu-bu-bu-boo. Hoping that the Bond songs had raised his sights and confidence, he wrote Bing on August 30:
After listening to “Just a-Wearyin’ for You,” there can be no doubt of your ability to do songs of a semi-classical nature as well, if not better, than any singer in the country today. I feel our judgment in this regard is wholly justifiable. There is one thing I’d like to call to your attention. The public today wants an unadulterated Bing Crosby, without any frills. They think that the combination of his voice tinged with a natural feeling which he possesses, is unsurpassed. I agree with them and I think that the frills should be avoided, as well as “hot” songs. You have in your grasp the opportunity to be the John McCormack of this generation. You can achieve that much more easily than you think. By doing what we are discussing and by following thru both on records and on radio, you will reach a popularity, which, in my opinion, will be as great as ever enjoyed by any singer in this country. Think it over Bing. I do not mean to be presumptuous, but the masses want melody combined with soul, which is yours. Nobody can touch you there. 23
Small wonder that by the 1940s, Jack was denigrated by many insiders as Killer Kapp, for killing Bing’s early greatness in a relentless exploitation to sell more and more records. Bing grew up admiring McCormack and other Irish tenors his father played on Edison cylinders, but he had long since become a far more important artist, a first-rank innovator, one of the most influential singers of all time — with the exception of Louis Armstrong, the most forceful that America had ever produced. Through Bing, American popular music came of age and found a beat, learned to strut on the stage of modernity, relaxed the prejudices that isolated pop, jazz, country, and every other idiom he addressed. By 1941 the deeply satisfied Kapp could boast, “If he hadn’t diversified his talent, he would remain just a popular singer of popular songs.” 24
Bing’s unique position, his ability to sing so many different kinds of music, reflected the myriad styles he assimilated. Kapp appreciated that, but in singling out McCormack as a career template and encouraging Bing to deflect hot songs, he hoped to remake him as a smoother, less mannered, ultimately less expressive singer, a kind of musical comfort food. To the degree that he succeeded, he made possible the singular career that allowed Bing to repeatedly remake himself. The erstwhile symbol of Prohibition and now the Depression would be reborn yet a third time as an unchallenged icon of World War II and a fourth time as the gladdening troubadour in an age of postwar paranoia (his peak years) and a fifth time as the avuncular skipper of the affluent 1950s. Had Bing not leveled his style, the mainstream would likely have left him behind, a Dixieland dinosaur bewildered by changing times and not the show-business titan who enjoyed an additional twenty years at the epicenter of American tastes and attitudes. Bing’s renovation was never so complete, however, as to undermine the rhythmic ease that set him apart. A score of Jack Kapps could not have scuttled the self-possession, adroitness, and Armstrongian musical wisdom that permitted him to glide over changing times with discriminating aplomb.
That much was indicated at the first Decca session, when in addition to the Carrie Jacobs Bond songs, which sold modestly, he sang two others for a second disc that sold even more modestly but produced two Crosby classics. These songs were also timeworn, but the mood Bing created supersedes nostalgia. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (1910), one of two vaudeville standards (along with “Meet Me To-night in Dreamland”) by Beth Slater Whitson and Leo Friedman, is a paragon of melodic simplicity, with few notes and many of them dotted halves. Bing cuts the sentimentality with his dauntless clarity, extracting real emotion from the enchantingly artless melody. The flip side, “Someday Sweetheart” (1919), was a jazz standard said to derive from a Jelly Roll Morton melody and encouraged Bing to rock a little.
On the early Decca sessions, Bing was backed by the journeyman Georgie Stoll orchestra, from the Woodbury show. Happily, it kept a low profile on “Someday Sweetheart,” making its first entrance at the release and providing room for the soloists. Bing saunters in on the fourth bar of pianist Joe Sullivan’s introduction and sounds transported, as though back in Chicago in the days of Bix and Eddie. He sings with riveting lucidity and command, alternately nudging the beat and reclining on it. For the instrumental passages, Stoll outdid himself, writing handsome interplay between reeds and brasses and wittily shadowing Bing at the outset of his deftly embellished second chorus, which closes with Bing’s original and much imitated eight-bar vocal coda. 25 It is a masterpiece, though not the sort Jack Kapp was looking for.
For Bing’s second Decca session, Kapp reverted to the usual formula of covering new hit songs, to which the public responded with greater sympathy. Jack chose “The Moon Was Yellow,” a tango in the “Temptation” mold, as the A-side for one disc, but the B-side, Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” stimulated sales and became an all-time standard. Bing was a bit hoarse at that date, which also produced the satisfactory “Two Cigarettes in the Dark” and the lamentable “Sweetheart Waltz.” He exhibited a new and short-lived mannerism that reflected Kapp’s injunction to sing in a style suitable to light classics — a high, sighing head tone to cap phrase endings. For his third Decca session, Bing was back on the terra firma of songs written for his pictures. He scored his first megahit for Decca with “June in January” and delivered a far more expansive interpretation of “Love Is Just Around the Corner” than the one heard in Here Is My Heart; spurred by a lively rhythm section, he swings, embellishes, and whistles. With the release of three new movies during the spring and summer of 1935 (Mississippi, Two for Tonight, and The Big Broadcast of 1936, in which Bing made only a cameo appearance), Bing feared an overload and restricted his recording activities to four sessions for the entire year, focusing mostly on his movie songs, with two crucial exceptions.
An enduring irony of America’s secular religious life is the influence of Jews in promoting Christmas songs, most obviously Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Kapp’s role in this regard was considerable: he overcame Bing’s adamant refusal to venture into the field. In keeping with his determination to offer classical pop from an earlier period, Kapp asked him to record the nineteenth-century hymn “Adeste Fidelis” (a John McCormack hit in 1915) and “Silent Night,” which Whiteman had recorded when the Rhythm Boys were out of town. Bing had sung the latter on his Christmas Woodbury show, but it was one thing to go caroling, even on the air, and another to mix religion with the rank commercialism of records — “like cashing in on the church or the Bible,” he argued. 26 Bing repeatedly spurned Kapp’s requests, insisting that he lacked “sufficient stature as a singer to sing a song with religious implications.” 27
The situation was resolved when Father Richard Ranaghan of the St. Columban Foreign Missionary Society, recently returned from China, was referred to Bing as someone who might help him raise money for his mission in Hanyang. Ranaghan hoped to generate funds at American churches by showing an old film of China depicting famine and orphans. He wanted Bing to underwrite a new negative and arrange for the loan of sound equipment to record a narration. According to Bing, his brother Larry suggested that he also sing a few songs on the soundtrack, which could be released on a special white-label Decca, selling at five dollars, with all royalties going to the mission. Accompanied by celesta and the Crinoline Choir, Bing sang an abridged medley of “Adeste Fidelis,” “Lift Up Your Hearts,” and “Stabat Mater.” But to release a disc, Kapp had to have a B-side. Knowing the money would go to a worthy cause, Bing agreed to record “Silent Night.”
Bing’s readings are surprisingly stiff, with halting rests and strained top notes, but “Adeste Fidelis” — despite his rusty Latin, resulting in a couple of mispronounced vowels — is flavored with a choirboy candor and a lovely mordent on the first syllable of Bethlehem. Having broken the ice, Kapp convinced him to record full-blown versions of “Adeste Fidelis” and “Silent Night” nine months later, accompanied by Victor Young’s orchestra and the Guardsmen Quartet. Oddly, Bing and the choir sing dominum when they mean dominus in the former (not until his definitive version of 1942 did Bing conquer classic Latin), an otherwise cautious but subtly individualized performance. Gilbert Seldes wrote, in 1956, of “Bing’s special endearing quality [that] makes everyone want to appropriate him,” and asked, “how can one take possession better than by seeing the essential more clearly or catching the miraculous trifle that others have missed?” He cited as an example: “A long time ago, when I first heard his recording of ‘Adeste Fidelis,’ I imagined that I caught in the last bar of the song a tiny, delicate syncopation.” He thought it “right and reverential.” 28
Bing was downright cowed by “Silent Night,” with its more profound religious history; it was introduced at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1818. An awkward key does not help him, though Bing’s final chorus is poignant. One imperious reviewer conceded, “His style is reverent and the effect is not as incredible as you might have thought.” 29 According to Bing, the recording generated $250,000 in royalties, but little of it went to Ranaghan’s cause. The missionary was killed in a traffic accident shortly after the soundtrack was made, and Japan’s invasion of China ended contact with the St. Columbans. As a result, royalties were dispersed to sundry charities in the United States and abroad, from convents in India to leper colonies in Africa.
Kapp’s devotion to evergreens received an unexpected boost when Bing inherited the lead in Mississippi, a role created for Lanny Ross, the tenor Paramount hoped to establish as his rival. The film, costarring W. C. Fields and Joan Bennett and boasting a score by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, was just getting under way when Paramount-Publix mutated into Paramount Pictures. Adolph Zukor was kicked upstairs to preside as outlying chairman Barney Balaban became president, and Ernst Lubitsch — a sublime director who thought he could improve the work of every other director — was disastrously miscast as chief of production, replacing Manny Cohen after not quite three years at the helm. Lubitsch survived barely a year, at which point Balaban appointed Y. Frank Freeman head of West Coast operations. But Freeman, a onetime Coca-Cola executive and a southerner with antediluvian racial notions, knew and cared nothing about making movies, so he delegated the job of running the studio to his assistant, William LeBaron.
Balaban himself looked at a rough cut and was so disenchanted by the colorless Ross that he halted production and offered the part to Bing. Director Eddie Sutherland, who remained friendly with Bing after Too Much Harmony, was delighted and so were Rodgers and Hart — but not for long. Lubitsch declared that Bing “was going to be a great artist,” 30 yet he had reservations about Mississippi’s score and expressed them to its producer, Arthur Hornblow Jr. Bing was also displeased. Backed by Balaban, he requested new songs. When Hornblow insisted on retaining the Rodgers and Hart music, Bing came up with a compromise. The songwriting team would provide him with a new ballad, and he would interpolate the minstrel aria “Old Folks at Home,” a Stephen Foster song with an ancient pedigree in the record business. Len Spencer, the first nationally recognized recording star, scored one of the medium’s earliest coups with his rendition in 1892. Until Bing revived it, the song had not been successfully recorded since 1919.
At it turned out, the agreement benefited everyone. The best of the original songs were employed, Foster’s melody did little damage, and “It’s Easy to Remember,” the new ballad Rodgers and Hart were obliged to write, turned out to be a major hit and one of the most beloved songs in their matchless oeuvre. Still, Hart was incensed by Bing’s intransigence concerning “Old Folks at Home.” He declared they would never again write for Bing, who, in turn, declined to record their songs until the patriotic “Bombardier Song” of 1942. A shame all around, though Hart’s antipathy toward the interpolated Foster is easy to understand.
Interpolations were commonplace on the stage and in films. Most of the studios had songwriters under contract who, in exchange for salaries, gave up their publishing royalties. When a studio purchased film rights to a Broadway score, the royalties went to the songwriters, so in order to generate royalties for itself, the studio would replace some of the Broadway songs with those by its own writers, who in many instances were hacks. Needless to say, this galled the Broadway writers. Rodgers and Hart would not hear of it; their contract specifically mandated that they provide all the songs for Mississippi. The Foster song violated their contract and particularly offended them because of its theme of a former slave who longs for the old plantation.
Bing did not see Foster’s song in that light, and he sings the lamentation with tremendous vitality. In his interpretation, it becomes a universal venting of desire for the lost places none of us can ever regain. Yet for all the emotion he wrings from the lyric and despite its undeniable historical appropriateness, his performance is enfeebled by Foster’s minstrel grammar and the allusion to darkies (in later years Bing sang people). In the picture, Fields opines that the song won’t last two weeks because “people can’t remember the tune,” then walks away whistling it. Jack Kapp must have been whistling, too; with that song, Bing led the way to a trove of nineteenth-century public-domain standards, and within a year he, Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, and other Decca artists were reviving them in bunches.
Rodgers and Hart were more insulted than injured when the movie credited Foster’s song, retitled “Swanee River,” to them. 31 But their chagrin should have been tempered by Bing’s renderings of their genuine songs, two of which became number one hits. He uses a touch of parlando on “Soon,” emphasizing his range with high sighs and chesty curves, and delivers the definitive interpretation of the marvelous “It’s Easy to Remember.” Its deceptive simplicity — a string of B flats that arcs to a D natural — and the sloping release suit him as well as the wistful lyric and lulling tempo. A third song, “Down by the River,” elicited an indifferent recording but is sung with great relish in the film, building to a rousing finish.
One fourteen-year-old in North Dakota who never forgot that finish was Norma Egstrom, who saved her pennies to see Crosby movies as an escape from her abusive stepmother. Years later, after she had changed her name to Peggy Lee and become a regular performer on Bing’s radio show, she told him about seeing Mississippi: “He had lost the girl and sang ‘Down by the River’ and I was crying so, because I wanted everything to turn out right for him. And when I told Bing how heartbroken I was, he took me all over San Francisco, one place after another, searching for a pianist who knew that song, and sang it to me. Imagine your idol singing that song to you.” 32
On paper, the film promised a concoction worthy of Ziegfeld: Bing’s songs and W. C. Fields’s comedy. Sutherland, close to both men, seemed the ideal director. He knew that no one could ad-lib or steal a scene like Fields, who, though drinking heavily, was inspired throughout the shoot. In one of his funniest routines, he recounts his battle with Indians (“I unsheathed my Bowie knife and cut a path through a wall of human flesh, dragging my canoe behind me”). Bing, who often broke up during their scenes together, did not mind the upstaging. A longtime fan, he memorized Fields’s best lines. Sutherland grew concerned, however, as the story — a moldy Booth Tarkington play that had been filmed twice before 33 — shifted in Fields’s favor. He felt obliged to warn Bing: “I’m worried now that he’s going to be so funny, he’s going to steal the picture from you.” Bing shrugged it off. “Is it good for the picture?” Sutherland said it was great. Bing told him, “Forget it, it’s got my name on it, what do I care what Fields steals? I’m not a fundamentalist. This is business. If it’s funny, okay. I think he’s great, don’t you?” 34
Still, rumors of rivalry between them were rife. Crosby was reported to have demanded recuts after a preview (the changes he mandated actually occurred when he came onboard), and Fields was said to have disdained his singing. They were, in fact, friends and Toluca Lake neighbors, occasionally playing golf and drinking together. “Fields had real affection for Bing Crosby,” Robert Lewis Taylor wrote. “In turn, Crosby had an idolatrous, filial attitude toward Fields, whom he always called ‘Uncle Bill.’” 35 When Fields went to visit him at Del Mar racetrack a year later, Bing bought him an expensive pair of binoculars. Film preservationist Bob DeFlores recalled that upon visiting Bing’s baronial home in Hillsborough in 1977, he drawled, “Nice little lean-to you have here.” Without missing a beat, Bing provided the citation: “Bill Fields, Poppy, 1936.” 36
The only downside of the production for Bing was that his weight had increased to 190 pounds and he was obliged to wear a girdle, a nuisance he accepted with more equanimity than he did the requisite toupee. By this time, however, he made a point of avoiding the scalp doily by wearing hats in as many scenes as possible. Charles Lang devised several fancy shots — reflections in mirrors, Bing singing through harp strings — and managed to make him appealing even with a mustache and muttonchops, about which he remarked to Quentin Reynolds, who profiled him for Collier’s, “Looks like hell, don’t it?” 37 The story wasn’t much, with Bing as a sensible Philadelphian who refuses to engage in a duel, thereby losing the love of Gail Patrick while earning the adoration of her kid sister, Joan Bennett. (Frank Capra had used the same device of rival sisters and family honor the previous year in Broadway Bill, which he remade in 1950 as a vehicle for Bing.) Reviews were mixed, but despite strong competition in a spring rendered heavily Gallic by Les Miserables and Cardinal Richelieu, it made pots of money.
Paramount was so pleased that it renewed Bing’s contract in a three-year, nine-picture deal, at $125,000 a film, plus a salary of $15,600 for each week past the eighth one devoted to any film, plus a new clause that had become singularly important to Bing. 38 Crosby’s negotiators initially suggested twelve pictures at $200,000 each; they did not expect to get it, but in maneuvering toward common ground, they finally wrangled from Paramount permission for Bing to make one film annually for another studio. That set off fierce competition for his services, with offers coming in from such past associates as Fanchon and Marco, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, Manny Cohen, and film pioneer Jesse Lasky, who had been ousted by Cohen and now vainly sought to launch a production company with Mary Pickford. Bing signed with Cohen, who already owned an interest in his services, to coproduce an independent feature for Columbia Pictures in 1936.
The new Paramount covenant began poorly. One remarkable indication of the studio’s confidence in Bing was its perverse reasoning in deciding to release a turkey called Two for Tonight. Initially, it promised to be a sure-fire production: reuniting Bing with Joan Bennett, Frank Tuttle would direct a farce adapted by George Marion Jr., shot by Karl Struss, and supported by such expert hams as Mary Boland, Thelma Todd, and Ernest Cossart. Resting at Rancho Santa Fe, Bing lost twelve pounds in preparation, while Mack Gordon and Harry Revel wrote the songs. What they produced was a calamity. Tired of the usual froth, Tuttle was preoccupied with adapting Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, one of his best pictures, and allowed Two for Tonight to lurch between screwball comedy and romance with timeouts for music. The romance amounted to little: Bing and Bennett “meet cute” when he rolls downhill in a runaway wheelchair and she is scooped onto his lap. “Going my way?” he asks. “Apparently,” she says. For comedy, Tuttle turned to the silent era for a long, elaborate bout of seltzer-squirting, his homage to a Laurel and Hardy pie-throwing epic. 39
The inchoate script required retouching by several hands, leaching whatever strength it might have had as a satire of the New York stage. The songs were weak, though Bing mined three hits for Decca. He fared less well with his character, a cipher surrounded by lunatics. Once again he is insensible to the good girl’s true love, preferring bad girl Thelma Todd. His singing, however, is electric, despite self-deprecating crooning jokes, whether swinging “From the Top of Your Head to the Tip of Your Toes” or emoting “Without a Word of Warning.”
During post-production, the film was sheared to barely an hour’s running time. If they had cut another forty minutes, they might have had a very good two-reeler. There was talk of shelving it entirely rather than dilute Bing’s box-office clout. Instead, it was slated for late-summer release as a test. Bing was already known to be critic-proof; if audiences would pay to see him in this, a picture guaranteed to elicit bad reviews and negative word of mouth, Bing’s box-office power would be affirmed rather spectacularly. As it happened, Two for Tonight turned a handsome profit and was held over at several theaters. Nor were reviewers uniformly censorious. Graham Greene, writing in the London Spectator, considered it “very amusing and well written entertainment” and described Bing as “attractively commonplace.” 40 On the other hand, Greene disdained the Irving Berlin songs in RKO’s Top Hat, the year’s one indisputably great hit musical, which deservedly trounced Two for Tonight when they played rival theaters in New York.
The year was turning out to be a personal triumph for Bing financially; between records, radio, and movies, he grossed more than $500,000. In other respects, he was treading water. His pictures made money but did little to enhance his stature. Mae West, enjoying her last year as a box-office queen, was Paramount’s top draw, followed by Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, and Bing. Other studios, however, were dominated by their musical stars — Astaire and Rogers at RKO, Shirley Temple at Fox, Eddie Cantor at Goldwyn, Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy at MGM. Weeks before Two for Tonight opened, Paramount sought to make amends by announcing what it considered a classy project. Bing’s next film would be Tony’s High Hat, costarring Metropolitan Opera contralto Gladys Swarthout. Apparently, the studio neglected to consult Bing, who publicly declined. The plot, counterposing jazz and the classics, was a familiar gambit in the 1930s. Bing did not like the story idea and contended that he could not hold his own with an opera star. But Paramount, intent on finding a more credible answer than Kitty Carlisle to MGM’s MacDonald or Columbia’s Met star Grace Moore, convinced Bing to make a test with Swarthout and reannounced the project with a more didactic title, Opera Versus Jazz. After Bing and Gladys sang “Home on the Range” and “Thunder Over Paradise” for the ears of the bosses, the project was nixed. Swarthout was teamed, instead, with John Boles in Rose of the Rancho. Two years later she left Hollywood for good.
The Swarthout episode may have indirectly stung Jack Kapp, ironically enough, considering how closely Paramount’s misguided ambition jibed with his own desire to establish Bing as a singer of light classics. The day Variety printed Paramount’s announcement of Tony’s High Hat, August 14, Bing took out his frustration on Jack in an argument that was recorded and covertly circulated. 41 It was Bing’s first time in the studio since “Silent Night,” six months earlier, and his first session with the Dorsey Brothers in more than two years. The session was brought about by Rockwell-O’Keefe, the agency that had arranged for Bing to take over the Kraft Music Hall. Cork O’Keefe hoped to find a berth on the show for the Dorseys, too. Their band was an obvious candidate, its very sound a reflection of Bing’s musical influence; as drummer Ray McKinley once explained, “The emphasis on the trombones was to give the band a Bing Crosby quality.” 42 Bing had not heard the new Dorsey band, which was playing the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, and as he and Dixie planned to spend much of August at the Saratoga races, Cork hoped to lure him out to listen. When Bing complained that he did not want to brave the crowds or don the hairpiece, Cork suggested a record date.
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were two of the most temperamental men in the music business. Known as the battling Dorseys, they battled chiefly each other and were not exactly enjoying their much touted, celebrity-studded engagement at Glen Island — not with Tommy, the mandarin loner, taking all the bows as conductor and Jimmy, the acerbic tippler, giving him the fish eye from the reed section. One evening, weeks before Bing traveled to New York, Jimmy griped about a tempo and Tommy tromped off the stage, never to return. Thus ended the Dorsey Brothers and commenced two of the most successful bands of the Swing Era. For the immediate future, however, O’Keefe wanted them both on Kraft. He pleaded with Tommy to do the record date, and Tommy relented. He would do it for Cork and Bing, he said, but would not speak to his brother. August 14 was a sizzler, but tempers were cool when Bing arrived. The brothers were happy to be reunited with him, if not with each other, and were primed — both were perfectionists — with solid arrangements (probably by the band’s pianist, Bobby Van Eps) of the five songs from Two for Tonight.
The first few hours were highly productive. Though slightly hoarse, Bing completed the five tunes without incident. Much joy is evident in “From the Top of Your Head to the Tip of Your Toes,” which glistens with Bing’s jauntiness. “Takes Two to Make a Bargain” is a thin number, but Bing and the musicians (Jimmy takes a clarinet solo) are off and running, with Bing rhythmically interpolating the phrase “I’d like to know” and upping the ante in an embellished second chorus. By “Two for Tonight” Bing sounds a bit worn and raspy, but notwithstanding a couple of spent high notes, he phrases with pleasing élan. Then they took a break.
In addition to the Two for Tonight score, he was scheduled to record his number from The Big Broadcast of 1936, Ralph Rainger and Dorothy Parker’s “I Wished on the Moon.” It was his sole contribution to a picture carried by Jack Oakie, Lyda Roberti, and the wonderful Nicholas Brothers. Bing sang two choruses under a full moon in a rustic setting and received top billing. Kapp knew the appealing song could be a hit.
Precisely what ensued in the studio is unclear, though alcohol was evidently poured on fresh wounds. Jimmy was a serious drinker and easier to get along with than Tommy, so it is not unlikely that he and Bing took the break together, consoling each other with their beefs. Bing had two gripes: the Swarthout story, announced that morning, and a fight he was waging at Paramount in an attempt to share in royalties on songs written for his movies. In fact, he was scheduled to meet with Manny Cohen in Saratoga to discuss their imminent production, for which all the songs would be written by independent songwriters and published by Rockwell-O’Keefe’s music wing, Select, guaranteeing Bing’s participation. At Paramount Bing’s demand was blocked by Lou Diamond, the hard-working, generally well liked supervisor of Paramount film shorts and the head of Famous Music, one of the studio’s two music-publishing subsidiaries. Though owned by Paramount, Famous operated independently; Diamond, unmoved by Bing’s pull, refused to cut him in on songs — a perquisite that later became standard in Hollywood contracts, including Bing’s. It didn’t help that Bing and Diamond could not stand each other. According to Sid Herman, Diamond’s successor at the firm, they were incapable of discussing the matter. Famous Music controlled publishing rights for “I Wished on the Moon.”
After the break, while Kapp was absent, Bing informed the band that he would sing only a single chorus, like in the old days when he was the male vocalist who appeared in the middle of an instrumental performance with a vocal refrain. During the rehearsal Kapp walked into the control booth and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Bing groused that he was unable to sing more than a chorus because he was hoarse, a fact amply demonstrated by his work that day. Jack tried to convince him that he could no longer get away with a solo refrain, but Bing, who never raised his voice in an argument, remained childishly rigid as the band sat around, waiting for the final decision. The altercation was recorded — at Kapp’s instigation, perhaps with the intention of later showing Bing how badly he had behaved. But it also shows how funny Bing could be even when sloshed and threatening.
Jack: Come on will ya, Bing? Sing.
Bing: You wanna make this thing…
Jack: I want you to sing.
Bing:… the way we rehearsed it or not?
Jack: Sing the first chorus. I don’t care what you do after that, but sing the first chorus.
Jack: Well now, you’re a little bit arbitrary….
Bing: No, I don’t think so. I think you’re being arbitrary.
Jack: I leave it to the jury.
Bing: Man gets a record free [crowd laughter] with a beautiful arrangement, he don’t want, you don’t want my vocal chorus.
Jack: [shouts over him] Hey, Rockwell-O’Keefe, come on out of there, let’s get with the game. Come on.
Bing: [shouts back] Let’s go over to Victor! Let’s go to Victor! They’ll take it! Come on.
Jimmy Dorsey: Brunswick will take it, grab it up in a minute.
Jack: Yeah, Brunswick will, too.
Bing: You want it that way?
Jack: For Christ’s sake, come on.
Bing: Jack, you’ve got fifteen minutes.
Jack: All right, you can make it in six.
Bing: You want it that way?
Jack: Come on, sing the first chorus.
Bing: The boys don’t want to sit around here…
Kapp: They do.
Bing:… and listen to this endless bickering. They want to either get it made or go home.
Jack: I know! They want to go home!
Bing: And I’m sure I’m similarly minded. And I won’t even make any excuses.
Jimmy: Let’s make “Dippermouth.”
Bing: All right. [crowd laughter]
Jack: Come on, Bing. Sing the first chorus.
Jack: You might as well do it right.
Bing: Let’s not do it at all.
Jack: But why do that? Seems like it’ll be a terrific hit.
Jimmy: Who is this guy anyway, what happened?
Jimmy: That guy.
Bing: You know the son of a bitch.
Jack: Oh, what’s the difference? You’re in the picture, aren’t you? Son of a bitch or no son of a bitch, you’re still in The Big Broadcast.
Bing: I might get myself taken out. What do you think of that?
Jack: Yeah, well, I’ll tell you what you do. If you get yourself taken out, we’ll make it two ways. One my way and one your way. If you get yourself taken out, I’ll release your way. If it stays, you gotta make it my way. Bing: Is that a bargain for you? [crowd laughter] How do you like that? Would you like a dance record of “Wished on the Moon” with a vocal chorus, me singing it, or not? No? G’bye.
Jack: If you turn back the clock four years, it’d be entirely different. We can’t do it now. I’m telling you we can’t do it. C’mon, c’mon.
Bing: I’m on my way, Jack.
Jack: C’mon, c’mon, Bing.
Bing: Nooo, what have I got to do? Swear out an affidavit? You want that, Jack?
Jack: Listen, do whatever you want, Bing. I’m not going to argue with you. This means more to you than it does to me.
Bing: Jack, it don’t mean a fuck to me.”
Jack: Well, you sing it in The Big Broadcast. The picture will…
Bing: I think it would be a nice record with just a swell arrangement and a vocal chorus.
Jack: In all my experience, I’ve never seen you in such an arbitrary mood. Bing: Well…
Jack: And I want to tell you, you just —just because you happen to have it in for a fellow by the name of Diamond.
Bing: No, that’s not it — that’s partly it, yes.
Jack: I say this, though, it has nothing to do with the song. He can be a son of a bitch, but if the tune is great, you should do it right.
Bing: It’s got nothing to do with it.
Jack: Yes, it has.
Bing: My reasons for doing it this way are threefold.
Jack: All right, give me the first one.
Bing: First I’m very hoarse…
Jack: [shouts to control booth] Are we getting this down?
Bing:… this afternoon and I don’t think I can sing any more than one chorus and do it well. Secondly, the guy who controls the tune is a pirate.
Jack: Well, supposing he is?
Bing: Thirdly, I think the record as discussed and arranged would be an interesting salable piece of property which you can well afford to have on your shelves, [crowd laughter]
Jack: That’s where it would probably stay!
Bing: Now, if you want it that way, say yes and if you don’t, say no and let’s stop fucking around.
Jack: Up to you, Bing.
Bing: I’m telling you what I want to do.
Jack: I can’t argue with you if your mind is made up.
Bing: Been made up for days.
Jack: It has?
Bing:… talked it over the phone, we discussed this at great length.
Jack: Who did you discuss it with?
Bing: Uhhh, T. J. Rockwell. Might as well put him in the middle.[much crowd laughter]
Jack: Do it any way you want. I don’t care. What can I do?
Bing: Maybe I can’t even do it, Jack. I don’t know. 43
He did it, barely, his tones taut and breaking. Years later Kapp, who preserved the recorded contretemps in Decca’s archives, liked to complain that Bing won the argument but that the record did not sell. In fact, “I Wished on the Moon” was a substantial hit, outselling the Two for Tonight songs and crowning Decca’s sales list before the movie was released — a telling example of a song’s appeal overriding a singer’s failings and possibly gaining a touch of mystique from the surprising brevity of the vocal. Subsequent disputes between Bing and Jack are neither documented nor rumored. Perhaps Bing was genuinely chagrined by the episode. In any case, he doubled his recording agenda for the next year, resuming Kapp’s program in November with two long, back-to-back sessions, scoring a number one hit with “Red Sails in the Sunset” and doing nearly as well with “On Treasure Island” (a bewitching performance marred by an uncharacteristically corny Victor Young arrangement) and the songs from the movie on which Bing was currently working.
Bing’s sessions, almost all with Jack present if not presiding, became known as the easiest in the business. He would arrive early, chew gum and smoke his pipe, read the racing form or newspaper, run down the material if it was new to him, and stick a pencil behind his ear. When he and the band were ready, he stepped over to the microphone, on which he habitually parked his gum, and, on average, completed five songs in two hours. He coined a couple of descriptive phrases: a Kappastrophe was an arrangement Jack disliked; those Jack approved were Kapphappy.
Bing and Dixie returned to California in early September so that Bing could begin preparing for Anything Goes, the hottest ticket on Broadway and the most expensive Crosby project to date. The movie rights alone cost $100,000; the negative cost topped $1.1 million. If Larry Hart had a snit over “Swanee River,” imagine how Cole Porter must have felt about Hollywood’s treatment of his worldly musicals. In New York he was toast of the town. In Hollywood he was just another ink-stained wretch whose songs were not controlled by Famous Music. When RKO turned his The Gay Divorce into The Gay Divorcee, it canned his entire score except “Night and Day.” Anything Goes was another story. It was Porter’s masterpiece. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse had written an outstandingly droll book, set entirely on an ocean liner, but it was Porter’s urbane words and music that made it a theatrical event. Paramount retained only four of the show’s twelve songs, discarding “All Through the Night” and commissioning a ching-chong Chinese minstrel number called “Shanghai-De-Ho.”
Censorship was at issue. The Motion Picture Production Code, introduced by Will Hays in 1930, had proved largely ineffectual (even Hays’s perverse resolve, agitated by the Hearst papers, to squelch Mae West had came to little) until the summer of 1934, when he hired Catholic journalist Joseph Breen as an enforcer. No sooner did Paramount purchase the rights to Anything Goes than Breen was told that the plot involved a gangster who impersonates a priest while toting a violin case with a machine gun. “As you know,” he cautioned the studio, “recently official censor boards have been deleting scenes of machine guns in the hands of anybody but police and other properly organized bodies.” 44
Breen ultimately acceded to the machine gun, but not the “definitely suggestive” 45 “All Through the Night” (“you and your love bring me ecstasy”), and warned that the showstopper “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” might be interpreted as a burlesque of religion. After Breen went to work on the title song, Paramount hired the unrenowned Brian Hooker (a lyricist for Rudolf Friml!) to revise Porter’s lyric. Yet despite three rewrites and submissions, “Anything Goes” was relegated to background music for the credits. “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top” were cleansed of allusions to cocaine, Minsky dancers, and Holy Moses, for what Breen termed “obvious reasons.” 46 The Leo Robin—Frederick Hollander interpolation (one of three), “Shanghai-De-Ho,” offended him, too, not because it burlesqued Chinese people, but for the “plainly vulgar meaning” 47 of the line “Soon the chows and Pekinese will stay away from cherry trees.”
The script was trimmed of dozens of words and phrases (“hot pants,” “we’ll rub him out,” “snatch”) and situations, including one in which it could be construed, the censors grumbled, that a woman passenger was asking directions to the ladies’ room. Not all was lost. With Lindsay and Crouse adapting their own book, they salvaged much of the original story, and the cast was outstanding: Ethel Merman re-creating her role of chanteuse Reno Sweeney; Charlie Ruggles, deftly handling the comedy (though the New York critics lamented the absence of Victor Moore, who created Public Enemy No. Thirteen on the stage); Ida Lupino, underemployed but enticing; and Bing, a costume-changing stowaway pursuing Lupino and pursued by Merman.
Because Bing’s role had to be revised from that of a juvenile, the new songs were intended to play to his strengths. Two succeed: “Sailor Beware” is an energizing though pointless diversion, and “Moonburn” represents Hoagy Carmichael’s first movie sale. (Bing helped another old friend by arranging a bit part for Eddie Borden, who toured with Crosby and Rinker in the Will Morrissey revue.) Hoagy’s song employs period slang — “Get away from that window before you get moon-burned,” Roscoe Karns told George Raft in Night After Night — and offers a balmy interlude, though the version heard in the picture does not compare with the jamlike record Bing made for Decca with pianist Joe Sullivan, guitarist Bobby Sherwood, and an unknown bassist. “Truck on down,” Bing tells Sullivan, and they do, for a “hot” classic.
The movie is no classic. Despite its ups, it suffers from a discursive, flattened feeling that restrains the zaniness. Director Lewis Milestone, justly celebrated for the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, was an odd choice for a musical; he promptly returned to dramas. He employs fancy shots and wipes, abetted by Karl Struss’s exquisite photography, but the tempo is uneven and the remaining Porter songs are stiffed, either because Merman is too brazen or Bing too controlled. They excel musically and comedically on “You’re the Top” yet fail to indicate a dalliance; nor do they make much of the (bowdlerized) lyric’s polished wit. The critics were generally pleased. Variety wondered whether Bing’s jazzy singing was added “for the special benefit of the boys at the Famous Door,” a New York jazz club. 48 Time loved it, including the new songs, describing it as “rapid, hilarious and competently directed by Lewis Milestone.” 49 The Legion of Decency also thought it “hilarious” and “a good picture” but refused to recommend it because of “suggestive dialogue and double-meaning lines.” 50
Audiences flocked to see Anything Goes, extending its run in New York, Chicago, Hartford, Kansas City, Birmingham, Denver, and elsewhere. The picture received an enormous boost from Bing’s new sponsor, Kraft, which plastered the title on delivery trucks and ordered salespeople to spread the word. Paramount arranged tie-ins with magazines and special promotions in menswear and music shops. Though radio continued to hurt theater receipts, the ether did wonders for Bing, and not just in marketing synergy. Anything Goes was the last picture he made before taking over Kraft Music Hall. His subsequent movies reflected an augmented stature. Kapp proved that Bing could be America’s voice. KMH repositioned him as every American’s neighbor.