(Pictured: Bing Crosby with Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and an unidentified pianist, circa 1944.)
For most people, Bing Crosby’s voice is one of the Christmas decorations. At least two generations of Americans don’t really know that he was one of the most popular human beings of the 20th century—a multimedia star before anybody knew what that was, on records, on radio, in the movies, and on television.
Especially on records. Crosby’s singles chart entries take up 11 pages of Joel Whitburn’s marvelous Pop Memories: 1890-1954, although to find his first charted recordings, you have to check the listing for bandleader Paul Whiteman. Crosby joined the Whiteman band as a singer in 1926, and sang on Whiteman’s recording of “Side by Side,” which made the primordial charts in 1927. He appears, but is not always credited, on various Whiteman singles through 1930. He joined the Gus Arnheim band after that, and sang on Arnheim’s “I Surrender, Dear” in the winter of 1931. He scored two #1 singles under his own name that summer. That fall, CBS signed him for a 15-minute weekly radio show, and his fame began to snowball.
I count something like 36 #1 songs for Crosby between 1931 and 1948, and that doesn’t count the two additional times “White Christmas” made #1 after its initial run at the top in 1942 (1945 and 1946). Some of those #1 records were once among the best-known performances in American popular music: “Moonlight Becomes You,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Swinging on a Star,” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Crosby charted steadily through 1954. His final major hit was “True Love,” recorded with Grace Kelly in the movie High Society, which made #3 in 1956. He scored at least 335 pop chart entries under his own name, not counting a string of hits with the Andrews Sisters and those with various big bands, credited and not.
But “White Christmas” is the hit that will be most closely associated with Bing Crosby until time shall be no more. In terms of chart performance, it’s undoubtedly the #1 song of all time, all eras, all genres. After its initial 11-week run at #1 (which, according to Whitburn, started on October 31, 1942), it returned to the pop charts for 19 of the next 20 Christmases, missing only in 1952. After 1962, it continued to appear on Billboard‘s special Christmas charts through 1970, missed 1971, and charted in 1972 and 1973. Billboard discontinued its Christmas singles chart after that, but when the chart was revived in 1983, “White Christmas” not only charted again, it made #1.
Although “White Christmas” is Crosby’s most famous Christmas song, several others are widely heard this time of year. There’s his 1977 duet with David Bowie on “The Little Drummer Boy” of course, along with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and his version of “Jingle Bells” with the Andrews Sisters. And then there’s “Silent Night.” It was actually Crosby’s first Christmas hit, recorded in 1935, although a version he cut in 1942 is more famous. For a long time, “Silent Night” was as well-known as “White Christmas.” When Casey Kasem did his Christmas countdowns in 1971 and 1973, he ended each show with it, even though it didn’t place among the 40, simply because a recap of America’s all-time Christmas favorites would have been inconceivable without it.
Crosby’s “Silent Night” is not so popular anymore, but maybe it should be, because it is magical. For the two minutes and 40 seconds it takes to play, as Crosby sings tenderly with John Scott Trotter’s orchestra and Max Terr’s mixed chorus behind him, you are transported . . . home.
Home. Back to childhood, back to Christmas Eve, to the tree and the gifts beneath it. To a candlelit church and the thought of a baby in a manger. To when your parents were young and your grandparents were alive. To a place where there is nothing to fear and everything will be all right. To a place you see so clearly with your mind’s eye, and it’s a good thing too, because the eyes you use the rest of the time are filling with tears.
Or maybe that’s just me.
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