Documentary Recalls The Talented, Difficult Life Of Bing Crosby Bing Crosby has long been the voice of the Christmas season, and now he's the subject of a new American Masters documentary. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Kathryn and Mary Crosby about his legacy.
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Documentary Recalls The Talented, Difficult Life Of Bing Crosby

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Documentary Recalls The Talented, Difficult Life Of Bing Crosby

Documentary Recalls The Talented, Difficult Life Of Bing Crosby

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bing Crosby is the voice of Christmas still.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")

BING CROSBY: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know.

SIMON: But those who hear him during the holidays might not appreciate that Harry Lillis Crosby was one of the most significant forces in 20th century entertainment. Bing Crosby - not Elvis, The Beatles or Frank Sinatra - is the most recorded performer in history. Forty-one number one records, more than those other guys too. But he was also a hugely popular movie star, jug ears and all, and a man who's weekly radio show had an audience of 50 million. No entertainment show gets anywhere near that kind of following today. He was also a skilled musician and a visionary investor. But Bing Crosby was also a talent who could be bedeviled by drink and grief for the loss of his sons. Next week, PBS presents "American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered." We're joined now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco by Kathryn Crosby, who was Bing Crosby's second wife. Thanks much for being with us.

KATHRYN CROSBY: I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: And their daughter, Mary Crosby. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARY CROSBY: My pleasure.

SIMON: Mary Crosby, what do you think there was about your father's style?

M. CROSBY: Well, you know, he was an incredibly modest man. He described himself as an ordinary guy who could carry a tune. So I think part of it is that everybody could identify with him. People thought that, you know, if they tried it maybe they could sound like him. There was no effort involved - apparently - to what he did. And I think that resonated with everybody.

SIMON: Got to ask you about "White Christmas." So here Irving Berlin pens these songs for the show "Holiday Inn," and I gather that "White Christmas" was not supposed to be the big breakout hit song, was it?

K. CROSBY: Well, what I was told was that Bing said when he heard it the first time, this one will be OK.

SIMON: Well, and now it's the best-selling record of all time (laughter).

M. CROSBY: Yeah, I think he called that correctly.

SIMON: Why do you think that song persists?

K. CROSBY: During World War II, so many American young men were overseas and they were all homesick. Most of them were only 18 or 19. And everybody wants to be home for Christmas.

SIMON: Mary Crosby, let me ask you this question directly. Was Bing Crosby a better father the second time around with your family than with his first four sons, do you think? We should note for our audience that Bing Crosby's four sons in his first family all died at an early age and had problems.

M. CROSBY: I wasn't there the first time. But I would say that the greatest gift that we had was that he was there because when they were being raised he was at the top of his career and he was gone all the time. And when I grew up, he was pretty retired. And he didn't know what to do with a girl, so he taught me how to hunt and fish and play baseball, all of which worked really well because I'm kind of a hopeless tomboy. So I would say we got a lot of him. One of the things that I'm very happy about with the "American Masters" is that they deal not only with what an extraordinary artist he was and the contribution he made musically and as an actor, but they also deal with him as a human being. And they deal with the elephant in the living room, which was Gary's book.

SIMON: We should explain. Gary Crosby, one of Bing's sons, said in the book that they were beaten as young boys.

M. CROSBY: And then later after the book came out, he had lunch with me and said well, you know, it really didn't go down that way, but they said that if I made a really big deal out of it that I'd sell a lot of books. So we're really glad to clean that up.

SIMON: Kathryn Crosby, what would you like people to appreciate about Bing Crosby as an artist these days?

K. CROSBY: He's sang a beautiful melody in time and he loved to harmonize. He harmonized with anybody that would even take a swing at it.

SIMON: The duets with Louis Armstrong are amazing to hear and see.

K. CROSBY: Yes they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW YOU HAS JAZZ")

B. CROSBY: (Singing) If you sail.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing Sailing, sailing.

B. CROSBY: (Singing) Over the sea.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Will you wait for me?

B. CROSBY: (Singing) Take my tip, they're all Molto hip in Italy.

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Well, arrevederci. As for France.

B. CROSBY: (Singing) Oh (singing foreign language).

ARMSTRONG: Yes, believe it or not.

B. CROSBY: (Singing) I do believe. I do indeed.

ARMSTRONG: The Frenchmen all prefer what they call le jazz hot.

B. CROSBY: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: Because you can - you can forget what a great jazz singer Bing Crosby was.

K. CROSBY: Well, you can maybe, but Louis never did.

SIMON: (Laughter). All right, fair enough. And I was very touched by your words when he died on the golf course in - I guess it was Spain, wasn't it?

K. CROSBY: It was, it was. He won $10 on that round, you know?

SIMON: I didn't.

K. CROSBY: They played 18 holes. And they walked all 18 holes and then he fell dead. But he won the $10, he and his partner, which is pretty fabulous to go out that way, playing your favorite game and winning $10. I love that.

SIMON: May I ask - is this time of year - I mean, my gosh we hear Bing Crosby's voice in our heads this time of year over and over. And it's going to get - I almost said worse.

(LAUGHTER)

M. CROSBY: It's going to get better.

SIMON: It's going to get better is what I meant to say. But of course, that's Bing Crosby. To you, it's your late husband and father. Is there something bittersweet about this season for both of you?

M. CROSBY: For me, the first five years it was so painful. It hurt so much to go to a grocery store and hear him singing just because I missed him so much.

SIMON: Yeah.

M. CROSBY: And now it is just a joy. It makes me happy that people are still listening to him. And of course, I think one of dad's gifts was that whatever he sang it made you feel good. And so now this is a time of year that I really deeply love because I get to hear him all the time, everywhere.

SIMON: Kathryn Crosby and Mary Crosby. "American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered" premiers Tuesday on most PBS stations. There'll be an encore presentation on December 26. I get to say Merry Christmas...

K. CROSBY: And to you.

SIMON: ...And happy holidays to the Crosby's.

M. CROSBY: Thank you.

K. CROSBY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY HOLIDAY")

B. CROSBY: (Singing) Happy holiday, happy holiday. May the calendar keep ringing happy holiday.

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