The death of Michael Jackson and the short attention span entertainment history

With Michael Jackson’s death, we see how the attention span of pop culture regarding entertainment “history” is just centered in the ever fleeting moment of what is considered (and how I hate this word) “relevant” at the time. What’s considered “relevant” is what those who are talking about “history” can relate to. That usually pertains to someone or events that are current, as it’s all about “Now!”

Remember that America is a country that replaces grand old magnificent architecture with generic shopping malls and cheap pre-fab construction, which is also “Now!” So on cable “news” television shows where the question is asked, “Who’s the greatest and biggest entertainer of all time?” I’m sure we can all guess who wins that pseudo-historical contest: Michael Jackson. Because he just died, and with all the fanfare surrounding his passing, Michael predictably wins the top vote over the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

What’s even more disingenuous than Jackson being rated higher than the Beatles or Presley without any analysis of factual historical data to back it up, is that just a few years ago, I heard scores of musical critics referring to Jackson as not being “relevant” any longer. Oh geez. He was yesterday’s news because he didn’t sing through vocoder pitch correction like Chris Brown, or shoot anybody and/or get shot, like a rapper. But suddenly, because his death is a sensationalized media event with all of the obligatory controversy needed to boost ratings, he is now once again deemed, “relevant.”

Even though Jackson holds the records for the biggest selling album of all time with Thriller, both Elvis Presley and the Beatles have had more number one records than Michael. In total, both Presley and the Beatles have sold more records as well. But let’s put all three of them aside for a moment and look at two other factors in the debate of who is king.

There are two other major 20th century phenomenons who have been forgotten in this supposedly historical media analysis of who’s the biggest and the greatest – and those two are Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Most of you could probably buy Frank Sinatra as a contender for the crown, but Bing Crosby!?!

I bet some of you are not even sure who Bing Crosby actually is, except that he’s the guy who sang White Christmas, which by the way, was the only song to ever enter the American pop charts 20 separate times, from 1942 to 1962. Before I lay the true stats on you, let me say that I am not particularly a fan of Bing Crosby’s, but I am a fan of Michael Jackson.

As I Tweeted on Twitter a few days ago, Michael and I share the same birthday and we grew up only ten minutes apart. Plus, when my father was the president of the local musicians union, he booked the Jackson’s for some shows long before Michael become famous. Energetically, I have always felt a connection with Jackson.

However, separate from my likes and dislikes, I am passionate about wanting entertainment/musical history to be told accurately, which is something that hardly ever happens. I’ve witnessed it personally being done to me, especially in Chicago, where revisionist history is at a shocking high. My own historically provable contributions to musical history have been attempted by many to be erased in Chicago, or at the very least, greatly trivialized.

First, in real history, not pop culture history, Bing Crosby was the king of entertainment in the first half of the 20th century and can arguably be considered the top entertainer of all time. He was the first to ever be a major force in the development of three emerging mediums back then: recordings, movies, and radio broadcasting. Crosby conquered all three and merged them together.

Simply as a recording artist alone, it is estimated that Crosby made over 2000 commercial recordings, which is far more than any other singer in history – even 400 more than Sinatra. With 38 number one records to his credit, Bing scored more number ones than anyone else in the 20th century. From 1927 and 1962, he scored 368 charted records under his own name, with an added 28 as a vocalist with various bandleaders, for a grand total of 396. With Sinatra at 209, Elvis with 149, and the Beatles having 68, no other artist even remotely can compete with Crosby. By 1980, Bing had sold 400 million records, and the number has greatly increased since then to over a half a billion. In addition to that statistic alone is that most of those sales occurred when the world was infinitely less populated and the recording industry was far smaller than during the times of Presley, the Beatles, and especially the heyday of Michael Jackson in the 1980’s.

As a film actor, Bing has sold an estimated one billion, seventy-seven million tickets, and is rated as the third most popular film actor ever, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. Crosby was an Academy Award best actor nominee three times and won once. He introduced 14 Academy Award nominated songs and won for 4, which is more than any other film star ever. From the years of 1915 to 1980, he was the only film actor to be the number one annual box-office attraction five times, while between 1934 and 1954 he appeared in the top ten 15 times. A staggering 29 of the 55 feature films in which he starred between 1932 and 1971 placed in the top-10 grossing pictures of the year.

As a radio star, Bing’s radio show attracted an audience of 50 million, which was simply unheard of. (Again, remember that the world was less populated then.) He appeared on approximately 4000 radio broadcasts, with nearly 3400 of them being his own programs. From 1931 until 1954 on network, and from 1954 until 1962 in syndication, Crosby was a major radio star longer than any other performer in history.

He was also the first person to have radio broadcasts recorded to tape, and was even taken to court by NBC for doing so. After Bing won that court battle, other entertainers began doing the same thing and recorded their own radio shows, which then became an industry standard. Billboard magazine referred to Bing’s daring move and subsequent victory to be the most important entertainment story since the invention of talking pictures.

So popular was Crosby, that during the Second World War, he raised an unequaled $14,500,000 in war bonds and also raised millions for charity by creating the first and longest running celebrity pro-am golf championship, where he played host for 35 years.

So, if we look at the stats, Bing Crosby should certainly be considered the king of entertainment, surpassing Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. So why isn’t he universally considered to hold that crown?

It’s because that as an icon, he was already an older man when he died in 1977, unlike Elvis, Jackson or John Lennon, who all died young, and people hardly look back through time to find the truth. There’s always the sense that those who identify with and relate to a time period want to immortalize THAT period, as they feel it belongs to them – and that means making their icon or icons the biggest and the best, even when it isn’t historically accurate. Hypothetically, if their idol is the biggest and the greatest, they can vicariously be a part of that number one position as well. So, just as I’ve experienced in Chicago, people make up history as they go along which is designed to suit their fancy, and if enough people say something, then it becomes perceived as fact.

Keep in mind that Sinatra and Crosby must be considered in any accurate debate over who’s the biggest entertainer of the 20th century, not just the names of Elvis, the Beatles, and Jackson. With all of these legends, they have had an incalculable impact on culture in similar and varying ways and have changed the world at large. However, defining and quantifying that impact is somewhat a matter of opinion, and unfortunately, a popularity contest.

If you’re a fan of Jackson’s, then he’s the best and vice versa with Elvis. Again, I’m not a particular fan of Bing Crosby’s even though I respect his greatness and talents. But in this media circus regarding Michael Jackson’s death where history may be revised once again, someone needs to advocate for the historical facts – and if we look at what is provable, Bing Crosby wins that contest, hands down.

What is so unfortunate to me is that the very definition of the term “history” is supposed to deal with what happened long before as it actually occurred, not just now or in recent memory — and revised to suit people’s fancies at that. As our culture becomes ever more opinionated, disposable, fickle, and immediate, the sense of accurate, dispassionate entertainment history becomes more and more lost to the sensationalistic, inaccurate media explosions and exaggerations of the moment.

Bing Crosby statistics from bingcrosby.com

21 Replies to “The death of Michael Jackson and the short attention span entertainment history”

  1. By the way, in the interest of keeping entertainment history accurate — and you are absolutely right about the manner in which entertainment “experts” handle it — no one kept hit charts before 1936. The “Your Hit Parade” radio program was the first to do it. All of that stuff in Joel Whitburn before that date is invention — while there are some sales figures, there were no charts. It wouldn’t make much of a difference in Bing’s case — record sales were poor during the depression; in 1932 the whole industry only shipped 125.000 units (!) But Bing was one artist during that time that did sell. — Uncle Dave

  2. I think this issue is more imporatnt to artists who don’t get the recognition they deserve (thinking of anyone?) rather than those of the stature of the ones you mention. If you’re going to define “history”, define “greatest” while you’re at it. I would say “influential” is more imporant to me. Crosby’s statistics are otherworldly, but I would argue that Sinatra in the ’50s was far more influential in terms of advancing the idea and expectations of pop singing. Presley was more influential than either because his populaity kicked the new form – rock’n’roll – into true mass appeal. The Beatles changed the music world in so many ways I hestate to even mention; they are the most influential act ever. Brian Eno’s famous statement about The Velvet Underground highlighted how influence can vastly outstrip sales. But of course, so much of the actual evaluating that goes on IS a popularity contest – there are more young people than us, and we can only take comfort in knowing that A. Some of them have heard and will hear good music, and B. The time will come when THEY’LL be scratching their heads. By the way, I love Crosby. I think his problem was that he didn’t overuse substances, beat up photographers, get caught in compromising situations, shoot anybody or die young; he just went to work and did his job with quiet dignity. He let the music do the talking, and he was really saying something.

  3. I personally like how even as recent as June 23, Michael was being spoken of as a has been. Commentators were amazed by the fact that his tickets did sell out for his now not happening tour. None of them thought he would finish this tour, whether or not he could finish it. Sad. Maybe all these accolades being heaped on him could’ve saved him if they’d been offered while he was still alive.

  4. I feel so…young. Of course, I knew of Bing Crosby but had no idea of the degree of his presence. Thanks for the history lesson.

  5. Ewolf – I appreciate your comments. I felt passionate about looking at the situation accurately. Jim

  6. You have given me thought to ponder Jim. Thanks for letting me know so much of Bing. I actually still have some 45’s of his songs.

  7. I enjoyed reading your blog – very articulate. I also agree with your comments. What saddens me the most is the short memory we have developed in this country largely due to the news media manipulations of fact and history.

  8. To BingCorsby.com — I really tried to represent what really has occurred and appreciate your comment. Thanks! Jim

  9. I recall reading a Bing Crosby quote which went sort of like this (please correct me if I misquote):

    “They say that Sinatra has a voice that comes along once in a lifetime, but why does it have to be in my lifetime?”

  10. Well said. I would add that Sinatra’s biggest influence was Crosby. Upon hearing of Bing’s death, Frank referred to him as “The idol of my youth and the father of my career.” Dean Martin went so far as to say that everyone who ever sang into a microphone owed a debt to Crosby. Martin idolized Bing, and obviously was influenced by him; Dean was a hero of Elvis’, who in turn was idolized by Lennon & McCartney, who have influenced just about everyone in some way. Tony Bennett, another Crosby acolyte, referring to Crosby’s fame in a 1999 PBS interview said, “Just imagine something five times stronger than the popularity of Elvis Presley and the Beatles put together.” It’s amazing that this one time icon, who was a multi-media superstar long before the term was coined, has become so completely forgotten.

  11. I am a Sinatra and Crosby fan and I do appreciate much of Jackson’s stage persona. However, before you also get snagged by the revisionists, you might want to consider the influence Al Jolson had on Jackson, Sinatra and Crosby. You will find that Jolson trumped both Crosby and Sinatra in many of the statistics noted and both acknowledged his influence on their singing careers.

  12. Great article. I also wanted to add that such legends as John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello cite Bing Crosby as an influence and are great fans of his music. John Lennon had a juke box filled with Crosby records, and Bing’s “Please” is said to be the influence for the Beatles “Please Please Me.”

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