Sunday 23 April 2017

Dear Bing ...

A Dublin record-shop owner tasted life in Hollywood when superstar Bing Crosby became a pen pal. Over the years, they exchanged over 400 letters and became firm friends, writes Declan Cashin

Nat King Cole, posed, in dressing room, 1959. (Photo by Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images)

Declan Cashin

Few singers have captured the sound of Christmas better than Bing Crosby. Think of 'We Wish You The Merriest', his 'Little Drummer Boy' with David Bowie and of course, 'White Christmas', still the best-selling single in history.

Fewer people still could claim to be close pals with the Oscar-winning actor and multi-million-selling crooner, much less a man from Glasnevin, north Dublin.

But George O'Reilly was a long-time pen pal of Crosby's, exchanging some 400 letters throughout the decades.

What's more, George and Bing met up several times in London and Dublin, before the Irishman jetted off to stay with the singer in his Hollywood mansion, and hang out in the recording studios with his famous pals, such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

George even gave Bing a Christmas song -- composed by two Irish men -- to record on an album.

Just how that remarkable friendship came about is explored by broadcaster Ronan Collins in a new radio documentary.

George, now in his mid-80s, was well-known in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s as a showband manager, record-shop owner and manager of the Crystal Ballroom.

The pair's friendship started in the pre-rock 'n' roll years of 1953-1954, when George started writing fan letters to Bing, having obtained an address through his record store contacts.

Luckily, Bing was an inveterate letter writer. He rarely spoke on phones, even for international calls, preferring instead to hand-write personal dispatches, or carry around a small recorder in his pocket to dictate missives to his secretary.

For whatever reason, Bing took a shine to George's fan mail, though as Ronan tells 'Weekend': "Bing was as much a businessman as he was an entertainer. He had a great feel for communications and keeping in touch with people from all over.

"His contact with and for Ireland was George O'Reilly."

Through his friendship with Bing, George soon pulled off an insanely glamorous coup: getting Nat King Cole to visit Dublin in 1955 to open George's new record store on Tara Street.

Entrepreneurial George had asked Bing if he would do the honours, but the star was tied up filming 'High Society' with Grace Kelly.

So, instead, Bing wrote to Cole -- his favourite singer -- who was on tour in England, and asked if he would stand in instead.

Sure enough, Nat King Cole agreed to pop over to Dublin to cut the tape. On the day, he signed records and had a meal upstairs with George. "Once I knew Nat King Cole was coming, I immediately closed my shop so I could put up signs reading, 'Grand Opening with Nat King Cole'," laughs George.

Bing later wrote to George saying Nat King had a great time in Dublin, and particularly liked a present George had given him of a clay pipe from Patterson's shop on College Green.

The letter exchanges between the pair continued for a number of years, until one day, in the late 1950s, George received a telegram from Bing asking to meet him in the Savoy hotel in London on a Saturday afternoon.

Needless to say, George made his way to London, and waited in the grand foyer of the hotel for his pen pal.

As George recalls in the documentary: "There was a kerfuffle at the door and I saw Bing walk in and go to the counter to cash some American Express cheques.

"The next thing I knew, he comes over to me and says hello. 'How did you know?' I asked. 'You look Irish, first of all,' Bing replied. 'And secondly your initials are on your briefcase.' I had brought a briefcase full of records for him to sign, and 'GOR' was on the side of it."

They met again in 1961, when Crosby was in London making 'Road to Hong Kong' in Shepperton Studios.

Sure enough, George has photos of himself and Crosby walking down Regent Street and Oxford Street, shopping and discussing the affairs of the world.

Crosby himself was of Irish extraction (his mother, Catherine Harrigan, was second-generation Irish-American), and indeed he recorded many a Blarney-ified 'Oirish' track in his day, including 'Galway Bay', 'Isle of Innisfree', and 'Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?'

George had been pestering Bing to make a visit to Ireland, but the singer's schedule never seemed to allow for it. Eventually, however, it worked, and Bing arrived here later in 1961.

When word got out to the papers about George's friendship with Bing, the Dubliner found himself taking a call from the JFK-appointed American ambassador to Ireland, Grant Stockdale, saying he wanted Bing to stay at the US Embassy during his visit.

That night, George called Bing to relay the offer. After a short silence, Bing said: "I guess we can't refuse the ambassador."

As he was leaving Ireland, Bing insisted that his Irish friend come and visit him in Los Angeles, and in January 1962, George arrived at the Crosby residence in Holmby Hills, Hollywood. Usually, Bing preferred his guests to stay in nearby hotels -- at his expense, naturally -- but George was the exception.

The singer's secretary, Lillian Murphy, later told George that he was the only person ever allowed to stay in Bing Crosby's house.

George stayed for two days on that occasion, but made several more visits to LA throughout the 1960s.

On one such visit, Bing asked George if he'd like to see Dean Martin recording in Universal Studios down the road. George's typically Irish response -- in the affirmative -- was, "Christ and his mother".

Bing wanted an early night, as he was due in studio the next day, so he asked his driver Leo to take George down to the studio and introduce him around.

Bing had called ahead to Dean to tell him about George, and soon after he took a seat near the orchestra at the back of the studio, the Rat Pack 'King of Cool' strolled over and said, "George, Bing told me to look after you tonight, so what-ever you want, just give me a call".

Just as Dean took to the stand to record, the door burst open and in came Frank Sinatra, his then-fiancée Julia Prowse and an entourage of about six or seven minders.

Frank ended up causing a commotion by accidentally knocking conductor Nelson Riddle off the stand. George joined them all for a drink afterwards.

Bing always put a lot of stock in his friendship with George, and indeed trusted him so much that, on George's recommendation, the singer hired an Irish girl, Bridget 'Bridie' Brennan, to be nanny to his three children with actress Kathryn Grant.

One of those children, Mary, would grow up to play Sue Ellen's sister Kristin in 'Dallas' -- the woman, as trivia fans will know, who shot JR Ewing in the infamous 1980 episode of the show.

Bridie, from Borrisokane in Co Tipperary, took up the position in California in 1961 and was considered a member of the Crosby family until her death in 1973.

George's friendship with Bing also transformed the fortunes of another Irish woman. He was staying in the singer's home one time when Bing told him he was recording a Christmas album, and asked if George knew of any material that might be suitable.

At the time, George was managing singer Maisie McDaniel -- who would go on to be a showband star -- and had with him a copy of a song she had recorded called 'Christmas Candles'.

Bing liked Maisie's track, which was written by Irish composers Fred O Donovan and Vincent O'Dea, and arranged to record a version of it for his album the next morning.

Bing would later perform the song many times as part of his festive oeuvre.

George and Bing didn't see much of one another in the early 1970s, but in 1976, George convinced the singer, a late convert to concert performances, to come to Dublin for some live gigs.

Bing went on to play a week of shows in the Gaiety Theatre.

In September 1977, the singer arrived in England for a series of farewell appearances. Though ill and frail, he still managed to record his Christmas special with David Bowie, as well as doing two weeks in the London Palladium.

Bing then went on to the Brighton Centre for three nights. George says he saw him perform in Brighton on his first night. It was the last time he ever saw Bing alive.

After his last UK gig, Bing flew to Spain for a golfing holiday, where, just after 6pm on October 14, 1977, the singer died from a massive heart attack, age 74.

Today, George is still in regular contact with the Crosby family, and has assembled a personal collection of Bing's radio broadcasts with the family's express approval.

These are not for sale, but stand rather as testament to an unlikely friendship, one that started, incredibly, from a simple fan letter.

'The Man Who Knew Bing Crosby' will be broadcast Christmas Day at 4pm on RTE Radio 1

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