Bing Crosby's reign outlasted all of the heirs apparent.They came, they went, they did or didn't acknowledge what they owned him, but even when Crosby's own popularity softened and his record sales slipped, he remained somehow, somewhere, comfortingly there. He wasn't merely a star, nor merely the greatest star. He was an abiding presence.

You realized what the sound of his voice meant to you when you heard it from a gaudy jukebox in a two-bit bar on that lonely holiday away from home. You heard "White Christmas" and you were home again. You could warm your hands on the sound of his voice.

What was wonderful was the way he could inspire sentimental binges without giving in to sentimentality himself.He kept his dignity even when we went to pieces, and his blitheness and jauntliness became more than just tradmarks or habits; they were statements on the advisability of not getting carried away.

"All I do is, I just do the same old thing every time," Bing Crosby told an interviewer in 1975, "except each time it's a different song."

A year later he tried analyzing his style for The London Times. "I wanted to sing conversationally, to reach people with the meaning," he said. "I don't think of a song in terms of notes. I try to think of what it purports to say lyrically. That way it sounds more natural, and anything natural is more listenable."

Crosby was more natural and more listenable than any other singer. This was music blithe as friendly chatter, free of bombast or pose, direct and intimate and personal.

In liberating songs from protentious artsiness and formal cant, he ironically helped make popular song one of the greatest arts of all, all the greater for its utter accessibility - an art closed to no one. Crosby was a democratizer, an exemplary egalitarian, and he became a singing spokesman as well, a summation of American pop as well as its immaculate practitioner.

In his 50-year career, The London Times noted, Crosby's voice was "heard more often by more people than that of any mortal in history."

Yet he remained the most unassuming of institutions.

When, during a celebration of his 50th anniversary in show business, he took an unfortunate tumble from a tricky stage in Pasadena last spring, photographers besieged the stage and looked down at Crosby, lying injured in a pit below them. They were asked not to take any photographs of him at that time, and they obliged. Bing Crosby was a head of state; he kept his dignity, and we willingly cooperated in the maintenance of this legend.

Crosby was able to triumph at a stroll, to conquer casually and without looking the aspiring conqueror. There is almost no evidence to support wayward suspicions that his breeziness and nonchalance were fakes; there seems genuine modesty in his decision to title an autobiography, "Call Me Lucky."

You would never have caught him clawing his way into gossip columns or elbowing for attention on talk shows. He didn't drag his emotional problems through the newspapers, and he didn't posture when he sang emotional songs. Yet he could trigger an emotional response more deftly and efficiently than some performers with hearts on their sleeves and sobs in their throats.

In the movies, particularly the Road pictures he made with Bob Hope, Crosby showed a genuine comedic gift that was relaxed and spontaneous. In an interview last year, Hope recalled that the clowning on the set was so legitimately jolly that, "Guys used to fight to get to work on the pictures."

The Hope signed nostalgically and said, "God it was fun."

There were vague plans to do one more Road picture, to be called "The Road to Tomorrow," but this project never materialized (though Hope said a script had been written and Crosby once joked that the picture should have been titled "The Road to oblivion."

Oblivion was and probably always will be quite beyond his grasp.

In "The Country Girl," more than in his priest movies ("Going My Way," "The Bells of t. Mary's). Crosby proved his abilities as a dramatic actor, though he didn't endanger his acting technique with acting lessons: he hadn't endangered his singing technique with singing lessons either. But in key moments of "Country Girls," as the alcoholic husband of Grace Kelly, Crosby may have called upon his own early bouts with the bottle in making this portrayal convincing and alarming.

It's easier and more pleasant to remember him romping with Hope, however. This was a public show-biz friendship that remained entertaining and never grew forced or fatuous in the Road pictures, the jokes were often at Crosby's expense. During one of the films, Hope suddenly hears violins welling up on the soundtrack. He looks into the camera and says, "Okay folks, you can go out for popcorn now. He's going to sing again."

One respected Crosby particurlary for the things about his life that he kept private. Though he played a priest at least three times in the movies, his Catholicism remained something personal; he never really tried to drag God into the act in self-aggrandizing show-biz style. He didn't tell audiences they were "beautiful" nor congratulate us for having the good taste to love him. He preferred to think he was the fortunate one, he was swinging on a star.

In recent years, after a long periiod of virtual retirement, Crosby stepped softely back into the spotlight. Sometimes he turned up in unlikely placees. When one of his favorite subjects, tequila, was discussed in the rock magazine Rolling Stone, Crosby wrote a friendly letter to the editor disputting a few points about that delicacy. It was published and Crosby's signature followed by an editor's note for the disbelieving: "This is the real Bing Crosby."

Late last year, Crosby's career was dissected in of all forums The Village Voice, where write Gary Giddins chastized Crosby somewhat for having forsaken pure jazz in order to occupy the middle-of-the-road and win over his sweeping populist constituency.

Then Giddens suggested that Crosby was not only a troubador but an ombudsman. "He reminds me of a line in an old Carl Reiner-Mel Brooks routine about a pop singer who says of his audience, 'I am them, they are me, we are all singing, I have the mouth."

Giddins called Crosby "the ultimate pop icon" and concluded. "He is us, and we are him, only he has the mouth."

There will probably never be another singer as widely popular as Crosby. Part of the fallout of the media expolsion is a fractionalized electorate; the great audience has become many audiences. Where Crosby's influence will end we can never know, however. Whenever a singer tries to speak to us individually, and not to a man beneath a pedastal, Bing Crosby's legacy will be perpetuated.

"I'll never have a hit again," Crosby once told The Los Angeles Times, "Thereis no chance, I'll keep on singing as long as there's a market and as long as the voice doesn't alter much, I'd just like to do a job now and keep in touch with the industry. It's been my life for 50 years. It's been a long, long pull and I've had great results. I can't complain if it stops tomorrow."

It stopped yesterday. But he is still us, and we are still him, and we will be for many Christmas to come.