Bing Crosby - Biography
By J Poet
Bing Crosby was the biggest name in American entertainment for almost 50 years, the link between Al Jolson and Elvis Presley, and the first multi-media superstar. An all round entertainer – singer, actor, comic, musician – he played a leading role in the development of records (he was the first to record on tape), radio and television as popular mediums. He made more records than any other singer in history, cut the all time best selling record, “White Christmas,” with almost a billion copies in print, had over 368 hits under his own name and more #1s than The Beatles or Presley, earned 23 gold and platinum singles and albums, was part of the first radio network show on CBS in 1931 and was an Oscar winning #1 actor. At the height of his radio career, Crosby had an audience estimated at 50 million, almost half the population of the US at the time. He was comfortable with jazz, pop, country, religious, and classical music with an easy-going charm that made him a natural with audiences of all ages. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1962, the first time it was presented.
Crosby was born into a musical family in Tacoma, Washington in 1903. When he was seven, his love of a newspaper column called the Bingville Bugle earned him his nickname. Crosby’s father played mandolin, led the family in sing-a-longs and bought one of he first phonographs for the family. Crosby saw Al Jolson perform in 1917, but didn’t seem particularly interested in show business. At Gonzaga University he was an average student, but started playing drums and got good enough to join a jazz band, Al Rinker’s Musicaladers. He wasn’t a great drummer, but when the band heard him sing they made him the vocalist. The band broke up but Crosby and pianist Rinker started performing as a duo. Rinker’s sister was Mildred Bailey, soon to become a popular jazz singer. She lived in LA. Rinker convinced Crosby to join him on an LA jaunt and after their first audition they had a manager and became regulars on the west coast vaudeville circuit. In 1926 Paul Whiteman, leader of America’s leading jazz band, (Black musicians were still barred from white venues in the 20s.) hired them and paired with another pianist, Harry Barris. The trio fronted the Whiteman band as The Rhythm Boys, and became the first successful jazz vocal group. In 1928 Whiteman had a #1 hit with “Old Man River” with a vocal by The Rhythm Boys. Crosby was always a bit of a joke and his antics aggravated Whiteman. The Rhythm Boys got fired, and Crosby left the group to go solo.
Crosby got signed to Brunswick Records in 1931 and had 10 of 1931’s biggest hits including “Out of Nowhere” and “I Found a Million-Dollar Baby.” Crosby was soon performing and recording with Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and singing songs written for him by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Johnny Mercer. In 1930 and 31 he made three films, but it was in Paramount’s The Big Broadcast (1932) that he became a movie star. He stayed with Paramount for the next 20 years in hit films like The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Anything Goes (1936), The Road to Singapore (1940) with Bob Hope, The Road to Zanzibar (1941) with Bob Hope, Holiday Inn (1942) which introduced “White Christmas,” The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949) and Here Comes the Groom (1951). His hit records kept coming too and when Jack Kapp left Brunswick to start an American branch for England’s Decca Records, Crosby went with him and became the label’s most enduring star. Bing! His Legendary Years, 1931 to 1957 (1993 MCA) is a four CD box that collects most of his pre-LP singles from Brunswick and Decca.
Crosby was already popular on radio co-starring with The Carl Fenton Orchestra on CBS, but in 1936 NBC lured him away to host Kraft Music Hall. Crosby made it into a variety show, showcasing his upcoming recordings and hobnobbing with the biggest stars of the day. Singing on the radio with a microphone allowed Crosby to develop his inimitable intimate style, which became the template for all singers to come. In the 30s and 40s Crosby made movies, records and helmed his radio show and had many gold records including “Sweet Leilani.” “New San Antonio Rose,” “White Christmas” and “Don't Fence Me In.” In 1944 Crosby won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a priest in Leo McCarey’s Going My Way
In 1947, he invested $50,000 with John Mullin who was starting Ampex a company experimenting with reel-to-reel tape recording. With an early tape machine, Crosby pre-recorded his radio shows and edited in canned laughter and applause, and took out bloopers. He gave an Ampex to Les Paul, who promptly started using it to produce multi-track records. Tape revolutionized recoding and remained the standard until the advent of digital technology. The Vintage Years (2007 JSP) is a four-disc box with 106 performances from Crosby’s radio shows. In 1938 the new ABC network lured Crosby away from NBC giving in 30,000 dollars a week for a new show that was then syndicated to other stations.
During WW II, Crosby’s benefit appearances raised over 14 million dollars for War Bonds and he was tireless in giving live performances for the troops both in the US and overseas. He made many V discs, 78-RPM radio transcriptions that were shipped to GI radio stations around the world, some of which are collected on four-disc box The V-Disc Recordings (1999 Collector’s Choice).
In the 50s, when LPs finally became the standard for recording Crosby took advantage of the new medium. Rock’n’roll was already starting to become the dominant form of music, so Crosby stretched out and recorded what he pleased including Some Fine Old Chestnuts (1953 Decca, 1999 Koch), Selections from White Christmas (1954 Decca), Bing: A Musical Autobiography (1954 Decca, 2006 Avid), High Society (1954 Capital), the movie soundtrack with Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Louis Armstrong, song by Cole Porter and the #1 Crosby/Kelly duet “True Love,” Songs I Wish I Had Sung the First Time Around (1956 Decca), Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings (1956 Verve, 2001 Verve) a jazzy collection of standards, Bing and Satchmo (1960 MGM) with Louis Armstrong, Great Country Hits (1963 Capital, 2001 Collector’s Choice), country hits given the laid back Crosby charm, That Travelin’ Two-Beat (1964 Capital, 2001 Collector’s Choice) with Rosemary Clooney, 1972 Bing 'n' Basie (1972 Emarcy, 1991 PolyGram) an excellent date with Count Basie’s big band, and That's What Life Is All About (1975 United Artists) a great album with two duets with Johnny Mercer and A Couple of Song and Dance Men (1975 United Artists) with Fred Astaire. The United albums were later released as part of The Complete United Artists Sessions (1997 EMI).
In the late 60s and 70s, Crosby was in semi-retirement, although he continued to record and produce hit Christmas Specials for TV. He spent a lot of his latter years playing golf and going to the Del Mar racetrack, which he helped build. On his last Christmas Special, A Merrie Olde Christmas (1977), he sang a duet with David Bowie on “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s been reported that when he was asked to sing with Bowie by the show’s producers, Crosby said, “Who’s he?” A clip of the awkward performance is available on DVD on Bing Crosby’s White Christmas All Star Show (2007 Quantum Leap). Crosby died while playing golf in Spain on October 14, 1977.