The Original Crooner
One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Bing Crosby revolutionized the art of vocalization, creating a style so identifiable, it is inexorably linked to his name. For, he was the original crooner. In the minds of many of his innumerable fans, he is the only crooner of merit. But there is little doubt that he was among the first and certainly the best. Through much of his career, which spanned fifty years, Bing Crosby was the most prominent singer in the world.
As an actor, he was the number-one box office draw for five years in a row; among the Top Ten film attractions for fifteen years. He was featured in over one hundred films; nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor on three separate occasions- winning once. Twenty-three of his films were among the Top Ten box office hits during the years of their release. He teamed with long-time friend and associate, Bob Hope, in seven popular Road To… pictures, made over the course of ten years (with one later reprise). In addition, Bing Crosby was a huge radio star, making regular appearances on over 4,000 radio shows, between 1931 and 1962. Beyond that, Bing appeared on over 300 television programs from 1948 through 1977, the year he died.
But it is his recordings for which Bing Crosby will be best remembered. All tolled, he recorded over 2000 titles, more than any other artist in history. He recorded 1700 songs for commercial release as a solo performer, 368 of which made the Top 40 charts, with 42 hitting Number 1; while selling over 500 million records in his lifetime, second only to Elvis Presley.
Harry Lillis Crosby was born on May 3, 1903, the fourth (among seven) child of Harry Lowe Crosby and Catherine Helen (Harrigan) Crosby, in a house built by his father in Tacoma, in northwest Washington. The Crosby family was said to have been of Danish origin; purportedly of Viking ancestry. Harry’s great-grandfather, Nathaniel Crosby, helped to found Portland, Oregon and eventually joined in the settlement of Olympia, Washington (the eventual state capital) in the late 1840s.
Young Harry’s father worked as a bookkeeper for the county treasurer in Tacoma. But a change in political administrations caused Harry Sr. to lose his job, forcing him to look for work outside of Tacoma. In 1906, the Crosby family moved to Spokane, in eastern Washington, where Harry’s father found work as a bookkeeper for the Inland Brewery.
In 1909 Harry was enrolled at nearby Webster Grade School. There he developed a friendship with a neighbor, Valentine Hobart. The boys shared a mutual admiration for a comic strip called the “Bingville Bugle,” whose leading character was named Bingo. Like Bingo, Harry’s chief feature were his protruding ears- prompting Valentine to begin calling Harry by the nickname of “Bingo From Bingville.” Later, his name was shortened to “Bingo.” The nickname quickly caught on among Crosby’s other childhood friends. In time the “O” was dropped from his moniker, making it “Bing.” From then on, Bing Crosby was the name by which he was known.
The Crosby family maintained a deep love for music of all kinds. The family had a phonograph and records (something of a novelty in Spokane, at that time). Every Sunday night, the family gathered for an evening of song- with each of the members contributing standards and popular songs of the day. At the urging of his mother, Bing briefly enrolled in vocal lessons, but he soon wearied of the confining nature of the instruction and quit. However, a turning point occurred in 1917, when fourteen year-old Bing met his idol Al Jolson ,whom had come to Spokane as part of the touring company of a revue called Bombo. Thusly inspired, Bing went on to sing in the Gonzaga High School jazz band.
Bing entered Gonzaga College in Spokane in 1920, with the intention of one day becoming a lawyer, working in a law office in his spare time. While attending Gonzaga, he bought a set of bass drums, becoming so proficient, that he was invited to play and sing with a local band known as the Juicy Seven. The combo played local dances and parties and by all accounts were not very good. However, after a couple years with The Juicy Seven, Bing was approached by Al Rinker, whose group, The Musicaladers, a much more polished troupe, was in need of a skilled drummer. Rinker asked him to audition for his group, a try-out which Bing easily passed.
Al Rinker came from a musical family himself. His mother, Josie (a member of the Coeur D‘Alene Indian tribe), was known to be a skilled pianist who could play well-known classical pieces, as well as Scott Joplin rags with equal aplomb. And Al’s sister, Mildred, was a singer, who was briefly married to a man named Ted Bailey. Though she soon divorced, she kept his last name, becoming Mildred Bailey. Mildred left Spokane in 1920, eventually finding work as a singer in speakeasies throughout the Northwest and Canada. She later remarried, to a renowned bootlegger, moving to Los Angeles in the early ‘20s, where she established herself as a singing sensation.
Meanwhile, back in Spokane, Bing found so much success with Al Rinker and the Musicaladers, he decided to drop out of college and quit his job at the law office. The Musicaladers continued to perform regularly throughout eastern Washington until the end of Summer 1925, when the group disbanded. Shortly thereafter, Bing and Al Rinker migrated to Los Angeles, California, in Rinker’s topless 1916 Ford Model-T automobile convinced they could succeed inm the music business. Upon their arrival in LA, they headed straight for Mildred Bailey’s house in the Hollywood Hills.
At that point, Mildred was an established singing star in the Los Angeles clubs, singing bluesy numbers made popular by the likes of Bessie Smith, Connie Boswell and Ethel Waters. Al and Bing stayed with Mildred for three weeks, while they sought to find their footing in the thriving Southern California music scene. For her part, Mildred generously introduced the fledglings to her diverse connections, taking them to various nightclubs and acquainting them with all her musician friends. The following month, the twosome auditioned and were hired by the Fanchon & Marco Time Agency to appear in a vaudeville revue called The Syncopation Idea. In April 1926 they joined Will Morrissey’s Music Hall Revue, an engagement which lasted through August of that year.
While the revue was still playing in Los Angeles, the Paramount Publix chain signed Al and Bing to perform in stage programs, which accompanied film screenings at two theaters: The Grenada in San Francisco and the Metropolitan in Los Angeles. While Crosby and Rinker were performing at their second engagement at the Metropolitan, Jimmy Gillespie, Paul Whiteman’s manager, happened to see them perform and recommended them to Whiteman. Eleven months from the day they left Spokane to seek their fortune, Al and Bing signed a contract to sing with Paul Whiteman’s band, the most popular touring orchestra in the world.
However, the duo’s initial forays with Whiteman’s band were not particularly well-received, especially in the East where the orchestra was headquartered. Al and Bing had developed something of a “hot jazz” vocal style which was not embraced by East Coast audiences, more accustomed to the histrionic performances of traditional vaudvillian “belters” such as Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker.
In February 1927, with Al and Bing’s career in jeopardy, it was suggested that they team with Harry Barris, a singer and piano player with the band, who was also in danger of being fired. With nothing to lose, all three were receptive to the idea. The trio quickly learned a couple of songs (including the Barris composition, “Mississippi Mud”), replete with three-part vocal harmony and dual piano accompaniment. Soon the group was being billed as the Rhythm Boys. Within a month, Bing was cutting his first solo record, “Muddy Water,” for the Victor Corporation. A month after that, in April of 1927, the Rhythm Boys made their first record with Whiteman, “Side By Side” (also on Victor). The Rhythm Boys also participated in more than a dozen recording sessions independent of Whiteman; the first, in June of 1927, resulted in two records.
With catchy songwriting and clever stage routines, the trio soon became one of the orchestra’s most popular attractions. Bing took the lead vocal on one of Whiteman’s biggest records of 1927-28, “Ol’ Man River,” from Jerome Kern’s musical, Showboat. In June of 1929, the Whiteman orchestra moved its operation to Los Angeles to begin filmingThe King Of Jazz for Universal Pictures. It was at that time that the Rhythm Boys played the Montmartre Café—an exclusive nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard, where celebrities often convened.
The Rhythm Boys quickly became the toast of the Hollywood film community.
The trio contracted with booking agent Leonard Goldstein, who immediately booked them for a stint at the prestigious Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a booking which had distinct advantages. The owner, Abe Frank, had built a soundstage and radio studio in his club. Radio shows were broadcast, nightly, from 10PM to 12PM along a Pacific Coast network, which spanned from Los Angeles to Seattle to Denver. Entertainment at the club was diversified, featuring two full orchestras, conducted by Gus Arnheim and Carlos Molina, as well as other musical acts.
At the Cocoanut Grove, the Rhythm Boys became one of the hottest tickets in town. Besides the Montmartre crowd, who had followed them there, they became extremely popular with local college students. Enthusiastic response to Bing’s vocal stylings led to solo projects- on stage and in the recording studio- with the Arnheim orchestra.
Soon thereafter, problems began to arise between the Rhythm Boys and Abe Frank- owing to the fact that Bing, concentrating increasingly on his solo career, was either late or absent entirely from many of his scheduled performances with the Rhythm Boys. In retribution, Frank began docking the trio’s pay, which led to Bing and the boys walking out on their contract. Abe Frank retaliated by convincing the Musicians’ Union to blacklist the trio. Unable to find work, the Rhythm Boys broke up.
A solo career seemed like a reasonable alternative for Bing, who recorded “I Surrender, Dear,” (written by Barris) for Victor in January of 1931, with accompaniment provided by the Arnheim band. It was to be his first solo hit song. It was at that session that Bing first utilized the newly developed ribbon, or “velocity” microphone, only recently introduced by RCA. It was an extremely precise instrument, with high sensitivity and very selective directionality, perfectly suited for a low-key crooner such as Bing Crosby. He would use the same model microphone for the remainder of his career.
Bing’s first move as a solo performer was to hire his brother Everett as his personal manager. With the help of an industry attorney, Everett was able to have lifted the ban that Abe Frank brought about against Bing and the Rhythm Boys. With the ban rescinded, Everett secured a contract from Mack Sennett (of Keystone Kops fame) for Bing to appear in six film shorts, all shot in 1931, each based on a song with which he was associated.
At about the same time, Bing began recording for Brunswick Records. By the end of 1931, he had rung up several of the year’s biggest hits, including “Out of Nowhere,” “Just One More Chance,” “I Found a Million-Dollar Baby” and “At Your Command.” In September of 1931, Bing commenced a popular CBS radio series. In less than a year, the show was among the nation’s most popular, earning Bing a lead role in 1932’s The Big Broadcast, a film responsible for bringing radio stars such as Burns and Allen to the screen.
By the middle of the decade, Bing Crosby was among the top ten most popular film stars in the industry. His musical success had, if anything, gained momentum during the same period, producing some of the biggest hits of the years 1932 through 1934, including “Please,” “Dinah,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “Love in Bloom” and “June in January.”
Late in 1935, Bing signed a contract for a radio show with NBC called Kraft Music Hall, an association which lasted into the mid-’40s. After his first musical director, Jimmy Dorsey, left the show, Bing’s songwriter friend, Johnny Burke, suggested John Scott Trotter (previously with the Hal Kemp Orchestra) as a possible replacement. Trotter permanently secured the position after his arrangements for the film Pennies From Heaven produced the title song: the biggest hit of the year 1936. Trotter continued as Bing’s bandleader and orchestra arranger, well into the ’50s.
A few months later, Bing followed “Pennies From Heaven” withthe biggest hit of 1937, “Sweet Leilani,” from the film Waikiki Wedding; indicating the musical course his career would take for the next twenty-five years. Though he had already recorded cowboy novelty songs (such as Johnny Mercer’s “I’m An Old Cowhand,”) earlier in the ‘30s, as well as the occasional song of inspiration (the Christmas song “Silent Night, Holy Night” sold over ten million copies), Bing began to cover a much wider variety of material, including popular songs of every genre in contemporary music. Many of his country western covers, such as “New San Antonio Rose,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “San Fernando Valley” and “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” became big hits.
At the dawn of a new decade, Bing Crosby was at the peak of his career. Three of the biggest hits of 1940 (“Sierra Sue,” “Trade Winds,” “Only Forever, “) were followed later in the year by the first of his popular Road To films with Dorothy Lamour and old friend Bob Hope. Crosby and Hope had first met in 1932, when the two both performed at the Capitol Theater in New York. They reunited later in the ’30s to open a racetrack. After Bing and Bob performed for him a few old vaudeville routines, a producer at Paramount Pictures was prompted to find a film property for the pair, generating The Road To Singapore, followed by The Road To Zanzibar in 1941, The Road To Morocco in 1942 and The Road To Utopia in 1945. In 1944 Bing won an Academy Award as Best Actor, for his portrayal of Father O’Malley in Going My Way, and was nominated again in 1945 for a reprise of the role in The Bells of St. Mary’s.
More musical success followed in 1941 with the introduction of the biggest hit of Bing’s career, “White Christmas.” Written by Irving Berlin for the film Holiday Inn, released in 1942, the single was debuted on Bing’s radio show on Christmas Day, 1941. Recorded the following May and released in October, “White Christmas” stayed at number one for the rest of 1942. Reissued near Christmas for each of the next twenty years, it became the best-selling single of all time, with total sales of over thirty million copies. Crosby’s popular success continued as World War II drew to a close, with hits such as “Swinging On A Star” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” topping the charts in 1944. He remained the top draw at theater box-offices through 1948, his fifth consecutive year at number one. Still, his 1947 release, “Now Is the Hour,” proved to be his last song to top the charts.
Bing spent the ‘50s releasing a series of very popular albums. His output dropped off in the ‘60s and ‘70s , though he still regularly recorded albums (he even cut a version of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” in 1968), while making the occasional television appearance. In 1977, just months before his death, he recorded a Christmas special for British television, which featured David Bowie, who sang “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing. On October 14, 1977, Bing had just completed a round of golf at a course near Madrid, Spain, when he collapsed of a massive heart attack, dying instantly.
For many, Bing Crosby is considered the finest vocalist of all time. Few will dispute his position as one of the greats in American musical history. For decades, his unique vocal style and savvy sense of showmanship mesmerized a generation of music fans, making of him the most popular entertainer in the nation. His numerous achievements will never be surpassed. His permanent place in the fabric of American culture is secure.