Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Harry Lillis Crosby, 3 May 1903, Spokane WA; d 14 October 1977, Madrid, Spain, on a golf course) Singer, actor. The nickname came from his fondness at age six for "The Bingville Bugle", a funny-paper section carried by the local Sunday paper. At local Gonzaga U. he played drums in a band, then teamed with Al Rinker (Mildred Bailey's brother) in a vaudeville act; they drove to Los Angeles (it took three weeks in a Model T Ford) where they were hired by Paul Whiteman '26, then added Harry Barris to make the Rhythm Boys, a trio; Bing often sang solo. The first record was 'I've Got The Girl' '26. They left Whiteman and sang at the Coconut Grove '29 with the Gus Arnheim band; Crosby began recording solo and Barris's song 'I Surrender Dear' (with Arnheim) helped land his first radio show '31; he chose and helped co-write his theme 'Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day)' (by Fred Ahler and Roy Turk, who wrote it for him). At the Coconut Grove there would be a card game under way, Crosby listening to the band's broadcast on the radio for his cue to rush upstairs; the story is that he once announced to a nationwide audience, 'Deal me in, boys, I'll be right down.' He was a party animal and a heavy drinker, but before long he was making a lot of money and realized that it might not last for ever. From a large, poor Irish family with a domineering mother and a weak father, he had received a Jesuit education in the classics; he had enormous self-control, yet was so comfortable in himself that his guy-next-door image was no more than the truth. He settled down to look after his career and became very wealthy, though he was never money-mad: he loved to gamble, and often displayed generosity; he organized a five-hour benefit for tubercular pianist Joe Sullivan in May 1937 at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium which was broadcast, including several singers, guitar duo Carl Kress and Dick McDonough, and nine bands.

Pop Memories calculates that Crosby was easily the best-selling recording artist of the whole period 1890-1954, with well over 300 hits; German soldiers in WWII called him 'der Bingle'. He began steeped in minstrelsy, influnced by Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Ethel Waters; he added his own technique and virtually invented modern pop singing, a natural insouciance, cannily informal phrasing and a husky voice (nodes on his vocal cords caused the effect of 'singing into a rain barrel'. Mildred Bailey or Tommy Dorsey called him 'The Groaner' as early as 1932.) In fact he was one of the first to understand the microphone, then a recent invention, singing to it as though to an individual listener. All this succeeded both the leather-lunged style of earlier vaudeville and the wimpish crooning of the 1920s; Rudy Vallee said years later that he knew he was old-fashioned when he heard Crosby, who was ubiquitous on the radio in a way unimaginable now: radio stations would create their own Crosby programmes using his records. He took over the Kraft Music Hall 1936-46, with guests ranging from vaudeville to opera, plus comedy; Crosby's ease made the whole show sound like it was ad-libbed. Tony Bennett said, 'Bing Crosby taught everyone how to be cool. He wore a sweater. He played golf. He invented the art of intimate singing. He defied categories. Before Crosby there were Irish singers, jazz singers, folk singers. Crosby was an American singer.' During the 1940s Crosby joked, 'Frank Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime. Why did it have to be my lifetime?' But when all the bobby-soxers were screaming over Sinatra in that decade, Crosby still had several times as many hit records. Sinatra became an even better interpreter of the best songs, but there will never be another American singer in the sense that Crosby was; the nation and the music business are too fissiparous.

He broadcast for 30 years; about 2,600 records and 120 LPs sold an estimated 400 million by '75. He appeared in the Whiteman film King Of Jazz '30, featured in Big Broadcast Of 1932, first starring role in College Humor '33; over 60 films, many with first-class original songs written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, Nacio Herb Brown and others, including Going Hollywood '33, Mississippi '35 (score by Rodgers and Hart), Pennies From Heaven '36, Holiday Inn '42 (the Irving Berlin score included 'White Christmas'), Going My Way '44 (won an Oscar), White Christmas '54, High Society '56. There was a series of comedy/musicals with close friend Bob Hope (maintaining a friendly feud until the end): Road To Singapore '40, To Zanzibar '41, To Morocco '42, To Utopia '45, To Rio '47, To Bali '52, To Hong Kong '62.

Early records on Brunswick included 'Please', 'Learn To Croon', and a trail-blazing attempt to present all the songs from a show (Scandals of 1931 by Henderson and Brown) on a 12" 78, the chore shared with the Boswell Sisters. He was under personal contract to Jack Kapp and moved with him from Brunswick to the new Decca label; the million-sellers began with 'Sweet Leilani' '37 (Oscar-winning song from film Waikiki Wedding); carried on with 'San Antonio Rose' '40 (with brother Bob Crosby's band: the hit with the Bob Wills song was a boost for the western swing genre; he also covered other country songs), 'Swingin' On A Star' '44 (Oscar winner by Burke and Van Heusen from Going My Way, Andy Williams in backing group; the song was later included in songbook for schools); 'I Can't Begin To Tell You' '45; 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'/'The Spaniard That Blighted My Life' were duets with Al Jolson '47, both songs written '11; 'Whiffenpoof Song' from c.1893 with Fred Waring, also '47; 'Galway Bay' '48. He had 46 top ten hits '40-51 and others with the Andrews Sisters. Other solo no. 1 hits included 'Only Forever' '40; 'Sunday, Monday Or Always' '43; 'I Love You', 'I'll Be Seeing You' both '44; 'It's Been A Long Time' '45 with Les Paul. And the Christmas songs: 'White Christmas' recorded '42 was said to have sold 30 million by '68, entering the pop chart 18 years in a row. Duets with son Gary 'Play A Simple Melody'/'Sam's Song' made a double-sided no. 3 hit '50; 'Moonlight Bay'/'When You And I Were Young, Maggie', also with Gary, charted '51. Bing also made duets with Jane Wyman, and with his first wife Dixie Lee (an alcoholic; when she died he married actress Kathryn Grant and started a new family).

In the late 1950s Bing's four sons from the first marriage had a nightclub act as the Crosby Boys. Lindsay committed suicide '89, Dennis in '91; Gary died in Los Angeles 24 August 1995 aged 62; Lindsay's twin brother Philip died there 13 January 2004 of pneumonia, aged 69. 

Bing made albums with Rosemary Clooney on RCA, the Buddy Bregman band on Verve, etc. His last chart entry was a no. 3 duet '56 with Grace Kelly from High Society on 'True Love'. He was one of the first artists to be celebrated with boxed sets: Decca issued Bing's Hollywood '62, a 15-LP set of 189 film songs '34-56. A reissue of The Chronological Bing Crosby was undertaken on Jonzo label by collector John McNicholas; the first four vols only reached 1928. There were half a dozen LPs on Spokane compiling radio broadcasts; Robert Parker's Bing Crosby 1927 To 1934 and Classic Bing Crosby 1931-1938 on CDS/DRG/ABC Music including 'I Surrender, Dear', 'Blue Of The Night', tracks with Whiteman (and Beiderbecke), Anson Weeks, Irving Aaronson, Lennie Hayton, Duke Ellington; The Immortal on Empire/Avid from the '30s is also in very good psuedo stereo. Other compilations included four-CD Bing: His Legendary Years 1931-57 on MCA, Bing Crosby And Some Jazz Friends '34-51 on Decca Jazz, many more on MCA, Columbia, ASV, GNP, Pearl etc. Most recently, Sepia Records have issued a series of nine CDs called Bing Crosby: Through The Years, covering 1954-56, including many and various duets, as well as Bing Crosby: A Musical Autobiography, originally made for Decca in 1954, in which he narrates and revisits earlier hits. One of the most desirable Crosby sets must be The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56 on Mosaic, where he chose the songs he wanted to sing, accompanied by a first-class rhythm quartet led by Buddy Cole.  

Always in the vanguard of technology that would make his life easier, Crosby was one of the first to pre-record musical numbers for films, making the scenes easier to shoot, and to pre-record radio programmes; he was one of the founders of the American magnetic tape industry soon after WWII. His autobiography Call Me Lucky '53 was a best-seller; The Hollow Man by Shepherd and Slatzer '81 took a sophomoric attitude towards Crosby's complicated personality; Bing Crosby: A Pocketful Of Dreams/ The Early Years 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins in 2001 was the first volume of one of the best of all show-biz biographies.