Considerable confusion exists regarding Bing Crosby’s birth date; the singer himself, in his autobiography, Call Me Lucky, would state, "I’ve seen several dates listed for my birth in various publications, among them, 1901, 1903, and 1906. I’d like to take 1906, but 1904 is the one I was stuck with." Baptismal entries at St. Patrick’s Church, combined with sister Catherine’s Tacoma birth certificate (October 3, 1904) indicate that he was born Harry Lillis Crosby on May 2, 1903 at the family’s home on 1112 North J Street. He was fourth child of Harry Lowe and Catherine Helen Crosby (maiden name Harrigan). Besides Catherine and Bing, other offspring included Laurence Earl (Larry), January 3, 1895; Everett Nathaniel, April 5, 1896; Henry Edward (Ted), July 30, 1900; Mary Rose, May 3, 1906; and George Robert (Bob), August 25, 1913.
The Harrigan family had Irish-Catholic roots; Catherine, known as Kate, was born February 7, 1873, in Stillwater, Minnesota. Her family would later migrate to Tacoma, where she met her future husband.
The Crosby family appears to have been of Danish origin; their forebears were allegedly Vikings who settled the British Isles during the eighth through tenth centuries. Bing’s brother Larry found that the Mayflower had included a Crosby, a damsel said to have married Thomas Brewster, one of the Pilgrim Fathers. Bing’s paternal great-grandfather, Nathaniel, a sea captain hailing from Worcester, Massachusetts, traded in the Far East and helped found Portland prior to helping settle Olympia, Washington.
Harry, born in Olympia on November 28, 1870, attended a year or so of college before becoming a bookkeeper. A charming, easygoing man from a good family and engaged in a good profession, he was undoubtedly a solid catch for the pretty, level-headed Kate. His conversion to Catholicism cleared any barriers to their union, and the marriage took place in the early 1890s.
Harry was a bookkeeper for the country treasurer during Bing’s early years, but a change in political administration caused him to lose his job. Like many other inhabitants along the Coast with limited prospects, he found Spokane enticing. Located two hundred miles eastward near the Idaho border, Spokane was located in a fertile wheat belt and, as a railroad center, it was becoming the logging and mining center of the region. Harry found work there as a bookkeeper for the Inland Brewery and sent for the family in July 1906.
The family residence, a two-story, four-bedroom rented house on Sinto Avenue, was located on the northeast side of the city, across the Spokane River from the business and manufacturing districts. The home—comfortably equipped with indoor plumbing and electricity, and located near stores and trolley lines which ran to the downtown sector—would become the hub of Bing’s childhood years. A number of the more formative institutions of his life—Webster, a grade school, a Jesuit-administered high school-college complex named Gonzaga, and the adjoining church, St. Aloysius—were located within three blocks of his home.
Bing received his famous nickname around 1910. At this time he became a fan of the "Bingville Bugle," which occupied a full page of the Spokane Spokesman Review’s Sunday edition. Taking the appearance of the front page of a newspaper published in the mythical Bingville, the humor feature included short country-bumpkin stories about town citizens sometimes illustrated by cartoon spots. A next-door-neighbor friend, Valentine Hobart, noticed that caricatures of the cartoon residents had stocky, pear shapes and protruding ears exactly like those possessed by young Harry. Valentine began calling him Bingo from Bingville. Other school peers picked up the phrase, which soon was shortened simply to Bingo; eventually the o was dropped and the youngster was known to all thenceforth as Bing.
Music was always seemed a key ingredient of life within the Crosby household. One memorable payday evening Bing’s father returned home toting two large packages containing a phonograph complete with a large speaker horn in addition to several records featuring baritone Denis O’Sullivan, marches by John Philip Sousa and other bandleaders, and a collection of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado. On another occasion, Dad Crosby went without a new suit he had been saving for in order to purchase a piano. Kate made sure that her daughters received lessons on the instrument; however, none of the boys displayed an interest. Every Sunday evening the Crosbys would engage in a family songfest. Dad Crosby would bring out his mandolin and four-string guitar, and everyone would gather round their favorite pop standards. Kate possessed a rich contralto voice—she’d been a member of the church choir in Tacoma prior to responsibilities of motherhood—and the children (except for Everett, who reputedly couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket) did a creditable job of contributing the harmony parts.
It is perhaps not surprising that Bing’s involvement in music typified his easygoing, albeit self-assured, approach to life in general. Donald Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer have noted,
Even in grade school, Bing…was…what is called a quick study in show
business; he had something akin to total recall. This was true for people’s
names and faces, which ingratiated him with the adults in his early years
and with the relatively unknown technicians or bit-part actors he met during
his professional life. But at Webster and at Gonzaga High School and at
college, his extraordinary ability was used to get ordinary grades with as
little time and effort as he could get away with.
Barry Ulanov, in The Incredible Crosby, has succinctly addressed the forces behind Crosby’s increasing realization that music had the potential to become more than a mere hobby in his life.
It was "life-worship" that impelled his musical career, organized it, carried
it along. At no point in the early years, years of whistling and singing and
beating almost aimlessly on doors and pots ad pans and rude drum equipment,
did Bing consciously imagine himself a singer or a musician. He was fascinated
with music, as many of his school friends were. He was sufficiently interested
to convert his whistling and singing and drumming, as he had his abilities to
sweep up floors and push buttons and pick berries, into a job of work. When,
during the school years, he and his friends…knocked together a band, it was
easy for him to make the band his major interest. The impulse was there; all
that was needed was the organization of a vehicle to transport the impulse from
whistling at work to working at whistling.
Bing entered Gonzaga College in September 1920. In addition to the baseball team and cheerleading, his extracurricular activities included joining the college band. The latter activity gave him access to a bass drum and six like-minded musicians; in short order they formed a dance combo known as The Juicy Seven. Bing’s contributions included both drumming and periodic vocal turns. While they apparently weren’t very good—employing stock arrangements which were not only dated but called for instrumentation the outfit lacked—they managed to obtain gigs at school dances and occasional off-campus parties.
After a couple years with The Juicy Seven, Bing received a telephone call that was to prove a watershed development in his music career. Al Rinker, whose group, The Musicaladers, needed a competent drummer, asked him to come by for a tryout. Rinker would later recall the group’s first practice session with Bing.
We went over a couple of tunes and we knew right away that this guy had
a beat. Not only that, but he picked up his megaphone, and he could sing!
So this was great, a real surprise to us.
For his part, Bing was impressed that The Musicaladers performed the latest hits, utilizing the harmonies, phrasings, and voicings of the hot, avant-garde bands of the day.
While not yet accomplished musicians, The Musicaladers became extremely popular in the Spokane area, most notably with the younger generation, who tended to dislike the "old-fashioned" music of their elders. By September 1925, however, three of the band members had left for college and another attempted to break into the Los Angeles music scene, leaving only Al and Bing. During the course of hanging out, playing golf and going to parties, they began experimenting as a singing duo.
Hearing that the Clemmer Theater was looking for a quartet to perform between motion pictures, they acquired three singers, utilizing Al as an accompanist. They were hired, but following a week of lackluster results, the management fired all of the singers but Bing. After performing solo for a few shows, Bing convinced them to let him sing with Rinker. Al would remember, "The audience loved us. So we stayed there about five weeks, making about thirty dollars a week each, and this was big money for us. That’s how we began singing together professionally."
With Bing now earning more money on the side as a musician than beginning attorneys typically were paid for full-time work, he cast aside his earlier ambition of studying law. When the Clemmer Theater decided to revert back to showing films without a stage show, however, Al and Bing were suddenly unemployed in a town which appeared to be a dead-end for anyone harboring show business aspirations. Accordingly, they decided to try their luck in Los Angeles, where Al’s sister, Mildred Bailey, was just beginning her career singing in speakeasies, and Bing’s brother Everett was selling trucks.
Arriving on Los Angeles in their 1916 topless Model-T Ford, the boys sought out Mildred Bailey, who used her show-business contacts to help them find work. In short order, they were hired at $75 a week each to perform in the Fanchon and Marco traveling variety show called The Syncopation Idea. The show included jugglers, comedians, dancing girls, and other vaudevillians, starting out in small cities like Glendale and Long Beach, and moving north to San Francisco and Sacramento, where the tour ended thirteen weeks later. The experience enable them to polish their act and, by tour’s end, they were doing encores.
Back in Los Angeles, Al and Bing caught on with a musical show called Will Morrissey’s Music Hall Revue for $150 a week. Billed as "Two Boys and a Piano," they proved adept at stopping the show, with audiences demanding encores. Morrissey helped booked the duo for a notable one-night engagement at the Olympic Auditorium, where they shared the stage with such established stars as Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, George Jessel, Jackie Coogan, Pola Negri, and Charlie Chaplin, and took them to exclusive Hollywood parties. After the Los Angeles run, the Morrisey Revue played in San Diego’s Spreckels Theater, the Capital Theater in San Francisco, and the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara for an additional eight weeks.
While the revue was still playing in Los Angeles, the Paramount Publix chain signed the duo to perform in stage shows which complemented film showings at two theaters, The Grenada in San Francisco and the Metropolitan in Los Angeles. The contact, which paid the act $300 a week, took effect as soon as the Morrisey Revue closed or when Al and Bing’s affiliation with the show terminated, whichever came first. Billed as Crosby and Rinker, they played—along with the rest of the troupe—four shows a day, five on weekends. Although now playing in far more prestigious venues, they continued to be show stoppers. Shepherd and Slatzer stated,
The word that best describes audience reaction to Al and Bing at this stage
of their careers is delight. Their zest and energy and enthusiasm were
contagious. Their musical ability knew no bounds, and they continually
nudged at—and often broke through—the very limits of contemporary music
of the day, with a good measure of jazz worked into the fabric of their
presentation….As a duo, their voices complemented one another, and with
Al’s arrangement, they’s break from the melody line, exploring the subtleties
of minor chords or the augmented and diminished facets of major chords
before modulating ingeniously back on track, the throbbing, relentlessly
hypnotic rhythm driving them along. And their audiences followed the, Pied
Piper-like, joyous and astonished at the new avenues of musical exploration.
Technically, the audience didn’t know what the boys were doing, but they
liked it. And the boys were probably not technically analytical about what
they were doing, either; it was gut level, and it worked.
While Crosby and Rinker were playing their second engagement at the Metropolitan, Paul Whiteman, leader of the most popular band in the world, arrived in Los Angeles to perform at Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater. According to Crosby biographer, Charles Thompson, Jimmy Gillespie, Whiteman’s manager, saw the duo and recommended them to his boss. Whiteman then sent viola player Matty Malneck and pianist Ray Turner to see the act. They brought back highly favorable reports; Malneck indicated the duo had an infectious style, "like hearing a great jazz player for the first time." Whiteman sent word for Crosby and Rinker to come back for a visit, and immediately offered them a job with his organization. He went on, "I’ll start you at $150 a week each, and you can make extra money from recordings and from a couple of Broadway plays we’re going to be in; we’re signed to do a how called Lucky and one called Whoopee. Eleven months from the day they’d left Spokane to seek fame and fortune, they signed a contract to sing with Whiteman’s band.
How did Crosby and Rinker achieve so much in such a comparatively short period of time? Shepherd and Slatzer offered the following explanation:
There was no shortage in the twenties of duos who could sing and play piano—
and with pleasing voices, too. Every small city in the country could turn out a
dozen of them to form the lines outside vaudeville producers’ audition halls—
fresh kids with good voices, pleasing personalities, and talent. But for any such
duo to crack vaudeville—which was just a hard to break into as television or
motion pictures is today—to steal shows from seasoned, professional headliners,
and then to rocket straight to the top as a featured act with the most famous popular
orchestra in the world at the time—all in less than a year—is the stuff of Hollywood
movies. It couldn’t happen in the real world. But it did. The explanation of their
incredible feat boils down to one rock-hard fact: the act rested and rose on Al
Rinker’s arrangements; without them, as good as their voices and show-business
instincts were, they would have been just another singing duo and piano act with
While Crosby and Rinker were completing their contractual arrangement with Paramount Publix, Don Clark, a former Whiteman sideman whose orchestra was playing at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, asked them to cut a record with his musicians. Music historians have speculated that news of duo’s agreement with Whiteman may have been the primary reason Clark sought out their services. As a result, Al and Bing sang on two songs recorded October 18, 1926 in the grant ballroom of the Biltmore. One selection, "Don’t Somebody Need Somebody?" was never released. The other, "I’ve Got the Girl," composed by Walter Donaldson, perhaps best known for pop standards such as "My Blue Heaven" and "Carolina in the Morning," was issued by Columbia backed by the instrumental, "Idolizing."
The release proved to be something of an embarrassment. According to Bob Osborn and Vernon Wessley Taylor, whose comments appeared along with a limited-edition, 7-inch LP issued by the Bing Crosby Historical Society of Tacoma in 1980, Columbia apparently thought that the master cut of the record was slow. In an effort to achieve a jazzier sound, the recording was speeded up when duplicated were cut for release. Both Al and Bing would later admit that they sounded like a pair of chipmunks chattering in the background.
After a one-week engagement at Spokane’s Liberty Theater, from November 21 through November 27, accented by visits with family and friends, Crosby and Rinker headed to Chicago to meet up with Whiteman. Despite at least one awkward moment—a piano they were pushing offstage following their segment in one particular concert tipped over, requiring the combined efforts of Al, Bing, and Whiteman himself to get it back on its wheels as the audience roared with laughter—the duo continued to elicit a favorable response. During the three-theater run in Chicago, they had the opportunity to cut another record, "Wistful and Blue," recorded December 22, 1926 at the Concert Hall on Michigan Avenue. Whiteman also went out of his way to take them around town, introducing them to important people. Rinker would later recall, "Whiteman seemed to be quite proud of us. We were young and eager, and I think it was because we were fresh and very enthusiastic that he took more than a casual interest in us."
Crosby and Rinker’s success continued in the cities where Whiteman played enroute to the East Coast. Their New York City debut at the Paramount Theatre on Times Square in January 1927, however, brought them face-to-face with failure for the first time since they’d turned professional. By the time Whiteman opened his own club at 48th and Broadway in February 18, they had been reduced to performing during intermission; for most of the run they worked as stagehands. In 1980, Rinker offered the following explanation for their poor reception in the Big Apple:
People didn’t seem to understand what we were doing! We’d go:
bop-bop-de-do-do / de-doodle-eeaaaa [snapping his fingers while
singing scat] and stuff like that. And they didn’t know what the hell
we were doing! And now that I think about it, I don’t blame them.
The New York audience was mostly Jewish—provincial in its own
way—staid; you know what I mean. They were used to great enter-
tainers of a certain tradition like Jolson, Cantor, and Sophie Tucker,
who were belting out songs. [Imitating Jolson here] Mammmeee!
Mammmeee! They really let you have it! But we were intimate.
That wasn’t what they expected, and they didn’t like it.
In February 1927, with Al and Bing’s career in jeopardy, violinist Matty Malneck suggested they get together with Harry Barris, a singer and piano player who was in danger of being let go because Whiteman can’t find a place for him in the organization. Having to lose, all three were receptive to the idea. Rinker recalled the meeting arranged by Malneck,
We talked, then Barris played a couple of his songs. One of them was
"Mississippi Mud," which he had composed—James Cavanaugh had
done the lyrics—and we liked it. We talked some more, fooled around at
the piano a bit, then we said, "Let’s learn it." So we started harmonizing
and arranging it, all four of us chipping in ideas, and then we finished, it
sounded great to Bing and me because we had another voice there. And
Barris could really swing, you know. So we learned "Mississippi Mud"
and another number, "Ain’t She Sweet," We thought that was great, too,
because it was another song for us, and we were anything but intimate in
Malneck then herded the trio over to Whiteman’s club for an audition, where they performed the two numbers; they sang in three-part harmony with Barris and Rinker playing pianos accented by Bing’s filigrees on a hand-held cymbal. The bandleader was delighted and immediately put them on at the club, billed as Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys. They were enthusiastically received, and were on their way to becoming one of the hottest trios ever to perform.
Back in Whiteman’s good graces for the time being, Bing cut his first disc as a solo artist on March 7, 1927. The song, "Muddy Water," was recorded by Victor at Leiderkranz Hall in Manhattan with accompaniment by the Whiteman Orchestra. Shortly thereafter, on April 29, 1927, The Rhythm Boys made their first record with Whiteman, "Side By Side" (Victor).
The Rhythm Boys also contributed a number, "Sam, the Accordion Man," to the musical Lucky, which ran for seventy-one performances at the New Amsterdam Theater beginning March 22. After it closed, the Whiteman orchestra toured the United States. Rather than taking the trio with him, Whiteman booked them as headliners on the vaudeville circuit for forty-five weeks. His rationale for this decision remains a topic for conjecture. Rinker believed it was because Whiteman didn’t consider their act suitable for concerts. Crosby biographers such as Thompson and Ulanov, however, repeated the Crosby organization’s take on the issue, that the trio was relegated to the vaudeville tour in disgrace. Numerous people associated with Crosby at the time, including some of Whiteman’s musicians, have argued that Whiteman—while fond of Bing and impressed with his talent—would get incensed at his irresponsible behavior, particularly his drinking binges and tendency for missing engagements.
It could easily be argued that headlining the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit—the top vaudeville venue at the time—was not a completely depressing experience. They were earning a $1000 per week for just two twelve- to fifteen-minute shows a day. There was plenty of left to play golf, attend college football games as they toured the Midwest, and enjoy the company of star-struck young women. Despite these distractions, the trio was on its best behavior, not missing engagements, and earning uniformly positive reviews. The Rhythm Boys also participated in more than a dozen recording sessions independent of Whiteman; the first, on June 20, 1927, resulted in two records, "Mississippi Mud"/"I Left My Sugar Standing in the Rain" and "Sweet Li’l"/"Ain’t She Sweet."
When the tour ended during the summer of 1928, The Whiteman office apparently continued to book the act into New York area venues for the next few months, occasionally with the orchestra itself. In the meantime, Whiteman was planning new challenges for his organization with The Rhythm Boys as a featured attraction.
Whiteman had been one of last big-name holdouts with the radio medium, believing it would undercut record sales and personal appearances. The grind of producing a weekly show acted as another deterrent to such a move. However, when Old Gold cigarettes made him a lucrative offer, he approached NBC about doing a show. Much to his surprise, the network turned him down, explaining "We already have a cigarette account."
Whiteman immediately took his package over to CBS. The Old Gold-Paul Whiteman Hour was broadcast from New York City at 9 p.m., Tuesday, to an estimated fourteen million radio sets. Part of the arrangement had Whiteman and his various ensembles, including The Rhythm Boys, jump from the Victor label to Columbia. Old Gold also agreed to sponsor a radio tie-in for a projected motion picture featuring Whiteman, King of Jazz. An entire train was leased for the trip out to the West Coast, the Old Gold-Paul Whiteman Special, with stops at sixteen cities along the way.
Prior to the Western trip, Whiteman and The Rhythm Boys played in another Broadway musical, Whoopee, which opened December 4, 1928 at the New Amsterdam Theater. The Whiteman orchestra replaced George Olsen’s orchestra in the show and was then itself replaced when Whiteman headed for Hollywood. The Rhythm Boys also recorded the hit song from the work, "Makin’ Whoopee," for Columbia on December 11, 1928.
Bing’s first solo recording for Columbia, "My Kinda Love"/"Till We Meet"—cut March 14, 1929 and featuring a piano, violin, and guitar accompaniment—represented yet another pivotal development in his career. In a May 1929 letter to his mother, he wrote that "my name is being prominently featured in the newspapers and in the broadcasts, and considerable invaluable publicity thus redounds to me." Shepherd and Slatzer have interpreted this to mean that Crosby was already thinking in terms of a solo career, citing information provided by family biographers.
Bing was approached by a well-known agent who made him an attractive
offer to stay in New York, under the agent’s personal management. It’s
said that the agent offered to pay Bing’s expenses until he got work for Bing
in radio and possibly musical comedy. Bing is said to have been tempted but
to have turned the agent down because he had a good thing going with The
Rhythm Boys and doubted his ability as a single, and because the agent’s offer
was just too speculative.
When the Whiteman entourage reached Los Angeles on June 6, 1929 they were caught up in a swirl of preparatory activities: lighting tests, film tests, sound tests, and so forth. Whiteman’s doubts about the project were compounded by the fact that Universal Pictures had yet to create a script. With the movie company picking up the tab for the Whiteman orchestra—close to $10,000 a week in all—individual members were left to pursue their own interests.
In addition to hosting parties in a large lease home on Fairfax and playing golf, Crosby made the rounds of the movie studios. According to Whiteman biographer Glenhall Taylor, the studios spent, collectively, more than seventy thousand dollars in screen tests on Bing, and none offered a contract. One casting director allegedly turned him down because of his protruding ears.
At some point during their West Coast residency, The Rhythm Boys played the Montmartre Café—an exclusive dining and dancing spot on Hollywood Boulevard where film celebrities went to be seen—for several weeks. During this engagement, they became the "discovery" of the movie colony and the talk of the town. This popularity appears to have been a key factor in the trio’s decision to part with Whiteman shortly after the completion of King of Jazz in March 1930. Furthermore, Bing—the spokeman for the groung—seems to have harbored some resentment that a feature solo for the film, "Song of the Dawn," originally promised to him was shot with John Boles while Bing was locked up in the county jail for public intoxication. Shepherd and Slatzer’s assessment of the forces behind the breakup, however, appears to have been closest to actual fact.
The boys had never really been enthusiastic about going back with
Whiteman after they finished their vaudeville tour. They had had
More freedom as an individual act; they weren’t subject to the discipline
That Whiteman insisted upon; they didn’t have to sit through hours of
performance holding dummy instruments on the bandstand; they had had
star billing, rather than being an appendage of a famous orchestra; and
finally, they wanted to stay on the West Coast, where they felt assured of
starring as a trio and of getting movie work as well.
Whiteman had scheduled a tour up the West Coast which would continue into Canada and back to the East. In Seattle, The Rhythm Boys left the band for good. From all reports, the departure for amicable on both sides.
The trio returned to Los Angeles, signing on with booking agent Leonard Goldstein. A chance meeting with an oil company executive that sponsored a local radio variety show emceed by Walter O’Keefe resulted in a thirteen week booking. This was followed by a stint at the prestigious Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Although their salary was no more than Al and Bing had made when they first signed with Whiteman, the club offered other advantages. The owner, Abe Frank, had installed a radio studio and his shows were broadcast nightly from ten to twelve along a Pacific Coast network reaching as far north as Seattle and east to Denver. Entertainment was diversified, featuring two full orchestras, conducted by Gus Arnheim and Carlos Molina, respectively, and a trio called The Three Cheers.
At the Cocoanut Grove, The Rhythm Boys became the hottest act in town. Besides the Montmartre fans who followed them there, they became very popular with the college crowd. The crowd response to Crosby singing led to solo stints—both live and in the recording studio—with the Arnheim orchestra. Shepherd and Slatzer have noted that Bing’s success was largely due to his development of innovative singing style.
Prior to this time, Bing was delivering songs in a smooth manner not unlike
the lyrical style used by Irish tenors of the day, concentrating on producing
"pretty" pear-shaped tones and adhering to the melody, which resulted in his
sounding much like the voicing of a technically correct but uninspired alto
saxophone solo. But at the Grove, Bing seems to have brought all of his
musical experience to bear on his delivery, and the result was the first stage
of a totally new style of singing, different from that of any singer before him
and much copied by all who followed.
Vernon Wesley Taylor elicited the following insights from Kenny Allen, a vocalist with The Three Cheers Trio who had the opportunity to observe the Crosby phenomena firsthand during this period:
I’ve given a lot of thought to the phenomenon of the popular singer. After
all, I tried to be one myself. Well, Bing, besides that intonation of his, had
a very nice sense of swing; that’s hard to manage even once in a while. Most
of us were not only afraid to do it, we hoped the whole idea of it would go
away. But Crosby did it all the time—fast songs, slow songs, silly songs, sad
songs. It didn’t seem to matter with him. He didn’t look like he gave a damn,
and yet he still managed to make you think he did.
With the premiere of King of Jazz at New York City’s Roxy Theatre in June 1930, The Rhythm Boys received more film offers. Pathe engaged them in a couple of "two-reeler" musical shorts, Ripstitch the Tailor (never released) and Two Plus Fours (1930). They next appeared in the features Check and Double Check, a 1930 RKO release starring radio comedians Amos and Andy, and Confessions of a Co-Ed (Paramount, 1931). Reaching For the Moon (United Artists, 1931), starring Douglas Fairbanks, was notable for two Crosby firsts; a solo ("When Folks Up North Do the Mean Lowdown") and a spoken part (two words: "Hi, gang").
At this time, Bing had begun focusing on his solo work at the Cocoanut Grove to the detriment of The Rhythm Boys spots. His partners didn’t seem particularly concerned about this state of affairs. Barris was able to put more energy into composing, supplying Crosby with some of the best material during his early career, including "I Surrender, Dear" and "It Must Be True." Rinker would reflect, "I had less and less to do at the Grove, but I had my own interests apart from work, and I really didn’t give it much thought at the time." He went on to success as a radio, then television, producer.
During the Grove residency, Bing met and wooed Dixie Lee (aka Wilma Winnifred Wyatt), a young actress felt by many film insiders to possess the potential to become the next blonde bombshell. Their marriage on September 29, 1930 at the Blessed Sacrament Church on Sunset Boulevard brought such newspaper headlines as: "20th Century Fox Star Married Obscure Crooner." Crosby’s relative obscurity, however, was soon to become a thing of the past.
Clashes with Frank over missed engagements at the Grove had usually ended with Crosby’s salary being docked. When he walked out on one occasion—followed by Rinker and Barris—Frank retaliated by getting the Musicians’ Union to blacklist the trio. The impossibility of finding work, combined with the members’ outside interests, led to the breakup of The Rhythm Boys. Going on alone seemed like the only logical move for Crosby. "I Surrender, Dear," recorded for Victor on January 19, 1931 with accompaniment by the Arnheim band, had became Bing’s first notable solo hit.
Bing’s first step as a solo act was to have personal manager brother Everett play a more active role in his career. His wife brought John O’Melveny, a lawyer she had met at Fox, into the organization. O’Melveny effectively sorted out the ban, thereby enabling Crosby to find work. Bing was impressed enough to retain O’Melveny as his lawyer for forty-five years.
No longer hindered by the ban, Everett secured a contract from Mack Sennett for Bing to appear in six film shorts, each one to be based on songs with which he was associated. The films—all shot in 1931—included I Surrender Dear, Just One More Chance, Billboard Girl, Dream House, Sing Bing Sing, and Where the Blue of the Night.
Everett’s next goal was to obtain a national radio show for Bing. William Paley, president of CBS, quickly signed him for $600 a week in the fall of 1931. Despite a three-day postponement due to throat problems, Bing was an immediate hit with radio listeners. As the broadcast grew in stature, Cremo Cigars came aboard as the show’s sponsor.
If any doubt remained that Crosby was smashing success as a solo artist, Everett got him ten-week contract to headline at New York City’s Paramount Theatre, where he had flopped along with Al Rinker during the Whiteman period. The stint, which began November 1931 and paid $2500 a week, broke all house records and was extended to twenty-nine weeks, another venue first.
Paramount manager Bot Weitman also contributed to Crosby’s rise in popularity. Thompson notes,
The so-called Battle of the Baritones was another of Weitman’s gimmicks
to pull the crowds in. He put the handsome Russ Columbo with his Valentino
looks into the Brooklyn Paramount a few miles from the Manhattan one. Russ,
a former colleague of Bing’s in the Gus Arnheim days at the Cocoanut Grove,
was now making something of a name as a crooner. And an artificial rivalry
was being whipped up purely for publicity. Bing and Columbo were really the
best of friends—although the public were not led to think so.
Some entertainment business observers, including fellow crooner Rudy Vallee, have argued that Crosby might never have achieved the success he did if Columbo had lived. Lyricist Johnny Mercer felt otherwise, stating,
Columbo would have done very well, but I don’t think he had what Bing had.
He didn’t have Bing’s original talent. He copied Bing. He didn’t have Bing’s
line of talk and he didn’t have Bing’s personality. He was a different kind of
With his popularity reaching new heights, Crosby returned to Hollywood to appear in the film, The Big Broadcast of 1932. In contrast to the days when his ears had scared away many movie moguls, he was now considered money in the bank. In the midst of production, Paramount signed him to make five films over a period of three years for a fee of $300,000. Bing would end up making fifty-eight pictures with the studio, including some of the biggest box-office successes of all time. Paramount head Adolph Zukor, later recalling that Crosby had expressed reservations about his acting abilities, offered the following assessment:
He doesn’t have to act; he can just be himself and that’s enough. That’s
what he was and that’s why he was different to anybody else, and yet he
reached stardom and popularity not only in this country but all over the
Crosby also found time to tour in 1932, hiring pianist-conductor Lennie Hayton and former Whiteman guitarist Eddie Lang. In New York, he met a young comic named Bob Hope who was sharing the bill with him at the Capitol Theatre. Although they wouldn’t formally team up for another seven years, Thompson notes that they immediately recognized the potential for working together professionally.
It was there, between shows, that Hope and Crosby displayed their
natural but competitive good humour. Many of the patrons thought
they were indulging in plain old bar talk, but as Bob was to reveal more
than forty years later, they knew it was the start of something big: ‘The
chemistry was so good and it was a great piece of electricity, because
things were happening all the time—new, fresh things and that’s always
great for anything."
By 1934 Crosby was a major star on three fronts—radio, film, and sound recordings. He was receiving ten thousand letters per months and there were close to 100 fan clubs established worldwide. Rudy Vallee himself allegedly saw the writing on the wall after hearing Bing singing "Beside a Shady Nook." Vallee provided his own interpretation of the song on his radio program and then announced to his eighteen million listeners: "This man Bing Crosby, who has recorded this number for Gus Arnheim, is going to push me off my throne."
Despite Crosby’s regular appearances in motion pictures and broadcasts (by the mid-1930s he was averaging three movies a year along with the weekly radio show), his recordings were probably most responsible for the vast size of his audience. At the time of his death, he was estimated to have waxed some 4000 songs with combined sales of 400,000,000. (Furthermore, new recordings—in the latest electronic configurations—seem to appear almost daily.) Up to 1934, Bing had recorded extensively with both of the major U.S. labels—Victor and Columbia. On August 8, 1934, however, he became the first artist to sign with the newly founded Decca, headed by visionary Jack Kapp.
While Crosby virtually carried the fledging label on his shoulders during the mid-1930s, his career in turn owed much to Kapp’s sound policies. Bing would later comment,
He was tremendously competent. I was impressed with what he’d done
and had great faith in him. He developed a recording programme for me
that involved every kind of music. I sang with every kind of band and
every kind of vocal group—religious songs, patriotic songs and even light
opera songs. I thought he was crazy, but I had confidence and went along
with his suggestions!
In 1935, the Kraft Music Hall, then radio’s best known program, invited Crosby to participate in an experimental broadcast. The December 5 show had host Paul Whiteman performing in New York, while Crosby, backed by Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, sang from Hollywood. It was an immense success, and before the end of the year Bing was signed as the new host. The program, now based in Hollywood, quickly became the medium’s number one offering, attracting a listening audience of roughly 50,000,000.
When Jimmy Dorsey—concerned that only one radio program per week was undercutting his identity as a major big band leader—expressed his wish to leave the Kraft organization after two years, John Scott Trotter was brought in as the orchestra leader. Trotter, who’d made a name as the arranger for the Hal Kemp band, became a major architect of the Crosby sound, staying with the Kraft show for more than 300 broadcasts. Bing took an immediate liking to the musical director and let him significantly modify the style of the orchestra. In essence, Trotter shifted the melody line from the band over to Crosby, making sure that the saxophones didn’t interfere with his voice. He offered the following justification for this policy: "If you listen to some of his early records, they’ve got saxophones practically in exactly the same range as Bing—and that is lethal."
During the 1930s, it could be argued that Crosby film accomplishments lacked far behind his stature in radio, performing venues, and the recording industry. The "Road" series would change that perception in dramatic fashion. Beginning with Road to Singapore, the series—which encompassed seven films made over a twenty year period—ultimately broke all existing box office records as well as creating a new style of cinema. With Hollywood in the midst of a South Sea Island fad calculated to provide escapist fare for a world facing the harsh realties of economic depression and global warfare, Paramount decided to team Bing and Bob Hope, a pairing which had already produced inspired comedy on the airwaves. The films were notable for enabling the two stars to ad-lib almost at will. Co-star Dorothy Lamour would later recall,
That’s the way it was, the whole way through; you never knew what they
were going to say. You kind of had that feeling that maybe they stayed home
the night before and read their scripts to see who could out-do the other.
Shortly after the second film of the series, Road to Zanzibar, was released the U.S. became a direct participant in World War II. Cutting back on his radio and film activities, Crosby shifted the bulk of energies to raising money for the Armed Forces. One tour, which teamed him with Jimmy Van Heusen, covered more than 5,000 miles stateside as they performed for servicemen and visited hundreds of hospital wards. The trips, which lasted throughout the war years, were extremely taxing, averaging three show a day in camps across the nation.
In late summer 1944 Crosby travelled to Europe to help boost morale among American military personnel and the Allied citizenry. In addition to live performances and personal appearances, he was persuaded to broadcast to Germany from London. He talked and sang in phonetic German, expressing the hope that soon the German nation would know the freedoms enjoyed by Americans and Britons. From that time on, the enemy fondly referred to him as "Der Bingle."
While Crosby was less visible in the mass media during the war years, his work reached new heights for both commercial success and artistic achievement. Holiday Inn, released in 1942, became the top grossing musical up to that time. Its Irving Berlin score included "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas"; Crosby’s rendition of the latter song is probably the biggest-selling record of all time, estimated to more than 30,000,000 units at the time of his death.
The following year, Bing began work on Going My Way; cast as a Catholic priest, his performance earned him an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for best actor in 1944. The film also won the New York critics’ Golden Globe award as best motion picture and propelled Bing to the top of the box-office draw chart for the fifth consecutive year. In addition, the soundtrack included two of his most popular records ever, "Swinging on a Star" (which received an Oscar as song of the year) and an updated rendition of "Silent Night.
Bing’s role as Father O’Malley was reprised in The Bells of St. Mary’s; it went on to become the biggest money-maker of 1945. He also made brief film appearances in support of the war effort. He sang "Buy Bonds" in Twentieth Century-Fox’s All Star Bond Rally and "We’ve Got Another Bond to Buy" in Hollywood Victory Caravan. During the war he is estimated to have sold Victory Bonds worth over $14,500,000.
Crosby was now at the pinnacle of his popularity. Evidence of his popularity seemd to be everywhere:
Despite these successes, the rise of Sinatra—particularly after his boffo appearances at New York’s Paramount around Christmastime 1942, when girls allegedly screamed and swooned for the first time in show business annals—was viewed by some as a threat to Bing’s hegemony within the entertainment field. Sinatra himself admitted that he had been inspired by Crosby, stating, "I don’t believe that any singer has enjoyed the unanimous acclaim of the American public, as well as performers and musicians, as much as Bing." Rather than slavishly copying the latter’s style, however, he made it clear he was seeking fame and fortune on his own terms. Likewise, Bing paid his respects to Sinatra’s talent, even inviting the young singer to appear on the November 16, 1944 broadcast of the Kraft Music Hall.
Much in the same manner as the "Battle of the Baritones" in the early 1930s, the clash between "the Swooner versus the Crooner" was hype as a result of its box office appeal. Sinatra soon acquired his own radio show and his chief gag writer, Carroll Carroll, continued to function in this capacity for Crosby as well. Carroll would later outline the characterizations supplied to each star: "Bing was the avuncular elder man who wanted to see a young man come along and make it; Frank was the impatient newcomer who wanted to push everything aside and get in there."
In the summer of 1946 Crosby negotiated a break with Kraft and signed on with the Philco Radio Corporation. The program was carried by ABC which agreed to pay Bing $25,000 a week and stock. In addition, approximately 400 independent stations each provided him $100 per broadcast, thereby supplementing his pay with another $40,000. Wednesday was promoted as "Bingsday" by the network. Philco went along with Bing’s wish to transcribe The Crosby Show as long as it maintained high ratings. This enabled him to stockpile shows, leaving relatively long periods of time free to pursue other professional and recreational interests. In short order, other radio stars began following his example.
During this period Crosby became directly involved in a wide variety of activities outside of performing. His first notable investment of this type had been the Del Mar Turf Club, located north of San Diego, in 1937. He sold his one-third interest in the racetrack in April 1946 to avoid a conflict of interest relating to his part ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates major league baseball franchise. His interest in professional sports continued with the purchase of a ten percent interest in the Los Angeles Rams National Football League franchise on December 13, 1949. In 1948 Bing joined forces with Jock Whitney, at one time the U.S. Ambassador to England, to market Minute Maid orange juice concentrate. He worked out an arrangement with Philco to tout the product on the radio, taking advantage on preferential options to purchase stocks and shares in the venture. Other investments included Bing’s Things, Inc., which marketed toys, clothing, and other products; oil drilling in Louisiana and Oklahoma; banking in California and Arizona; livestock in both the U.S. and South America; ice-cream distribution; and the acquisition of real estate.
Crosby was no longer merely an entertainment giant, but an American institution as well. The Music Digest estimated that his recordings filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allotted to recorded radio music at the time, that his radio show was heard by 25 million listeners weekly, and that each film was seen by 250 million viewers. Women’s Home Companion voted Bing the leading film star, an honor repeated for the next four years. The proliferation of Crosby references in films and other mass media attests to the fact that his name was a household word (e.g., in Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, a 20th Century-Fox motion picture released in 1945, Betty Grable sings "I’d love a double order of Bing").
Musicologists, journalists, and other cultural observers continued to devote considerable newsprint space and broadcast time to the dissection of Crosby’s singing style. J.T.H. Mize discussed how he might melt a tone away, scoop it "flat and sliding up to the eventual pitch" as a "glissando," sometimes "sting a note right on the button," and take diphthongs for "long musical rides." He argued that "some of his prettiest tones are heard on ng’s" and inventoried the Crosby arsenal of vocal effects, including "interpolating pianissimo whistling variations," sometimes arpeggic, at other times trilling. Osterholm would state,
Prior to 1934 he sometimes displayed the brassiness of Jolson, Cantor, and
Ted Lewis…and by 1946 these old-fashioned "plagues" still occasionally
crept in. Henry Pleasants thinks Bing’s best range was G to G or even lower
and that only about this time was he able "slowly to sort out what worked on
the microphone and to eliminate what was superficial or incompatible." Still,
Bing’s voice was incomparable, which Charles Henderson called "phonogenic"
and Pleasants "microgenic." His early upper mordents, light and fast, produced
a "slight catch, or choke, or sob which was to remain one of the most attractive
of his vocal devices," according to Pleasants.
By 1949, as the cultural changes were gathering momentum in postwar America, cracks began appearing in the firmament of Crosby the institution. He slipped the second place in the film star poll; the first time since 1943 that he hadn’t been voted most popular. The Philco show was losing its mass appeal; the last broadcast would take place on June 1. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which cost more than three million dollars to produce, earned only three million in America during its first year of release.
Nevertheless, many signs of outward success could still be found. British distributors named Bing the most popular international star in 1948. In November he made eight appearance in London’s Empress Hall for $400,000. In Communist Czechoslavakia, an overflow crowd reportedly assembled in October 1949 in a Prague theater to hear—and applaud—Crosby records. In 1950 Women’s Home Companion announced that Bing was voted the most popular male star for the fifth consecutive year. Between 1946 and 1950 he had nine more recordings achieve gold status—"McNamara’s Band," "South America, Take It Away," the Merry Christmas album, "Alexander’s Ragtime Band," The Whiffenpoof Song," "Now Is the Hour," Galway Bay," "Dear Hearts and Gentle People," and "Sam’s Song," a duet with son Gary—making it twenty-one million sellers in his career overall.
During the early 1950s, Crosby’s impeccable public image was tarnished somewhat by domestic problems. The May 9, 1950 issue of the Los Angeles Times reported O’Melvany and brother Larry had substantiated rumors that Bing and Dixie had "strained relations." Larry went on to say he hoped for a separation and knew nothing about supposed divorce plans. While vacationing in Europe at the time—without Dixie—Crosby narrowly avoided a fifth stay in jail, on this occasion for violating the grass near the Champs Elysees while awaiting a luncheon appointment. In the spring of 1951 a Vancouver hotel clerk insultingly refused Bing and companion Bill Morrow a room because they were unshaven. In addition, son Gary was drawing attention for boorish behavior of his own, which included chaffing at his father’s attempts to impose discipline.
Meanwhile, Bing Crosby Productions committed wholeheartedly to television. In early 1950, the organization produced the first ten 26-minute films at Hal Roach Studios for a weekly series sponsored by Proctor & Gamble called The Fireside Theater. Another 24 shows would soon follow. Bing himself had first appeared on TV December 19, 1948, when he sang in "A Christmas Carol" for NBC. Beginning with his second appearance on February 27, 1951, when he sang several songs on The Red Cross Program (NBC), he became increasingly visible in the new medium. His third appearance took place on June 21, 1952, as he joined Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in a telethon concerning with financing the American Olympic team. Nevertheless, he stated his preference for radio and other projects, while allowing, "Sure, I’ll get into television eventually, when I find the right format. I don’t think radio is dead—nor ever will be."
In 1952 Crosby signed with General Electric to host a radio program for $16,000 a week; the contract included a clause that he would receive about $50,000 as a package for a television show. In the meantime, his film schedule remain heavy as work commenced on Road to Bali along with brief appearance in The Greatest Show on Earth and the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle, Scared Stiff. In September he set sail for Europe to film Little Boy Lost.
While abroad Bing received word that Dixie was dying of ovarian cancer. He returned home October 4, Dixie meeting him at Union Station with the aid of daily blood transfusions. She had a relapse the following morning , as Bing prepared for the General Electric program, which premiered on October 9. Dixie died October 31, one day before she was to have turned 41.
Crosby went into private mourning with Judy Garland and Jimmy Stewart serving as guest hosts on the radio show for two weeks. By early 1953 he had returned to work on a full-time basis. When he began dating Mary Murphy, a Paramount starlet, and divorcee Mona Freeman rumors began circulating in the mass media.
Crosby justified an April 1, 1953 appearance on a Bob Hope television show by stating, "I want to keep in touch with the public and if you’re not on TV it appears you’re out of touch." Motion pictures occupied the bulk of his attention in the latter months of the year; he began filming White Christmas in August and The Country Girl in October. George Seaton, director of The Country Girl, touted Bing’s performance as a drunken singer, asserting that it was more remarkable than the standard excellence expected of a Marlon Brando. He would be nominated for Best Actor at the March 30, 1955 Academy Awards; however, Brando won for his unforgettable performance in On the Waterfront.
The Bing Crosby Show, his first TV special, was broadcast January 3, 1954 on CBS. The reviews for the program, which featured Bing singing several songs and guests Jack Benny and Sheree North, were decidedly cool. Jack Gould of the New York Times stated, "Bing would be a natural for TV and will be when he takes a great interest in this medium’s requirements." Crosby seemed unconvinced regarding television’s potential. After filming his second special, which aired in April 1954, he annoounced that "it’s my last. Why do I do it? I don’t need it. I won’t do TV again, not unless I lose my job in the movies."
Crosby’s final radio show for General Electric occured May 30, 1954, with his son Gary taking over the show for the summer. In the fall Bing hosted daily fifteen-minute programs with the Buddy Cole Trio and Ken Carpenter, which ran on CBS until 1962.
Decca decided to honor Crosby by assembling a special album of 89 songs, many re-recorded and all complemented by an audio commentary. The musical biography included the bulk of Bing’s most popular—and most critically acclaimed—songs as well as a 24-page illustrated biography and discography. In the meantime, his opinions regarding the rhythm and blues-inflected sounds then becoming popular were published in the November 2, 1954 issue of Look. In his essay, entitled "I Never Had to Scream," he noted popular music had changed, "but not all for the better, by any fair means or foul."
Despite his reservations about the state of pop music at the time, Crosby remained a commercially viable recording artist. According to Osterholm, "each jukebox in America offered at least four Crosby songs." In early 1956, while Elvis Presley was becoming a national obsession, Bing earned two more gold records—his twenty-second and twenty-third—for the single, "True Love," a duet with actress Grace Kelly, and the album in which it was featured. Nevertheless, during a brief trip to England in the summer of 1956, the London Express ran the following headline: "Is Bing Crosby Going Out—Or Has He Gone?"
Undoubtedly bowing to pressure to update his style, Crosby recorded a rock ‘n’ roll-inflected song, "Seven Nights a Week," in January 1957. However, he continued to champion the old guard. When music publishers and disc jockeys were being investigated regarding possible payola violations in the late 1950s, he made the following point in a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee: "It galls me exceedingly to see so much trash on our airlines and TV screens while the work of the talented and dedicated songwriters is crowded out of the picture."
Crosby remained busy making films in 1956. In February he began work on High Society, which featured a Cole Porter score. After a brief recuperation following surgery for kidney stones and a minor eye problem, he returned to the Paramount lot to finish filming Anything Goes. The TV film, High Tor, was aired March 10; despite generally high marks for the music, the overall production received cool reviews. He also learned that he’d been nominated once more for Best Actor, this time for The Country Girl.
After several postponements over a two-year period, Crosby secretly married actress Kathryn Grant in Las Vegas October 24, 1957. Despite some adjustment problems—Kathryn would later relate that on returning to their Hollywood home she had been shocked to find a portrait of Dixie in the bathroom and a blanket cover on their double bed bearing the initials D.L.C.—the marriage lasted up to Bing’s death two decades later. Their union would produce three children: Harris Lillis Junior, born August 8, 1958; Mary Frances, September 14, 1959; and Nathaniel Patrick, October 29, 1961.
The second marriage and subsequent family appears to have spurred a marked change in Crosby. According to Army Archerd, an entertainment journalist who knew Bing for twenty-five years,
I think it was the rebirth of his life and a new impetus for him to continue
in show business. I doubt whether he would really have gone on—as
successfully as he had in this second-half of his life—had he not married
again and had this wonderful second family. I think he got the urge to be
Bing Crosby again.
Crosby finally committed himself to television in a big way when he signed a five-year contract with ABC in June 1958. Its terms included a two-million-dollar payment to star in two one-hour shows per year in addition to producing another ten on film. His first special per the agreement was aired in October 1958. Including Dean Martin, Mahalia Jackson, and Patti Page among the guests, it received uniformly high marks. The October 13 issue of Time noted, "Bing Crosby’s topnotch ABC special last week swayed along with rocking-chair ease; its spare (but expensive) sets and casual tone made the usual frenetic TV variety shows look sick by comparison."
Throughout the 1950s the media seemed to carry stories about the misadventures of the four sons from Crosby’s first marriage with alarming regularity. Furthermore, his marriage to Kathryn seemed to exacerbate the problems he had in communicating with them. Evidently feeling the public deserved an explanation, Bing granted an interview to Joe Hyams of the Associated Press in late March 1959. In the two-part series, entitled "How Bing Crosby ‘Failed’ His Four Sons," he observed, "I guess I didn’t do very well bringing my boys up. I think I failed them by giving them too much work and discipline, too much money, and too little time and attention." Other periodicals published their own take on the situation. All of the sons except Gary—who had been stunned at the public disclosure, which he chose to interpret as an apology—immediately came to their father’s defense in the mass media. In the end, Bing’s public reputation emerged largely unscathed by the episode.
By the 1960s Crosby was widely perceived as one of the entertainment industry’s elder statesman. While still capable of boffo box office feats, his best days were considered to be long past. Like other Hollywood titans such as Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis, Bing lent his time and public persona to variety of charitable causes. His Crosby Clambake, now a major international event, garnered further attention in January 1960 when Bing, prompted by a newspaper column written by baseball legend Jackie Robinson, forced the Professional Golfers Association to rescind certain racial discrimination practices. Honors from outside the show business community included having President John F. Kennedy as a house guest in his Palm Springs home.
On June 9, 1960 Crosby received a platinum record for "White Christmas" from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. The inscription noted that he had sold more than 200 million records and led the whole recording industry into prominence and profitability. Variety noted at the time that royalty figures seemed to indicate that Bing’s rendition of "Silent Night" had outsold "White Christmas"; sales were so high that it was evidently hard to ascertain actual facts on a conclusive basis.
The following week, on June 15, Crosby was responsible for an interesting footnote in mtion picture history, finishing three films in one day. The movies included High Time, in which he starred as jaunty old college student, as well as cameo spots in Let’s Make Love and Pepe.
Crosby’s extra curricular activities—all of which typically combined work with pleasure—included travel, golf, and a charter membership in the Clan, better known in the mass media as the Rat Pack. Although the best known members were Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Tony Curtis, Peter Lawford, and nominal leader Frank Sinatra, there were evidently a number of other stars in the set-up when it began. Davis would later reflect,
Bing was a member based upon the fact that the Clan really started with
Bogart and Betty Bacall. Crosby, though he wasn’t at every party, would
be there at certain times; he’d leave early if he had to go fishing or somewhere
but he’d have dinner….he made no bones about how much fun he was having.
He used to day, "Do you guys live like this all the time?"
This association would lead to Crosby’s involvement in the film, Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), a tongue-in-cheek depiction of Chicago’s gangster era during the Roaring Twenties, which co-starred Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and Falk.
While Crosby now lived a life of, in Thompson’s words, "less work and more play," his professional life would remain the envy of many a younger entertainer. In late December 1960, for instance, he recorded 101 songs in eight marathon sessions. He also continued making films, commenced a daily radio program co-starring Rosemary Clooney for CBS in February 1960, and maintained his string of appearances in TV specials, including those starring show business colleagues (e.g., Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall aired on NBC March 16, 1960).
Crosby was asked to host the filmed premiere of The Hollywood Palace, a television variety show, which took place January 4, 1964, three days before his mother’s death at the age of 90. He continued to host the program every few weeks until the final production in February 1970. In late summer 1964 he began filming his only TV series, The Bing Crosby Show, which would air on ABC during the 1964-65 season. Co-stars of the sitcom included Beverly Garland as his wife, Carol Faylen and Diane Sherry as the children, and Frank McHugh as the live-in handyman. Critics gave positive reviews at the outset; however, their impressions became less enthusiastic as the season progressed. His television work also included hosting The Grand Award of Sports live from the New York City Theater in Flushing Meadow during the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
In 1965 Crosby was cast in a non-singing role as the drunken doctor in a Cinemascope remake of the classic John Ford western Stagecoach. Considering the fact that the 1939 original had garnered three Oscars, including a Supporting Actor award by Thomas Mitchell as the character now being played by Crosby, many might have questioned the prudence as taking on such a challenge. Bing, however, had no reservations about signing aboard:
It was a chance to do a character and I wanted to try it. They had a big
cast and I knew it had been a success before. There were some people
who thought we were foolish to make the picture, because the original
one was such a legend. I went to see it and great as it was it really isn’t
much of a film to look at any more. It’s more dated than any picture I
can recall ever seeing.
The 20th Century-Fox production would be the last film for Crosby. In 1972 he would claim he never officially retired from movie making. After turning down yet another script, he would explain,
If one came along, and it wasn’t dirty or pornographic, or lascivious, or
full of smut and was a good role, I’d do it. But I don’t think there are
many of those films around, unless you get one with Disney.
Crosby occasionally went public during the last decade of his life regarding what he perceived to be the low standards of the entertainment media. The following comments, directed largely against the film industry in early 1972, were typical of his stance:
I really think its disgraceful what they’re doing on the screen now, and they’re
starting to do it on television too. I think the entertainment media has got a lot
of things to be responsible for….I’m sure it’s agreed that no other medium in
the history of the world had had such a profound influence on manners, dress,
coiffure, speech or behavior as the motion picture. And now they are selling,
furiously, moral irresponsibility. I think it’s wicked.
Crosby’s work output was indeed scaled back in the latter half of the 1960s. Aside from his regular stints in The Hollywood Palace, he appeared in only two or three television shows a year. He recorded a mere two songs in 1966, and was limited to one session in 1967, on October 31, which resulted in "Step to the Rear" and "What Do We Do with the World?" After waxing forty-one songs during seven sessions in 1968, he would record only three songs in 1969. His studio works would continue to be sporadic from 1970 through 1974 as well.
While Crosby’s professional load became increasingly lighter in the early 1970s, he maintained a high level of involvement with charitable activities. He appeared on The Bob Hope Show on January 27, 1970 as part of a benefit for the Eisenhower Medical Center then under construction at Palm Springs. In 1971 he teamed with Hall of Fame baseball player Ted Williams in a banquet dedicated to saving the Atlantic salmon. The following year Bing served as the national chairman of the fund drive for the Arthritis Foundation.
His successful December 9, 1973 TV special, Bing Crosby’s Sun Valley Christmas Show, provided evidence that he remained a show business institution. The NBC broadcast attracted a then record audience of 49,270,000 viewers.
Crosby’s public activities were halted for a time when a rapidly growing cyst was found in his left lung on New Year’s Day, 1974. Nearly half of his left lung was removed on January 13; it was determined to have been caused by a rare fungal infection contracted during a recent African safari. Back home on January 26, he resigned himself to a long recovery pottering around his half-million-dollar estate.
In the spring Bing began to cautiously test his voice. To his relief, he found that it remained strong and possessed of the familiar mellow tone long considered a Crosby trademark. His renewed vigor, combined with, in Thompson’s words, "the special awareness that comes with a close brush with death," inspired him to embrace a new series of ambitious projects. These activities included British Decca’s planned release of a series of his classic radio shows; the scheduled August 1975 issue of a seven-disc set of the hundred best Crosby songs by MCA, through the World Record Club; a jazz recording session accompanied only by piano; and six three-hour recording sessions in London aimed at producing twenty-six songs for two fiftieth-anniversary albums to be released by the U.K. arm of United Artists.
In mid-1975 Bing assembled a road show, "Bing Crosby and Friends," which included wife Kathryn, Rosemary Clooney, and the Joe Bushkin Trio. The troupe would tour for the next two years, gaining additional performers along the way. In addition, he made a large number of TV appearances during the balance of 1975 and the following year, including co-hosting The Bell Telephone Jubilee with Liza Minnelli on March 21, 1976.
Crosby’s only live album to be officially released during his lifetime was produced from a successful two-week engagement in June 1976 at the London Palladium. His British stay also included many taped TV shows and public appearances.
On the heels further concerts and charitable activities, "Bing Crosby on Broadway" opened for a two-week run at the Uris Theater beginning December 7, 1976. Osterholm provided the following assessment of the stint for the December 15 issue of the Worcester (Mass.) Evening Gazette:
Bing Crosby proves with little apparent effort that his baritone voice has
gained far more in richness than the little steadiness it has lost in the
highest register….Bing’s voice is still very strong, and he can turn up
a lot of volume when he wishes. He still has a respectably high range,
stopping at one high note to state that he had just invaded the territory
of Andy Williams.
Crosby returned to world headlines when he fell into a twenty-foot-deep orchestra pit while taping a CBS special commemorating his fiftieth anniversary in the entertainment business at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, California March 3, 1977. Although grabbing for a piece of scenery helped to break his fall, it was found that he had ruptured a disc at the base of his spine. He underwent a prolonged recuperation. At his age, it was hard to determine how he would be affected. Eleven weeks after the accident, however, he appeared on the Barbara Walters Special, doing a little dance step with Barbara as they walked arm-in-arm and, because it was drizzling, singing a few bars of "Singing in the Rain."
He returned to the gold course in short order and his "Bing Crosby and Friends" did a concert at Concord, California in mid-August as a tune-up for a planned tour of Norway, Sweden, and England. The troupe performed at Momarkedet August 25 in a benefit for the Norwegian Red Cross. In September Bing taped his last Christmas special, his forty-second (going back to radio), in London for CBS. The program, titled Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas and featuring guest star David Bowie, was aired on November 30. He also found time to record his last album, Seasons, with British producer Ken Barnes; it would become his twenty-fourth gold record.
"Bing Crosby and Friends" opened September 26 at the London Palladium, playing to sell-out crowds through October 10. Variety published the following review of the show:
Undoubtedly, the highlight of this two and a half hour show, in for two weeks
at this vaud flagship, is a stint when Bing Crosby and the Joe Bushkin Quartet
glide smoothly through a medley of chestnuts including "White Christmas" and
an up-beat arrangement of "Old Man River"….[Crosby] always looked relaxed
and confident, whether gagging with the capacity audience, duetting with wife,
Kathryn, or son, Harry, or singing along with Rosemary Clooney….The audience
was predominantly middle-aged to elderly, and much of Crosby’s show is designed
to take advantage of the singer’s tremendous nostalgia appeal.
On October 13 Crosby flew to Spain for golf and game shooting. His wife and family employee Alan Fisher remained behind to help Harry, Jr. get settled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he would be a student for the next three years. At the La Moraleja Golf Club the next day, he challenged Valentin Barrios, the former Spanish champion, and Cesar de Zulueta, president of the club. Teamed with Manuel Pinero, then Spanish champion, Bing was reportedly in the best of humor, joking and singing throughout the match, which they won by one stroke. He collapsed from a massive heart attack while walking away from the eighteenth hole. He passed away without regaining consciousness as an ambulance was taking him to the Red Cross Hospital in Madrid.
Television stations in Spain interrupted their programs with the news, and word quickly spread across the globe. Tributes immediately began pouring in from a vast number of friends and admirers. President Jimmy Carter offered the following eulogy:
For all the roads he traveled in his memorable career, Bing Crosby remained
a gentleman, proof that a great talent can be a good man despite the pressures
of show business. He lived a life his fans around the world felt was typically
American: successful, yet modest; casual, but elegant.
His crooning rival, Frank Sinatra, would comment,
Bing’s death is almost more than I can take. He was the father of my career,
the idol of my youth, and a dear friend of my maturity. His passing leaves a
gaping hole in out music and in the lives of everybody who ever loved him.
And that’s just about everybody. Thank god we have his films and his records
providing us with his warmth and talent forever.
Harry, Jr. and Alan Fisher accompanied the casket containing Bing’s body back to Los Angeles on October 17. Funeral services were held, unannounced, on October 19, at Paul’s Church, near the UCLA campus in Westwood. Crosby had wanted only his wife and seven children to be in attendance; however, Kathryn modified the request to include Bing’s living brother and sister, Bob and Mary Rose, as well as a small number close friends and associates. The body was then taken some five miles to Holy Cross Cemetery with his six sons serving as pallbearers. His oak casket was placed alongside that of first wife, Dixie. With all adjacent plots taken, Bing had himself buried at a depth of eight to nine feet, thereby giving Kathryn the option of being buried in his plot, above him, if she wishes.
The Crosby Legacy
Ample evidence exists to suggest that Crosby was the most popular entertainer on the twentieth century. From 1926, the date of his first commercial record release, until his death in 1977, he was constantly in demand as a recording artist, film actor, radio—and later, television—personality, and concert performer. Jose Ferrer offered the following assessment of his talent: "Bing Crosby is like Mr. Everything of all time."
His singing, of course, was central to understanding his appeal. In addition to virtually defining the crooning tradition, he was widely held to be a premier jazz interpreter. Earl Orkin would write,
Bing Crosby was one of the greatest of all jazz singers. Although he could
and often did sing just about anything, he grew up in the world of Bix
Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael, and jazz was always what he loved
best. (Unlike Sinatra, for instance, he always phrased the music, not the
words.) Short of Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday perhaps, there is no
better role-model for an aspiring jazz singer that Bing.
Osterholm attempted to ascertain Crosby’s importance as a singer in commercial terms.
Conceding for a moment that Elvis Presley, who died two months before
Bing, sold 500 million records since 1954, and that Bing sold only 400
million since 1926, we could, for a simple method, compare relative sales
in relation to population by comparing the nation’s population at the mid-
points of their careers. Adjusting Presley’s sales by the audience in Crosby’s
time, it would be about 365 million, Crosby’s sales would be 508 million in
Presley’s time. Moreover, in the 1930s, when Bing was first popular, record
sales were very low because of the Depression, and many people also maintain
that Bing has actually sold more than 500 million records.
This success was instrumental in enabling Crosby to assume a larger than life persona. According to Thompson,
Bing Crosby is probably the most-loved character in the world apart from the
creations of Walt Disney. For a half century he has dispensed much joy and
much entertainment for the benefit of millions who were never ever to meet
him but felt that they knew him and in him had a friend. A colossal, enveloping
warmth of affection has justly come his way through the years. Even if the
image of the casual, lazy pipe-smoking crooner was not completely true it
would not matter. He was Bing, Mr. Family Man, Mr. Clean.
The Crosby image was, in fact, the crooner image personified. The relaxed, gentle touch first defined by 1920s trailblazers such as Gene Austin and Rudy Vallee ultimately became identified with Crosby alone. The evolutionary process was largely completed by the mid-1930s, with Vallee’s popularity on the wane and Columbo, who was widely acknowledged to be a Crosby clone, coming to a tragic end. From this point onward, the vitality of the crooning tradition was sapped by the Spokane supernova. Faced with a stylistic dead-end, the genre was easily pushed aside by the rhythm and blues-based sounds of the 1950s.
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