Bing Crosby – The First Crooner Part One of Two: The early years [Part Two immediately follows.]

Bing Crosby died more than 20 years ago, in 1977, but his legacy and his music are still with us, especially during the Christmas holidays season. Many of his best-selling records were Christmas songs, dating back to 1942’s perennial classic, “White Christmas.” Among his other gold records: “Silent Night” (1942), “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (1943), and “Jingle Bells” (with the Andrews Sisters) (1943). There is still something warm and comforting about that rich voice singing the Yuletide favorites and Crosby’s original Christmas recordings can be found for auction on sites like eBay while they are also to be found on currently available CDs.

Harry Lillis Crosby was born May 3, 1903, in Tacoma, Washington. As a boy he was a fan of a comic strip called The Bingville Bugle, which starred a character with protruding ears named Bingo. Crosby also had ears that stuck out and soon his friends were calling him “Bingo,” which was eventually shortened to “Bing.” The name stuck with him all his life.

Bing’s parents loved music and loved to sing, and Crosby was briefly given formal singing lessons, but he soon dropped out. He was more interested in popular songs than classical opera, and his hero was Al Jolson.   In college, planning to become a lawyer, Crosby bought a drum set by mail-order and was soon good enough on them to be invited to join a local band, The Musicaladers, where he met Al Rinker. The band was so successful that Crosby dropped out of college in his senior year to focus on a career in music. But the band itself fell apart, leaving Bing and Al on their own.   They took Al’s Model T and went to Los Angeles, where Al’s sister, jazz singer Mildred Bailey, helped them get into show business.   Within a few weeks of their arrival in Los Angeles in 1925 Bing and Al were on the vaudeville circuit and singing in movie theaters throughout California.

That’s when Paul Whiteman, who called himself “The King of Jazz” and led the most popular band in America, heard them. He hired them to sing with his band, which they joined at the Tivoli Theatre in Chicago in December, 1926.   Crosby used the opportunity to study music with such Whiteman band musicians as Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.

While waiting to join Whiteman, Crosby and Rinker made their first record with the Don Clark band. Clark was a former member of Whiteman’s orchestra, and on October 18, 1926, he recorded them singing “I’ve Got the Girl,” which was released by Columbia Records (824-D), with an instrumental piece on the B-side. On December 22 they cut their first records with Whiteman, “Wistful and Blue” and “Pretty Lips.”

When Whiteman’s orchestra opened at the Paramount in New York in January, 1927, there was a problem with the duo’s vocals. The theater had no amplification and the orchestra was drowning out the singers.   To overcome this problem a third singer, Harry Barris, was added to the duo – which became a trio known as “The Rhythm Boys.”

Crosby was surprisingly nonchalant about his work, drank a lot, and developed a “playboy” image.   He was jailed for drunk driving after an accident which put his date through the windshield in November, 1929.   This was while the movie, The King of Jazz, featuring the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, was being filmed, and Crosby had to be escorted from jail to the studio whenever the Rhythm Boys were needed, but he missed out on the chance to take a major solo role in the movie. Whiteman “released” the Rhythm Boys from his orchestra in May, 1930.

Crosby and the Rhythm Boys trio began singing with the Gus Arnheim band at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. The Grove did live radio broadcasts and Crosby could be heard throughout California, which brought increasing crowds to hear him in person. At the same time Arnheim was pushing Crosby to the front as a soloist, leaving the other two in the trio to sing backup. On January 19, 1931 Crosby recorded his first solo, “I Surrender Dear,” written by Harry Barris, and it was a hit.  

But as Crosby’s solo career began to take off he started skipping performances at the Grove.   This led the club’s manager to dock his pay, and Crosby walked out in protest, taking the Rhythm Boys with him. When the club persuaded the local musician’s union to ban the trio for breach of contract, the Rhythm Boys dissolved. (They performed together only once after that, in a July 4, 1943 reunion for the NBC radio broadcast of Paul Whiteman Presents. A excerpt from the program was included on the MCA anthology on CD, Bing: His Legendary Years.)

Part Two of Two: The Solo Years

Crosby recorded over 1,700 songs for commercial release, beginning with “I’ve Got the Girl” (Columbia) in 1926 – and ending in 1977, the year of his death. He recorded in every one of those 51 years. From 1926 through 1928 he recorded with Paul Whiteman on the Victor label and then on Columbia again until 1931. From 1931 into 1934 Crosby recorded for the Brunswick label. But in 1934 Jack Kapp, who had been an executive at Brunswick, started the Decca label and he signed Crosby to be Decca’s first recording artist.   Crosby recorded exclusively for Decca through 1955, after which he free-lanced for several record companies, including Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. The vast majority of Crosby’s recordings were for Decca, which was purchased by MCA in 1962.

When Crosby died he was considered the world’s most successful singer, in terms of record sales.   And there are currently more than 100 CDs available of his recordings, on a variety of labels.

Crosby’s success was in good measure due to his laconic, laid-back delivery and his impeccable sense of timing, coupled with that mellow voice. But these gifts and talents would have been of little value if the recording industry had not undergone a major change just as his career was beginning.

Until 1926 the recording industry used acoustic and mechanical means to make a master record.   Singers and musicians gathered around a large horn, which funneled the sounds they produced down to a diaphragm, which vibrated and moved the cutting needle which translated that acoustical energy into a groove in the wax master recording.

But in 1926 the industry changed over to electric microphones and electrically-driven cutting needles. This made it possible to “close-mike” a singer, who no longer needed to project or “belt out” – or virtually shout – over the top of the musicians, as if on stage.   (A similar revolution would soon bring microphones and amplification to the stage.)   And this recording revolution made possible Crosby’s distinctively soft singing style, which quickly became known as “crooning.” Crosby’s first 1926 record advertised on its label the fact that it was made electrically, an obvious selling point.

Crosby sang as though he was standing next to you, almost conversationally. It made for a more intimate experience.   And in Crosby’s wake other crooners would soon follow – most notably Frank Sinatra, who, as a youthful singer with the Dorsey Brothers band, would all but wrap himself around the mike stand on stage. 

Crosby was a pioneer in the next stage of recording development as well: tape recording. He was the first major star to make use of this new recording medium. He used it first to record and produce his radio show in 1947, and in mid-1949 he began making his Decca recordings on tape.   Until tape, it was almost impossible to edit a recording. If, in the course of recording, someone missed a cue or played a wrong note, that “take” had to be discarded and a new one begun all over again from the beginning.  

These messed-up disk recordings sometimes included “blow-ups” from Crosby – a demonstration of his well-known temper – directed at whoever had messed up on that occasion.   Some of these were not destroyed (as was supposed to be done) but were bootlegged into the hands of Crosby’s fans.   These 78 rpm disks are now highly valued by collectors. They include a botched version of “I Wished on the Moon” from 1935, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” from 1939, and “Crosby Blows His Top” a disk released as “Private for Decca Officials in N.Y.” in 1940. There is also a 1950s label, Crosby Blows His Top, devoted to his recorded explosions of temper; it had a yellow label with black print.  

Crosby spawned an incredible amount of memorabilia in his 51-year career. A check of eBay revealed over 1,200 items for auction, ranging from publicity photos to sheet music, and including cassettes of his 1940s radio shows. A signed letter was offered on another website for $500. And his music remains widely available on CD – a perfect accompaniment to the holiday season: music to listen to with a loved one while cuddling before a cheery fire in the fireplace. (29638 bytes)