A Bing Crosby Primer

Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby (1903-77) was the first multi-media megastar, crossing over from records to radio and films in the early 1930s, and to television in the 1950s. During his lifetime he enjoyed a near universal level of popularity few entertainers have approached since. In a 1999 PBS interview, Tony Bennett described the magnitude of Bing's fame in his heyday: "Just imagine something five times stronger than the popularity of Elvis Presley and the Beatles put together." Yet since his death his achievements have been marginalized to the point that he is nearly forgotten today, save for an annual re-emergence every holiday season.

Bing personified everything Americans of his generation admired: he was self-assured, easygoing, intelligent, quick-witted and athletic, yet modest and self-effacing. Possessing a relaxed manner and a mellifluous, universally appealing baritone voice, he was adored by women and admired by men, and was the nation's most beloved entertainer throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War. In a Yank Magazine poll of U.S. troops conducted at the close of WWII, Crosby topped the list as the person who did the most for G.I. morale (beating out Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight David Eisenhower and Bob Hope). By the late '40s, he was the most admired man in the world. In fact, it was said at the time that "The voice of Bing Crosby has been heard by more people than the voice of any other human being who ever lived." And it all happened before satellite TV, 24/7 news coverage, the internet, disposable income, iPod, home video or MTV.

His record sales are over 500 million - close to a billion by some estimates. He had more #1 singles (38), and more hits (368), than any other recording artist in history, including Frank Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Mariah Carey. He convincingly interpreted every imaginable type of song, from popular standards by Gershwin, Porter, Mercer, Rodgers & Hart, and Berlin, to country & western, jazz, Hawaiian, Irish, gospel, Christmas carols, folk, and even light opera.

During one particularly successful stretch of his 50 year career, from 1944 through 1948, Bing was the #1 Hollywood box office draw five years running, was twice nominated for the Academy Award, winning in 1944, while charting 60 top-30 hit records, including eleven #1's. During that same stretch his weekly radio programs consistently ranked among the top 20 in overall ratings, and were always at or near the top among musical/variety-oriented shows. As Fortune Magazine put it in 1947, Bing was "First in Films, First on the Air, and First on the Phonographs of His Countrymen."

To place this level of celebrity in a modern perspective, imagine Johnny Depp, the top box office movie star of 2010, also being the top selling recording artist in the world and the star of one of the most popular programs on TV, for five straight years. But what is perhaps most amazing about Bing's across-the-board media dominance during that period is the fact that it was not an anomaly. His radio shows ranked near the top for nearly his entire 30 years on the airwaves, he was a top ten box office star 15 times, and, according to Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories - 1890-1954, he was the top charting recording artist for the decades of the 1930s and 1940s.

Bing arrived in Los Angeles from his hometown of Spokane around the same time the electronic microphone was unveiled, and, as a member of Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys, was the first to master the subtleties of this newest technology of the 1920s. Rather than belting out a song, as the previous generation of popular singers like John McCormack and Al Jolson did in order to project to audiences in theaters and on acoustic recordings, Bing created a more intimate experience for the listener by "crooning" seductively into the microphone - effectively revolutionizing the recording industry. It would not be the last revolution he would spearhead. 

After a Jazz apprenticeship with the orchestras of Whiteman and Gus Arnheim - during which time he became familiar with the talents of the great Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, the Dorsey brothers, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Bix Beiderbecke, and others - Bing went solo in 1931. A record setting engagement at the Paramount Theater in New York City and his own radio show on CBS launched perhaps the most phenomenal career in the history of entertainment. 

Emperor of the Ether
He reigned as one of the top stars of the airwaves for over 30 years with his highly-rated radio programs, regularly attracting 50 million listeners per week in his peak years (about 1/3 of the population of the U.S. at the time!). Once he had established a successful format on the Kraft Music Hall, which he hosted from 1935-46 (later incarnations of his program were sponsored by Philco Radios, Chesterfield Cigarettes, and General Electric Appliances), his shows became the gold standard of the musical-variety genre, their influence continuing up to the present day on television. All of the major stars of the day appeared on Bing's show, and his many guests over the years included Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Walt Disney, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Errol Flynn, Ella Fitzgerald, Cecil B. DeMille, Bette Davis, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Frank Sinatra, John Garfield, Maureen O'Hara, Nat "King" Cole, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Fred Allen, Louis Armstrong, Betty Grable, Les Paul and Groucho Marx.

Celluloid Crosby
Bing was also among the most popular and respected movie actors of the 20th Century. As mentioned earlier, he was the #1 box office star for five consecutive years, a feat still unsurpassed, and finished in the top ten 15 times from 1934-54. After starring in a series of Mack Sennett two-reel comedies in the early '30s, and several highly successful light musical comedies from the mid-'30s into the '40s, he matured into an accomplished dramatic actor. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1944 for his performance as a priest in Going My Way, was nominated the following year for the sequel, Bells of St. Mary's, and again in 1954 for his portrayal of an alcoholic in The Country Girl. His “Road” films with pal Bob Hope were the highest grossing comedies of their day. Frank Capra, who directed Bing in two films in the early 1950s, Riding High and Here Comes the Groom, described him as one of the best actors with whom he had ever worked.

Directly or indirectly, Bing influenced virtually every Pop singer who came after him, including Bennett, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Mel Torme', Presley, Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and Michael Buble. Armstrong once described the mellow Crosby voice as "like gold being poured out of a cup." Sinatra called him "the father of my career." He was Rosemary Clooney's favorite singing partner. Artie Shaw once called him "The first hip white person born in the United States." Dean Martin went so far as to say that anyone who ever sang into a microphone owed a debt to Bing. Even John Lennon was a fan - he owned an old Wurlitzer jukebox, which he had stocked with Crosby records.

Civil Rights, Charity
He was a pioneer in race relations, being among the first white performers to share the microphone, and the screen, with African American artists, like the Mills Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan and Clarence Muse. When he had achieved a certain level of clout in the 1930’s, Bing insisted Columbia Pictures include Armstrong in his latest movie, Pennies From Heaven, and that they give him equal billing with the lead white actors, something that was practically unheard of at the time. The studio complied. 

He offered support to the Scottsboro Boys, donating a check in the amount of $1,000 (Depression-era dollars, the equivalent of over $16,000 in 2012) toward their defense, and he again backed Armstrong in 1957, when Louis sounded off against Governor Faubus and the standoff in Little Rock. Louis was scheduled to appear on Bing's upcoming TV special, but the network and sponsor balked, asking Bing to remove the suddenly controversial Pops from the show. Bing responded with a calm but firm, "No Armstrong, no Crosby," and the show went on as planned, with Armstrong.

He was named honorary mayor of Elko, Nevada in 1948, a position he held until his death in 1977, and was adopted into the Western Shoshone-Paiute Indian Tribe in Owyhee in 1950, the first time that high honor had been accorded a white man.

While many other celebrities made public show of their charitable contributions, Bing was a quiet but generous philanthropist throughout his life. Some of the charities he supported included the Laguna Honda Hospital (near his home in the San Francisco area), the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the former Bing Crosby Youth Fund. He donated $100,000 ($817,000 in 2012 dollars) to his alma mater Gonzaga University, for a student library in 1957, and was a major contributor to the building of a baseball field in Front Royal, Virginia in 1950.

Sports, Business, Technology
He was a conservationist, sportsman, and athlete - adept at swimming, baseball, hunting, fishing, and golf - and was instrumental in building the Del Mar racetrack in San Diego. He later became a part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball franchise, and was a prominent supporter of Ducks Unlimited.

An avid golfer with a low handicap of 2, Crosby popularized the concept of the celebrity pro-am golf tournament, founding the first ever, which was named after him (now the AT&T) in 1937. It has raised millions of dollars for charity over the years.

A savvy and farsighted businessman, he invested in audio- and videotape research after World War II, and became a key figure in the development and popularization of both, in turn revolutionizing - there's that word again - the world of broadcasting. Network broadcasts were all done live until 1946, when Bing decided he'd rather pre-record his radio shows, using the then-new audio tape recorder. To this day it's common practice to "tape" TV shows, then broadcast them at a later date - because of Bing.

… and Christmas
Of course, his name is practically synonymous with the holidays, and had been long before the '60s and '70s Christmas TV specials with his family, for which Baby Boomers primarily remember him. He was the first to release a Christmas carol as a single: "Silent Night" in 1935, which was the top selling record in history for the next decade (all proceeds went to charity). Holiday Inn and White Christmas, huge hits upon their initial theatrical releases, have been holiday viewing staples ever since. His rendition of the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas," first released in 1942, made the Top 40 in 17 different years, eclipsing "Silent Night" in sales. It is still the top selling recording of all time.   

© Jon Oye, 2010