Bing Crosby was the undisputed best-selling artist until well into the rock era (with over half a billion records in circulation). His everyman persona gave America a symbol of what their country was about during the Depression and World War II.
Finding His Voice
Unlike singers before him, Crosby grew up with radio, and his style was perfectly suited to a medium transmitted directly into the home. It didn’t hurt that radio dominated the entertainment industry at the time.
He was also helped by technology; scientists perfected the electrically amplified recording process scant months before Crosby debuted on record. Earlier vocalists were forced to strain their voices into upper registers to make an impression onto mechanically recorded tracks; Crosby's warm, manly baritone crooned to its heart's content without a thought of excess.
Of the new breed of crooners, Crosby was by far the most popular and successful. With a far less formal style than the European-influenced classical and popular music of the 1910s and '20s, Crosby put his own stamp on showtunes, film music, country & western songs, patriotic standards, religious hymns, holiday favorites, and ethnic ballads (most notably Irish and Hawaiian).
Although never a jazz singer, Crosby worked with many jazzmen. This early experience, and a sharp awareness of the rhythmic advances of Louis Armstrong, brought Crosby to the forefront of popular American singers in an era when jazz styles were beginning to reshape popular music.
As a singer, his seemingly lazy intonation often gave the impression that anyone could sing the way he did, itself a possible factor in his popularity. Nevertheless, his distinctive phrasing was achieved by a good ear, selective taste in building his repertoire, and an acute awareness of what the public wanted, even if it wasn’t what the songwriters liked. Some of Crosby's recordings indicate scant regard for the meanings of lyrics and, unlike Frank Sinatra, he was never a major interpreter of songs. Still, many of Crosby's recordings remain definitive by virtue of his highly personal stylistic stamp.
Bing (Bingo was a childhood nickname from one of his favorite comic strips) was the fourth of seven children in a poverty-level family that loved to sing. He was briefly sent to vocal lessons early on by his mother, until he grew tired of classical training.
Crosby sang in a high-school jazz band and practiced on a drum set when he began attending Gonzaga College to become a lawyer. Introduced to a local bandleader named Al Rinker, he was invited to join Rinker's group, the Musicaladers, singing and playing drums with the group throughout college.
Making a Career of It
Though the Musicaladers broke up soon after his graduation in 1925, Crosby and Rinker headed to Los Angeles where they worked in vaudeville until they were hired by Paul Whiteman, leader of the most popular jazz band in the country. In shows, Rinker and Crosby sang a few songs with Harry Barris as the Rhythm Boys. With their clever songwriting and stage routines, the trio soon became one of the Orchestra's most popular attractions, and Crosby took a vocal on Ol’ Man River.
The Rhythm Boys struck out on their own in 1930, but by the following year Crosby debuted as a solo artist. Crosby’s singing career took off. He landed three songs at #1 in 1931. 1932’s #1 Brother Can You Spare a Dime? was the definitive song of the Depression. His 1935 recording of Silent Night, Holy Night has been estimated at sales of over 10 million. Pennies from Heaven was the biggest song from 1936; in 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named it one of the songs of the century.
Bing followed up the biggest hit of 1936 with the biggest hit of 1937. Like its predecessor, Sweet Leilani racked up 10 weeks at # 1. All told, Bing racked up 36 #1 songs, starting with 1931’s Out of Nowhere and ending with 1948’s Now Is the Hour. He also sang on two #1 songs while with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
At the Movies
Crosby began work in film in 1931 as well. His movies were usually frothy affairs and he displayed only limited acting ability; nonetheless he was the biggest box-office draw of the 1940s and would go on to appear in over 50 movies.
His most notable performance was as a priest for the 1944 movie Going My Way. The movie focuses on Crosby’s character as he brings new life to an old-fashioned parish, despite difficulties posed by a crusty superior. The movie garnered 10 Academy Award nominations and Crosby won for Best Actor. Swinging on a Star, which Crosby took to #1 for 9 weeks, won Best Song.
In 1945, he reprised the role of the priest in The Bells of St. Mary, an Academy Award-nominated performance. He would be nominated once again in 1954 for The Country Girl.
Dreaming of a White Christmas…for All Time
On his radio show on Christmas Day 1941, Bing debuted White Christmas, a song written by Irving Berlin for use in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn (which featured a Berlin song for each major holiday of the year). Reissued near Christmas for each of the next 30 years, the song logged 14 weeks at #1; only 1947’s “Near You” by the Francis Craig Orchestra (17 weeks) and 1995’s “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men (16 weeks) logged more weeks. The song would sell over 30 million and become the biggest seller of all-time, a record that would stand until Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.”
The song was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (as was Bing’s recording of Don’t Fence Me In with the Andrews Sisters). The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) named the song (along with Bing and the Andrews Sisters’ recording of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town) as one of the top 25 songs of the century. NPR (National Public Radio) named the song one of the 100 most important recordings of the century. The RIAA/NEA songs of the century ranked the song second only to Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.”
Crosby’s chart popularity was obviously affected by the rise of rock & roll in the mid-‘50s. He ventured into more album-oriented projects instead of singing the pop hits of the day on radio shows. His recording and film schedule slowed in the 1960s, but he returned to active performance during 1976-77. He also liked to spend as much time as he could on the golf course. In fact, it was while golfing in Spain that Crosby collapsed and died of a heart attack.