In the 1920’s Crosby was the first white American jazz singer, borrowing from the work of Louis Armstrong and other black jazz musicians. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, he enjoyed success singing popular songs.
Born: May 3, 1903; Tacoma, Washington
Died: October 14, 1977; Near Madrid, Spain
Harry Lillis Crosby was the fourth son of Harry Lowe Crosby and Catherine Harrington. In 1906 the family moved from western to eastern Washington, from Tacoma to Spokane, where Crosby grew up and was educated. An amateur singer, his father loved music. The singer’s nickname dated from his childhood fondness for a newspaper feature called the Bingville Bugle. Even his schoolteachers called him Bing. After graduating from Gonzaga University High School, Crosby attended Gonzaga University. He left shortly before graduation at the urging of his friend Al Rinker, a piano player who urged Crosby to pursue a musical career. In 1925 they went to Los Angeles, and there they became a popular attraction. In 1927 they caught the attention of Paul Whiteman, the successful bandleader. Later the two were joined by Harry Barris, and they performed as Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys. In 1930 Crosby married Dixie Lee, a motion picture actress, and the couple had four boys. In the 1930’s, when singers were featured with bands, Crosby became a solo performer. His intimate and nuanced singing styleworked well in thenewera of the microphone, the use of which Crosby mastered, and he became a popular radio performer.
He cultivated a breezy conversational style, and he displayed a knack for comedy routines with his guests. In addition to his many recordings, he appeared in Hollywood films, developing a comedy style that he put to use in the 1940’s in The Road to Singapore (1940) and in a series of other “road” films with comedian Bob Hope. In a more serious vein were his performances in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary (1945), in which he portrayed a Catholic priest. In these films, as in the road films, he sang songs, nearly always written by Johnny Burke and James Van Heusen. Two of his outstanding performances were as an alcoholic husband in The Country Girl (1954) and as a playboy ex-husband in the musical comedy High Society (1956). Although his days of film stardom were over by the late 1950’s, he continued to perform for the next twenty years. Dixie died in 1952, and in 1957 Crosby married actress Kathryn Grant. They had two sons and a daughter. Crosby sponsored a major professional golf tournament every year, and he died of a heart attack in 1977 while playing golf near Madrid, Spain. The Music Jazz Influences. In Crosby’s early years as a performer, he was influenced by minstrelsy, by Al Jolson, and by music from the South, especially as played by jazz musicians, many of whom were black. A great lift came to his career when Whiteman hired him. Although Whiteman was a welltrained musician, the bandleader sought to add jazz musicians to his popular dance band. Most of these performers, including Rinker and Barris, arrived after Crosby joined the band.
In 1927 and 1928 Crosby recorded “Mississippi Mud” three times; today this song is considered offensive to blacks, although Crosby would not have thought so at the time. This period saw the rise to prominence of Louis Armstrong, and the Rhythm Boys began to practice the scat singing that Armstrong popularized: the singing of a string of nonsense syllables instead of words. Crosby got to know the great cornetist Bix Beiderbeck, and he also became friends with two men who joined the Whiteman band in 1929, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Lang on guitar and Venuti on violin were ranked as the best jazzmen of their time, and they performed regularly with Crosby. The musicians in Whiteman’s band recognized Crosby’s keen sense of pitch and rhythm. “I Surrender, Dear.” The Rhythm Boys drifted apart, but one of them aided Crosby early in his solo career by writing the music for “I Surrender, Dear,” which Crosby performed to great applause at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles in 1930. Crosby’s handling of the song’s changes in key and in tempo distinguished this first hit recording. Singing it in a Mack Sennett short film brought him to the attention of William S. Paley, the president of CBS Radio, who signed Crosby to a radio contract. He recorded the song in 1931, as well as two other notablenewsongs: Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and a tune that became his radio broadcasts’ theme, “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day.” Crosby’s lone recording date with Duke Ellington came in 1932, when he sang “St. Louis Blues.”
Although he practiced just about every other form of popular music, Crosby seldom sang the blues. Jazz-Backed Ballads. In the 1930’s, Crosby was able to blend recordings backed by top jazz musicians with ballads that his audiences craved, such as “Please,” which Crosby introduced in his first full-length film, The Big Broadcast of 1932 (1932), and “Shadow Waltz” the following year. His jazz style is well represented by a song that became a jazz band standard, “Someday Sweetheart,” in 1934. In 1936 he demonstrated his versatile style in a Carmichael song seldom heard today, “Moonburn,” complemented by Joe Sullivan’s striking piano accompaniment. Crosby found one of the best of his numerous singing partners in the 1930’s: Connee Boswell of NewOrleans,whohad been performing as part of a sister combination and as a soloist. One of their most successful duets was their 1937 rendition of “Basin Street Blues.” Always fond of working with Southerners, Crosby performed with two Texans, Mary Martin and Jack Teagarden, one notable example being “The Waiter and the Porter and the Upstairs Maid,” featured in The Birth of the Blues (1941).
By 1936 Armstrong was universally recognized as the greatest name in jazz, but he had never appeared in a film. Crosby insisted that Armstrong be prominently featured in Pennies from Heaven (1936). Crosby had already successfully recorded a song of the same title, and he sang it again in the film, with Crosby and Armstrong doing separate choruses. “Pennies from Heaven” was one of the most popular of the cheery songs with which performers tried to lift the public’s spirits during the Great Depression. The Mellow Pipe Organ. In the 1930’s, Crosby attracted young female admirers, as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley did later, but by the end of that decade, his style had changed, along with his audiences. The husky quality of his voice disappeared, and his voice became what one critic called a “mellow pipe organ.” Crosby sometimes recorded with the orchestra fronted by his younger brother, Bob. The bassist of that orchestra, Bob Haggart, devised a melody for which Burke, Crosby’s favorite songwriter, supplied the lyrics. Crosby’s recording of “What’s New” illustrates this change in Crosby’s style.
Although he never lost his penchant for jazz, his singing became mellow and assured. Other high points include his enormously popular recording of “White Christmas,” which appeared in the film Holiday Inn (1942), and the musical High Society (1956), in which Crosby sang several Cole Porter songs: “Little One,” “I Love You, Samantha,” “True Love” with Grace Kelly, and “Well, Did You Evah?” with Sinatra. By this period, Crosby was taping radio programs instead of doing them live. He appeared on television in Christmas specials with family members from his second marriage, and even in his seventies he continued to perform in theater concerts, including one at the London Palladium just four days before his death. Musical Legacy In his autobiography, Crosby attributed his popularity to the notion that every man in America thought he could sing just as well, especially in the bathroom. Although he was famous for his relaxed, casual style, he expected perfection from himself and from others–a trait that sometimes made working with him difficult. In this respect he was like the great dancer, Fred Astaire: Both made what was difficult look easy.
To listen carefully to Crosby’s baritone voice is to become aware of his fine sense of rhythm, his true pitch, his skillful use of mordents (the quick alternation of a principal tone with the tone immediately below it), and his sensitive interpretation of lyrics. His recording of “White Christmas,” for example–with its respectful attention to songwriter Irving Berlin’s artfully simple one- and two-syllable words–is typical of Crosby’s considerable contributions to the lyricist’s art. Crosby made about sixteen hundred studio recordings, a number that rivals the output of any other singer in history, and “White Christmas” is among the most popular records ever. Of all these recordings, 368 reached the best-seller charts, more than achieved by Sinatra or Presley. Thirty-eight of Crosby’s recordings were number-one hits, more than Presley or the Beatles managed to achieve. In the 1940’s, he ranked as the number-one box-office attraction for five consecutive years. On three occasions he was nominated for best actor, and he won the Academy Award for Going My Way in 1944.