Hand color tinted photo of Bing Crosby
Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby (May 3, 1903 – October 14, 1977) was an American popular singer and actor whose career stretched over more than half a century from 1926 until his death. Crosby was the best-selling artist until well into the rock era, with over half a billion records in circulation.
One of the first multimedia stars, from 1934 to 1954 Bing Crosby held a nearly unrivaled command of record sales, radio ratings and motion picture grosses. Widely recognized as one of the most popular musical acts in history, Crosby is also credited as being the major inspiration for most of the male singers of the era that followed him, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. Yank magazine recognized Crosby as the person who had done the most for American G.I. morale during World War II and, during his peak years, around 1948, polls declared him the “most admired man alive,” ahead of Jackie Robinson and Pope Pius XII. Also during 1948, the Music Digest estimated that Crosby recordings filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allocated to recorded radio music.
Crosby exerted an important influence on the development of the postwar recording industry. In 1947, he invested $50,000 in the Ampex company, which developed North America’s first commercial reel-to-reel tape recorder, and Crosby became the first performer to pre-record his radio shows and master his commercial recordings on magnetic tape. He gave one of the first Ampex Model 200 recorders to his friend, musician Les Paul, which led directly to Paul’s invention of multitrack recording. Along with Frank Sinatra, he was one of the principal backers behind the famous United Western Recorders studio complex in Los Angeles.
Through the aegis of recording, Crosby developed the techniques of constructing his broadcast radio programs with the same directorial tools and craftsmanship (editing, retaking, rehearsal, time shifting) that occurred in a theatrical motion picture production. This feat directly led the way to the use of the same techniques in the creation of all radio broadcast programming as well as later television programming. The quality of the recorded programs also led to their assuming a commercial value for sale in and of themselves; which in turn leads directly to the creation of the syndicated market for all short feature media such as TV series episodes.
In 1962, Crosby was the first person to receive the Global Achievement Award. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Father Chuck O’Malley in the 1944 motion picture Going My Way. Crosby is one of the few people to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Crosby was born in Tacoma, Washington, on May 3, 1903, in a house his father built at 1112 North J Street. His family moved to Spokane, Washington, in 1906 to find work.
He was the fourth of seven children: five boys, Larry (1895-1975), Everett (1896-1966), Ted (1900-1973), Harry ‘Bing’ (1903-1977), and Bob (1913-1993); and two girls, Catherine (1904-1974) and Mary Rose (1906-1990). His parents were English-American Harry Lincoln Crosby (1870-1950), a bookkeeper, and Irish-American Catherine Helen (affectionately known as Kate) Harrigan (1873-1964). Kate was the daughter of Canadian-born parents who had emigrated to Stillwater, Minnesota, from Miramichi, New Brunswick. Kate’s grandfather and grandmother, Dennis and Catherine Harrigan, had in turn moved to Canada in 1831 from Schull, County Cork, Ireland. Bing’s paternal ancestors include Governor Thomas Prence and Patience Brewster, both born in England and immigrated to the U.S. in the 17th century. Patience was a daughter of Elder William Brewster (pilgrim), (c. 1567 – April 10, 1644), the Pilgrim leader and spiritual elder of the Plymouth Colony and a passenger on the Mayflower.
In 1910, Crosby was forever renamed. The six-year-old Harry Lillis discovered a full-page feature in the Sunday edition of the Spokesman-Review, “The Bingville Bugle.” The “Bugle,” written by humorist Newton Newkirk, was a parody of a hillbilly newsletter complete with gossipy tidbits, minstrel quips, creative spelling, and mock ads. A neighbor, 15-year-old Valentine Hobart, shared Crosby’s enthusiasm for “The Bugle,” and noting Crosby’s laugh, took a liking to him and called him “Bingo from Bingville.” The last vowel was dropped and the name shortened to “Bing,” which stuck.
In 1917, Crosby took a summer job as property boy at Spokane’s “Auditorium,” where he witnessed some of the finest acts of the day, including Al Jolson, who held Crosby spellbound with his ad-libbing and spoofs of Hawaiian songs.
In the fall of 1920, Crosby enrolled in the Jesuit-run Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. He sent away for a set of mail-order drums. After much practice, he soon became good enough and was invited to join a local band made up of mostly local high school kids called the “Musicaladers,” managed by Al Rinker. He made so much money doing this that he decided to drop out of school during his final year to pursue a career in show business.
In 1926, while singing at Los Angeles Metropolitan Theater, Crosby and his vocal duo partner Al Rinker caught the eye of Paul Whiteman, arguably the most famous bandleader at the time. Hired for $150 a week, they made their debut on December 6, 1926 at the Tivoli Theatre (Chicago). Their first recording, “I’ve Got The Girl,” with Don Clark’s Orchestra, was issued by Columbia and did them no vocal favors as it sounded as if they were singing in a key much too high for them. It was later revealed that the 78rpm was recorded at a speed slower than it should have been, which increased the pitch when played at 78rpm.
As popular as the Crosby and Rinker duo was, Whiteman added another member to the group, pianist and aspiring songwriter Harry Barris. Whiteman dubbed them The Rhythm Boys, and they joined the Whiteman vocal team, working and recording with musicians Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Eddie Lang and singers Mildred Bailey and Hoagy Carmichael.
Crosby soon became the star attraction of the Rhythm Boys, not to mention Whiteman’s band, and in 1928 had his first number one hit, a jazz-influenced rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” However, his repeated youthful peccadilloes and growing dissatisfaction with Whiteman forced him, along with the Rhythm Boys, to leave the band and join the Gus Arnheim Orchestra. During his time with Arnheim, The Rhythm Boys were increasingly pushed to the background as the vocal emphasis focused on Crosby. Fellow member of The Rhythm Boys Harry Barris wrote several of Crosby’s subsequent hits including “At Your Command,” “I Surrender Dear,” and “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; however, shortly after this, the members of the band had a falling out and split, setting the stage for Crosby’s solo career. In 1931, he signed with Brunswick Records and recording under Jack Kapp and signed with CBS Radio to do a weekly 15 minute radio broadcast; almost immediately he became a huge hit.
As the 1930s unfolded, it became clear that Bing was the number one man, vocally speaking. Ten of the top 50 songs for 1931 either featured Crosby solo or with others. Apart from the short-lived “Battle of the Baritones” with Russ Columbo, “Bing Was King,” signing long-term deals with Jack Kapp’s new record company Decca and starring in his first full-length features, 1932’s The Big Broadcast, the first of 55 such films in which he received top billing. He appeared in 79 pictures.
Around this time Crosby made his solo debut on radio, co-starring with The Carl Fenton Orchestra on a popular CBS radio show, and by 1936 replacing his former boss, Paul Whiteman, as the host of NBC’s Kraft Music Hall, a weekly radio program where he remained for the next ten years. As his signature tune he used “Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)”, which also showcased his whistling skill.
He was thus able to take popular singing beyond the kind of “belting” associated with a performer like Al Jolson, who had to reach the back seats in New York theatres without the aid of the microphone. With Crosby, as Henry Pleasants noted in The Great American Popular Singers, something new had entered American music, something that might be called “singing in American,” with conversational ease. The oddity of this new sound led to the epithet “crooner.”
Crosby gave great emphasis to live appearances before American troops fighting in the European Theater. He also learned how to pronounce German from written scripts and would read them in propaganda broadcasts intended for the German forces. The nickname “der Bingle” for him was understood to have become current among German listeners, and came to be used by his English-speaking fans. In a poll of U.S. troops at the close of WWII, Crosby topped the list as the person who did the most for G.I. morale, beating out President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower, and Bob Hope.
Crosby’s biggest musical hit was his recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, which he introduced through a 1942 Christmas-season radio broadcast and the movie Holiday Inn. Crosby’s recording hit the charts on October 3, 1942, and rose to #1 on October 31, where it stayed for 11 weeks. In the following years, his recording hit the Top 30 pop charts another 16 times, topping the charts again in 1945 and January 1947. The song remains Crosby’s best-selling recording, and the best-selling single and best-selling song of all time. In 1998, after a long absence, his 1947 version hit the charts in Britain, and as of 2006 remains the North American holiday-season standard. According to Guinness World Records, Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” has “sold over 100 million copies around the world, with at least 50 million sales as singles.”
According to ticket sales, Crosby is, at 1,077,900,000 tickets sold, the third most popular actor of all time, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. Crosby is, according to Quigley Publishing Company’s International Motion Picture Almanac, tied for second on the “All Time Number One Stars List” with Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, and Burt Reynolds. Crosby’s most popular film, White Christmas, grossed $30 million in 1954 ($229 million in 2007 dollars). Crosby won an Academy Award for Best Actor for Going My Way in 1944, a role he reprised in the 1945 sequel The Bells of Saint Mary’s, for which he was nominated for another Academy Award for Best Actor. He received critical acclaim for his performance as an alcoholic entertainer in The Country Girl, receiving his third Academy Award nomination. He partnered with Bob Hope in seven Road to musical comedies between 1940 and 1962 and the two actors remained linked for generations in general public perception as arguably the most popular screen team in film history, despite never officially declaring themselves a “team” in the sense that Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Lewis were teams.
By the late 1950s, Crosby’s popularity had peaked, and the adolescence of the baby boom generation began to affect record sales to younger customers. In 1960, Crosby starred in High Time, a collegiate comedy with Fabian and Tuesday Weld that foretold the emerging gap between older Crosby fans and a new generation of films and music.
The Fireside Theater (1950) was Crosby’s first television production. The series of 26-minute shows was filmed at Hal Roach Studios rather than performed live on the air. The “telefilms” were syndicated to individual television stations.
Crosby was one of the most frequent guests on the musical variety shows of the 1950s and 1960s. He was especially closely associated with ABC’s variety show The Hollywood Palace. He was the show’s most frequent guest host and appeared annually on its Christmas edition with his wife Kathryn and his younger children. In the early 1970s he made two famous late appearances on the Flip Wilson Show, singing duets with the comedian. Crosby’s last TV appearance was a Christmas special filmed in London in September 1977 and aired just weeks after his death.
Bing Crosby Productions, affiliated with Desilu Studios and later CBS Television Studios, produced a number of television series, including Crosby’s own unsuccessful ABC sitcom The Bing Crosby Show in the 1964-1965 season (with co-stars Beverly Garland and Frank McHugh), and two ABC medical dramas, Ben Casey (1961-1966) and Breaking Point (1963-64), and the popular Hogan’s Heroes military comedy on CBS, as well as the lesser-known show Slattery’s People (1964-1965).
Crosby perfected an idea that Al Jolson had hinted at, that the popular performer did not have to limit himself to a mere series of shticks but could be a genuine artist in this case, a musician. Before Crosby, art was art and pop was pop; opera singers worried about staying in tune and reaching the upper balcony, vaudevillians concerned themselves with their costumes and facial expressions.
Crosby rendered the difference between the two irrelevant. Where earlier recording artists had displayed strictly one-dimensional attitudes, Crosby not only perfected the fully rounded persona, but brought with it the technical ability of a true concert artist. Crosby projected with a majestic sense of intonation that afforded Tin Pan Alley the musical stature of European classics and a jazz influenced time that made him the dominant voice of both the Jazz age and the Swing era.
Crosby also elaborated on a further idea of Al Jolson’s, one that Frank Sinatra would ultimately extend: phrasing, or the art of making a song’s lyric ring true. “I used to tell (Sinatra) over and over,” said Tommy Dorsey, “there’s only one singer you ought to listen to and his name is Crosby. All that matters to him is the words, and that’s the only thing that ought to for you, too.”
The greatest trick of Crosby’s virtuosity was covering it up. It is often said that Crosby made his singing and acting “look easy,” or as if it were no work at all: he simply was the character he portrayed, and his singing, being a direct extension of conversation, came just as naturally to him as talking, or even breathing. Journalist Donald Freeman said of Crosby, “There is only one Bing Crosby and the time has come now to face the issue squarely he happens to be that unique, awesome creature, an artist.”
Crosby is usually considered to be among the most talented singers of his time. Crosby could, as musicologist J.T.H. Mize asserts, “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.” J.T.H. Mize also inventoried the Crosby arsenal of vocal effects, including “interpolating pianissimo whistling variations, sometimes arpeggic, at other times trilling.” While vocal critic Henry Pleasants states that “the octave B flat to B flat in Bing’s voice at that time [1930s] is, to my ears, one of the loveliest I have heard in forty-five years of listening to baritones, both classical and popular, it dropped conspicuously in later years. From the mid-1950s, Bing was more comfortable in a bass range while maintaining a baritone quality, with the best octave being G to G, or even F to F. In a recording he made of ‘Dardanella’ with Louis Armstrong in 1960, he attacks lightly and easily on a low E flat. This is lower than most opera basses care to venture, and they tend to sound as if they were in the cellar when they get there.” Mel Torme concurred with Henry Pleasants stating that “(Crosby’s) low notes could make your bass woofers beg for mercy.”
Crosby’s sales and chart statistics place him among the most popular and successful musical acts of the 20th century. Although the Billboard charts operated under a different methodology for the bulk of Crosby’s career, his numbers remain astonishing: 1,700 recordings, 383 of those in the top 30, and of those, 41 hit #1. Crosby had separate charting singles in every calendar year between 1931 and 1954; the annual re-release of White Christmas extended that streak to 1957. He had 24 separate popular singles in 1939 alone. Billboard’s statistician Joel Whitburn determined Crosby to be America’s most successful act of the 1930s, and again in the 1940s.
For 15 years (1934, 1937, 1940, 1943-1954), Crosby was among the top 10 in box office draw, and for five of those years (1944-1949) he was the largest in the world. He sang four Academy Award-winning songs “Sweet Leilani” (1937), “White Christmas” (1942), “Swinging on a Star” (1944), “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (1951) and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Going My Way (1944).
He collected 23 gold and platinum records, according to Joseph Murrells, author of the book, “Million Selling Records.” The Recording Industry Association of America did not institute its gold record certification program until 1958, by which point Crosby’s record sales were barely a blip, so gold records prior to that year were awarded by an artist’s record company. Universal Music, current owner of Crosby’s Decca catalog, has never requested RIAA certification for any of his hit singles.
In 1962, Crosby became the first recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been inducted into the halls of fame for both radio and popular music. Crosby is a member of the exclusive club of the biggest record sellers that include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and The Beatles.
In 2007 Crosby was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, and in 2008 into the Western Music Hall of Fame.
Crosby was married twice, first to actress/nightclub singer Dixie Lee from 1930 until her death from ovarian cancer in 1952. They had four sons: Gary, twins Dennis and Phillip, and Lindsay. The 1947 film Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is indirectly based on her life. After Dixie’s death, Crosby had a relationship with actress Inger Stevens and with Grace Kelly before marrying the actress Kathryn Grant in 1957. They had three children, Harry (who played Bill in Friday the 13th), Mary (best known for portraying Kristin Shepard, the woman who shot J.R. Ewing on TV’s Dallas), and Nathaniel.
Crosby was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Kathryn converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry him. He was also a Republican, and actively campaigned for Wendell Willkie in 1940, asserting his belief that Franklin Roosevelt should serve only two terms. When Willkie lost in a landslide, he decreed that he would never again make any open political contributions.
Crosby had an interest in sports. From 1946 until the mid-1960s he was part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and helped form the nucleus of the Pirates’ 1960 championship club. In 1978, he and Bob Hope were voted the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf.
Crosby reportedly overindulged in alcohol in his youth, and may have been dismissed from Paul Whiteman’s orchestra because of it, but he later got a handle on his drinking. A 2001 biography of Crosby by Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins says that Louis Armstrong’s influence on Crosby “extended to his love of marijuana.” Bing smoked it during his early career when it was legal and “surprised interviewers” in the 1960s and 70s by advocating its decriminalization, as did Armstrong. According to Giddins, Crosby told his son Gary to stay away from alcohol (“It killed your mother”) and suggested he smoke pot instead. Gary said, “There were other times when marijuana was mentioned and he’d get a smile on his face.” Gary thought his father’s pot smoking had influenced his easy-going style in his films. Crosby also smoked two packs of cigarettes a day until his second wife made him stop. He finally quit smoking his pipe and cigars following lung surgery in 1974.
Following his recovery from a life-threatening fungal infection of his right lung in 1974, Crosby emerged from semi-retirement to produce several notable albums and concert tours. In March 1977, after videotaping a concert for CBS to commemorate his 50th anniversary in show business, Crosby backed off the stage into an orchestra pit, rupturing a disc in his back that required a month of hospitalization. In his first performance after the accident and his last American concert, on August 16, 1977 in Concord, California, the power went out, and he continued singing without amplification. In September, Crosby, his family, and singer Rosemary Clooney began a concert tour of England that included two weeks at the London Palladium. While in England, Crosby recorded his final album, Seasons, and his final TV Christmas special with guests David Bowie and Twiggy. His duet with Bowie on “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” generated so much interest that it was later released as a single and became an annual holiday classic. At the end of the century, TV Guide listed the Crosby-Bowie duet as one of the 25 most memorable musical moments of 20th century television.
His last concert was in the The Brighton Centre two days before his death, with British entertainer Dame Gracie Fields in attendance. Crosby’s last photograph was taken with Fields.
At the conclusion of his work in England, Crosby flew alone to Spain to hunt and play golf. Shortly after 6:00 p.m. on October 14, Crosby died suddenly from a massive heart attack after a round of 18 holes of golf near Madrid where he and his Spanish golfing partner had just defeated their opponents. It is widely written that his last words were “That was a great game of golf, fellas.” Because of incorrect instructions from his family, the year of birth engraved on Crosby’s tombstone is 1904 rather than 1903. He was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, next to his first wife. He was buried nine feet deep so that his second wife could be buried with him.
At his death, because of Crosby’s shrewd investments in oil, real estate, and other commodities, he was one of Hollywood’s wealthiest residents, along with Fred MacMurray, Lawrence Welk, and best friend Bob Hope. A clause in his will stated that his sons from his first marriage could not collect their inheritance money until they were 65. Crosby felt that they had already been amply taken care of by a trust fund set up by their mother, Dixie Lee. All four sons continued to collect monies from that fund until their deaths.
After Crosby’s death, his eldest son, Gary, wrote a highly critical memoir, Going My Own Way, depicting his father as cold, remote, and both physically and psychologically abusive.
Younger son Phillip frequently disputed his brother Gary’s claims about their father. In an interview conducted in 1999 by the Globe, Phillip said, “My dad was not the monster my lying brother said he was; he was strict, but my father never beat us black and blue, and my brother Gary was a vicious, no-good liar for saying so. I have nothing but fond memories of Dad, going to studios with him, family vacations at our cabin in Idaho, boating and fishing with him. To my dying day, I’ll hate Gary for dragging Dad’s name through the mud. He wrote Going My Own Way out of greed. He wanted to make money and knew that humiliating our father and blackening his name was the only way he could do it. He knew it would generate a lot of publicity. That was the only way he could get his ugly, no-talent face on television and in the newspapers. My dad was my hero. I loved him very much. He loved all of us too, including Gary. He was a great father.”
However, Lindsay and Dennis publicly agreed with many of Gary’s criticisms of their father and Lindsay eventually committed suicide. Dennis ended his life two years later, grieving over his brother’s death, and battered, just as his brother had been, by alcoholism, failed relationships, and a lackluster career. Both brothers died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head. Their mother had struggled with alcoholism since her teens.
Phillip Crosby died in 2004.
Denise Crosby, Dennis’ daughter, is also an actress and known for her role as Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for the recurring role of the Romulan Sela (daughter of Tasha Yar) after her withdrawal from the series as a regular cast member. She also appeared in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary.
Nathaniel Crosby, Crosby’s youngest son from his second marriage, was a high-level golfer who won the U.S. Amateur at age 19 in 1981, the youngest winner of that event (a record later broken by Tiger Woods). Nathaniel praised his father in a June 16, 2008, Sports Illustrated article.
Widow Kathryn Crosby dabbled in local theater productions intermittently, and appeared in television tributes to her late husband. Although left very comfortable in Crosby’s will, Kathryn’s allowance was controlled by a foundation that Crosby had carefully set up.
In 2006, Crosby’s niece, Carolyn Schneider, attempted to dispel the impressions created by some of the more vitriolic books penned about her uncle, publishing “Me and Uncle Bing,” in which she offered an intimate glimpse of her family, and gratitude for Crosby’s generosity to her and to other family members. Since publication of her book, Schneider has been a favorite at gatherings of Crosby fans, and has offered her memories of “Uncle Bing” to the BBC.