Bing Crosby Biography

Harry Lillis Crosby, 3 May 1903, Tacoma, Washington, USA, d. 14 October 1977, La Moraleja, Madrid, Spain. One of the most popular vocalists of all time, Crosby picked up his nickname through a childhood love of a strip-cartoon character in a local newspaper. After first singing with a jazz band at high school, he sang at university with a friend, Al Rinker. The duo decided to take a chance on showbusiness success, quit school and called on Rinker’s sister, Mildred Bailey, in the hope that she could help them find work. Their hopes were fulfilled and they were soon hired by Paul Whiteman. With the addition of Harry Barris they formed the singing trio the Rhythm Boys, and quickly became one of the major attractions of the Whiteman entertainment package. The popularity of the trio on such recordings as ‘Mississippi Mud’ and ‘I’m Coming Virginia’, and an appearance in the film The King Of Jazz (1930), gave Crosby an edge when he chose to begin a solo career.

The late 20s saw a great increase in the use of microphones in public auditoriums and the widespread use of more sophisticated microphones in recording studios. This allowed singers to adopt a more confidential singing style, which became known as ‘crooning’. Of the new breed of crooners, Crosby was by far the most popular and successful. Although never a jazz singer, Crosby worked with many jazzmen, especially during his stint with Whiteman, when his accompanists included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti and Bix Beiderbecke. 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. Another contributory factor to his rise was the fact that the new singing style was very well suited to radio, which at the time dominated the entertainment industry. He made numerous film appearances and many hundreds of records, several of them massive hits. Indeed, sales of his records eclipsed those of any earlier recording artist and by the 40s, these had helped to establish Crosby as the world’s biggest singing star. In contrast, his films were usually frothy affairs and he displayed only limited acting ability. However, in the early 40s his film career took an upswing with a series of comedies in which he co-starred with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, while some good light dramatic roles advanced his career still further.

Throughout the 50s Crosby continued to work in radio and television, and made regular concert appearances and still more records. During his radio and television career Crosby often worked with other leading entertainers, among them Al Jolson, Connee Boswell, Dinah Shore, Judy Garland, Armstrong, Hope and his brother, Bob Crosby. By the mid-60s he was content to take things a little easier, although he still made records and personal appearances. Despite his carefree public persona, Crosby was a complex man, difficult to know and understand. 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. Although his countless fans may well regard it as heresy, Crosby’s way with a song was not always what songwriters might have wanted. Indeed, some of Crosby’s recordings indicate scant regard for the meanings of lyrics and, unlike Frank Sinatra, for instance, he was never a major interpreter of songs. Despite this casual disregard for the niceties of music and lyrics, many of Crosby’s best-known recordings remain definitive by virtue of the highly personal stylistic stamp he placed upon them. Songs such as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, ‘Blue Skies’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘The Bells Of St Mary’s’, ‘Moonlight Becomes You’, ‘Love In Bloom’, ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, ‘The Blue Of The Night’ and ‘Temptation’ became his own. Although Sinatra is the major male song-stylist of American popular music, and also the one who most influenced other singers, every vocalist who followed Crosby owes him a debt for the manner in which his casual, relaxed approach completely altered audience perceptions of how a singer should behave. Towards the end of his life, Crosby’s star had waned but he was still capable of attracting sell-out crowds for his occasional public appearances, even though he preferred to spend as much time as he could on the golf course. It was while playing golf in Spain that he collapsed and died.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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