Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby


For many, Bing Crosby’s musical legacy remains nothing more than the annual Christmas ritual of watching the 1954 film White Christmas.  He appears to some as the antiquated song and dance man in black and white; the old fashioned voice of a crooner.  Not that he ever complained about being a seasonal standard.  “Anywhere I go I’ve got to sing White Christmas.  It’s as much a part of me as my floppy ears,” Bing said in his autobiography Call Me Lucky (pg. 142).  Crosby was more than just a song and dance man, however.  His multimedia career was highly influential to future singers like Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, and Dean Martin among others.  He was directly involved in the development of the postwar recording industry (specifically helping fund and popularize the use of magnetic tape), and would make more studio recordings than any other singer in history (Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams – pg.9).  Let’s not forget, Bing Crosby could act too.  He won an Academy Award for Best Actor in the 1944 film Going My Way, and according to gross ticket sales, he’s the third most popular actor of all time.  Crosby, however, got his start as a jazz singer, and no musician has ever come close to charting as many records at a total of 396, with the most number one hits (38 compared to the second place Beatles at 24).  He’s been called an “architect of 20th century entertainment” and was an essential force behind the development of audio recording, motion pictures, and broadcasting (Bing Crosby : A Pocket Full of Dreams – pg. 297).  Not bad for local boy from Washington state.

“I didn’t have to learn a feeling for rhythm.  I was born with that, or if I wasn’t, there was a lot of it at home for me to sop up,” explained Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby in his autobiography Call Me Lucky (P.72).  Bing Crosby was born in Tacoma Washington into a musical family, with a father that spent most of his bookkeepers’ salary on records, sheet music, and whatever instruments he could afford to bring home.  Following work, the Crosby family relocated to Spokane Washington in 1906, where Bing would spend most of his childhood and go on to study law at Gonzaga University.  Bing would spend a lot of time at the local music store, absorbing records and memorizing arrangements.  He listened to the Dixieland style jazz that was popular at the time (artists like Al Jolson, John McCormack) and would sneak into any vaudeville act that rolled through Spokane.  After receiving a mail order drum set, Bing and his buddy Al Rinker formed a band, playing wherever they could and developing their own style.  Crosby would quickly realize that he could make more money playing music than he could practicing as an assistant attorney of law.  Dropping out of Gonzaga just before he finished his law degree, Bing would toss his drums in the backseat of Al’s junky old car, and the two of them would head south to Los Angeles.

It didn’t take Rinker and Crosby long to make it on the West coast.  In 1926, Al Rinker’s sister, celebrated jazz singer Mildred Bailey, helped get them going with auditions, and they were quickly signed on with a famous bandleader of the time, Paul Whiteman.  Whiteman teamed Rinker and Crosby up with the jazz pianist and songwriter Harry Barris to form The Rhythm Boys.  They began to work with popular recording artists of the time like Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, and Hoagy Carmichael.  Bing Crosby’s singing voice would become the main attraction of The Rhythm Boys, and in 1928 he had his first number one hit with a jazz rendition of the classic “Ol’ Man River.”

In 1931 Bing Crosby signed with Decca records and also starred in his first film entitled The Big Broadcast.  Paramount Pictures offered him a contract that would see him as top billing in 55 films, with a career total of 79.  He also began to work in radio as a host for NBC’s Kraft Music Hall weekly radio program, where he would remain for ten years and would regularly attract a record breaking 50 million listeners.  He would go on to appear in over 4,000 radio broadcast, and single-handedly change radio from live performance to pre-recorded or transcribed shows.

It was Crosby’s desire to pre-record his radio shows that started his interest in investing in the development of the first magnetic tape recorders.  He used his own money to help fund the Ampex Company, which would be instrumental in changing modern recording techniques.  With the coinciding development of microphone technology and the improved frequency range of magnetic tape, Crosby could capture a more intimate and subtle vocal style that would help define future jazz vocalists.  His music would dominate the charts all through the 1940’s and he would receive 23 gold albums and two platinum.

In 1942 Crosby recorded the Irving Berlin composition White Christmas and introduced it through a Christmas radio broadcast and the movie Holiday Inn.  It stayed at number one on the charts for 11 weeks and remains the best selling song of all time, selling over 100 million copies (Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams P. 609).  It would continue to reappear on the charts year after year, and in 1954 Crosby starred in the iconoclastic film of the same name, placing the song back on top once again.

Bing’s career would finally slow after the 1960’s, and he would end up spending more time on the golf course than in the recording studio.  Although his legacy has been marred by problems in his personal life (including a “tell all” book from his son) and being a product of his generation, Bing, none-the-less, has made a huge and lasting contribution to jazz. His influence as a vocalist has been so ingrained into jazz, that it’s easy to forget how his conversational phrasing, his unaffected and subtle voice, and his unique rhythmic style that placed emphasis on the words and the emotion behind them, have helped define the jazz vocal genre.

So, now that the holiday season is over and you have probably seen White Christmas too many times, have a further look at Bing Crosby and his music.  Thanks to the Manieri jazz grant here at the Anacortes Public Library, we have a great collection of Crosby’s music and movies.  Check out the four CD set entitled Bing Crosby: His -legendary Years, 1931-1957.  We’ve got a three DVD set of Bing Crosby’s films, including the great King of Jazz featuring Bing Crosby with the aforementioned bandleader Paul Whiteman.  Read about Bing Crosby’s life in the two biographies found in the Manieri section entitled A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, and Call Me Lucky: Bing Crosby’s Own Story.  Take a moment to discover the comprehensive Manieri jazz collection that has something to offer jazz lovers of all generations.


Crosby, Bing.  Call Me Lucky: Bing Crosby’s Own Story.  Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1953.

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