Bing Crosby was one of the most popular singing stars in the history of show business and one of the best-selling musicians of all time. In the course of a career spanning more than 50 years, Crosby produced over 1,600 recordings, of which he sold half a billion copies; his honeyed baritone revolutionized crooning and won him a worldwide audience. “Bing Crosby [was] probably the most-loved character in the world apart from the creations of Walt Disney,” wrote Charles Thompson in Bing: The Authorized Biography. “He has dispensed much joy and much entertainment for the benefit of millions who were never ever to meet him but felt that they knew him and in him had a friend. A colossal, enveloping warmth of affection has justly come his way through the years.”
During the glory days of the big Hollywood studios, Crosby was under contract to Paramount Pictures. He often appeared in as many as three full-length features per year and won an Academy Award for portraying a priest in Going My Way. It was radio, however, that made Crosby a star. His exceptional voice and casual, relaxed demeanor projected well over the airwaves, and his innovative, jazzy style of singing won the hearts of younger fans and the envy of his peers. In the midst of the Great Depression, Bing Crosby became a millionaire, and by his death in 1977 he was estimated to be worth more than $80 million, most of it invested in industry and real estate. His success is all the more phenomenal in that it came long before the inflated salaries and lucrative endorsement contracts earned by today’s popular singers.
Crosby always gave the year of his birth as 1904, but some sources say he was born on May 2, 1903 in Tacoma, Washington. He was one of seven children of a bookkeeper and a pious, ambitious mother. When Crosby was still a young child, his family moved to Spokane, where his father took a job with the Inland Brewery. Young Crosby attended Catholic schools and earned the nickname “Bing” from his fondness for a newspaper comic strip called the “Bingville Bugle.”
Residents of Spokane remembered Bing Crosby as a child who loved to sing and who sang to himself everywhere he went. Ironically, he never learned to read music, and he quit his only formal singing lessons after a few weeks. Entirely self-taught as a singer, Crosby gravitated to the kind of music he heard on his parents’ gramophone—popular songs, ragtime, and show numbers.
Crosby attended Gonzaga High School, a Jesuit school,
For the Record…
Born Harry Lillis Crosby, May 2, 1903 (some sources say 1904), in Tacoma, WA; died of a heart attack October 14, 1977, in Madrid, Spain; son of Harry Lowe (a bookkeeper) and Catherine Helen (Harrigan) Crosby; married Dixie Lee (an actress), September 29, 1930 (died, 1952); married Kathryn Grant (an actress), October 24, 1957; children: (first marriage) Dennis, Gary, Philip, Lindsay; (second marriage) Harry, Mary Frances, Nathaniel. Education: Attended Gonzaga University, 1921-24. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Singer, 1921-77. With James Heaton, Miles Rinker, Bob Pritchard, Clair Pritchard, and Alton “Al” Rinker, formed group The Musicaladers, 1921, group disbanded, 1925; with Al Rinker, moved to Los Angeles, 1925, and performed as duo Two Boys and a Piano on West Coast vaudeville circuit; with Rinker, joined Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1926; with Rinker and Harry Barris, formed trio The Rhythm Boys, 1927, group cut first single,“Side by Side,” for Victor label, 1927; baritone and front man for The Rhythm Boys, 1927-31, playing on vaudeville circuit and with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra at the Coconut Grove, Los Angeles.
Solo artist, 1931-77. Appeared on musical variety radio shows, on CBS, 1931-35 and 1949-52; NBC, The Kraft Music Hall, 1935-46; and ABC, 1946-49, and on numerous television specials, 1952-77, including The Bing Crosby Show (sitcom), 1964-65. Recording artist, 1927-77, for RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca, MCA, and numerous other labels. Star of films for Paramount and other studios.
Awards: Academy Award for best actor, 1945, for Going My Way.
earning above-average grades and participating in numerous sports. After high school he enrolled in Gonzaga University with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Other interests intervened, however; with a group of his Spokane buddies, he formed a small band, The Musicaladers, which performed at school functions and private parties. Crosby was the group’s vocalist and drummer—his only work as an instrumentalist. The Musicaladers were surprisingly successful for a band staffed principally by teenagers; before long they found themselves entertaining audiences between films at a Spokane movie house.
Even after the Musicaladers disbanded, Crosby and a friend, Al Rinker, continued to work together as a duo. In 1925 the two decided to take a chance at the big time; they pooled their resources and set off for Los Angeles in a beat-up Model T Ford. They were nothing less than an overnight success. Rinker’s sister was Mildred Bailey, herself a successful vaudevillian, and she was able to help the boys secure a contract for West Coast vaudeville work. Billing themselves as Two Boys and a Piano, Crosby and Rinker sang popular numbers in a jazzy style that has since become the signature sound of crooning.
According to Donald Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer in Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man, Crosby and Rinker had seized upon a formula that set them apart from the many duos playing vaudeville at the time. “Al and Bing would soon learn that while they had great appeal to everyone, they were even more enthusiastically received by members of the younger generation, who were caught up in what Easterners were calling hot jazz,” the authors wrote. “And since Crosby and Rinker had culled the best from the wide range of music being recorded in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York and had fashioned and presented it in a style uniquely their own, they were destined to become show-stoppers in the West. There was nothing quite like them, even in the East.”
Late in 1926 the duo received a lucrative—and flattering—offer from Paul Whiteman, one of the nation’s most famous orchestra leaders. They joined Whiteman in Chicago, then moved with him to New York City. There, for some reason, Crosby and Rinker failed to make a hit. Shepherd and Slatzer suggested that Manhattan’s mainstream audiences were not quite ready for Bing’s scat singing and off-beat presentation. Whatever the case, Crosby and Rinker separated from Whiteman’s act and added a third partner, Harry Barris. With Barris and Rinker both at piano and Crosby as front man, the group became known as The Rhythm Boys.
As The Rhythm Boys, Crosby and his partners regained their professional standing quickly. They cut several singles, including “Mississippi Mud,” “From Monday On,“and “Side by Side,“and after a vaudeville tour on their own, rejoined Whiteman for a highly successful West Coast run. In 1930 they appeared in their first feature film, which starred Whiteman and was called The King of Jazz. When the movie was completed, they struck out on their own again, signing a contract to appear with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra at the prestigious Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles.
Much has been written about Crosby’s irresponsible behavior during his early career. He did indeed miss performances occasionally because of drinking binges, only his fantastic popularity with audiences saving his career. After 1930, however, he began to take a more serious attitude toward his work—to see singing as a way to make money as well as entertain. In September of 1930 he married starlet Dixie Lee. Shortly thereafter he made his first two-reel short film, I Surrender, Dear, using a song Barris had written for him as the movie’s title. Crosby’s performance of “I Surrender, Dear” brought him to the attention of William Paley, the owner of CBS. Paley offered Crosby his own radio show, and—after some nasty legal wrangling—Crosby left both the Coconut Grove and The Rhythm Boys.
On September 2, 1931, Crosby opened his first radio show with a new theme song: “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day.” The rest, as they say, is history. He performed live for an unprecedented 20 weeks at Manhattan’s Paramount Theatre, signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and began recording regularly with a new label, Decca Records. Throughout the Great Depression and on into the years of World War II, Bing Crosby was the nation’s most beloved crooner and one of its favorite stars. Thompson attested: “Even if the image of the casual, lazy pipe-smoking crooner was not completely true it would not matter. He was Bing, Mr. Family Man, Mr. Clean…. The clean image [was] a great asset to him in his career, but he had to be extremely careful to maintain great dignity in public, particularly after he became so closely associated with the Father O’Malley character of Going My Way.”
Crosby’s voice and delivery were surprisingly adaptable; over the years he sang every type of popular song, from cowboy ditties to blues, ballads, and patriotic numbers. He was initially reluctant to sing hymns, but he eventually overcame this reticence, and today his Christmas carols—especially “White Christmas”—are his most treasured recordings. For many years Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas” was the best-selling recording in history.
In 1935 Crosby moved from CBS radio to NBC, where he starred on the popular Kraft Music Hall. He worked on that show—live—for nearly a dozen years, leaving only when ABC radio allowed him to pre-record his programs on audiotape. In the meantime, he starred or appeared in some one hundred films, including the highly popular “Road” series—“The Road to Singapore,” “The Road to Zanzibar,” “The Road to Morocco”—with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; Hope and Crosby played off one another perfectly, often ad-libbing dialogue and flip comments in these essentially silly pictures.
Crosby returned to CBS radio in 1949 and made the transition to television easily—if reluctantly—in the early 1950s. His television forte was the variety special. Beginning in 1966 he hosted a yearly Christmas show that featured his second wife, Kathryn, and their children. Crosby’s only regular weekly television show was a situation comedy, The Bing Crosby Show, which ran for two seasons in the mid-1960s.
Even the advent of rock and roll did little to erode Crosby’s popularity. His fans had aged along with him and saw him as a wholesome, relaxing alternative to the rhythms of the new generation. Nor did Crosby disappoint them; his voice held its clarity as he aged, and he continued to perform—live and on television—right up to his death in 1977. In his later years he indulged his lifelong passion for golf by founding a tournament in his name.
In October of 1977, Crosby collapsed from a massive heart attack on a golf course outside Madrid, Spain. He is survived by his second wife and seven children—four sons from his first marriage, and two sons and a daughter from his second. Several of his older sons had performed with him during the 1940s, and his second family often appeared with him on his television specials.
The persistence of Crosby’s fame is evident in the number of his recordings still in print and in the re-broadcast of his many films. His Irish good looks and inimitable baritone stand as one of the strongest testaments of radio’s golden age and one of the crowning achievements of the Hollywood film. Shepherd and Slatzer concluded that at the peak of his popularity, Crosby’s “musical ability knew no bounds, and [he] continually nudged at—and often broke through—the very limits of contemporary music of the day.… In Bing’s later years, one remembers the bubbly bs and rippling, rhythmic cadence of his conversational voice, reminiscent of the vibrant tones of a soft, laid-back string bass.”
(With Al Rinker) “I’ve Got the Girl,” Columbia, 1926.
(With Rinker) “Wistful and Blue,” Victor, 1926.
“Muddy Water,” Victor, 1927.
(With Rinker and Harry Barris) “Side by Side,” Victor, 1927.
“I Surrender, Dear,” Victor, 1931.
“Out of Nowhere,” Victor, 1931.
“I Love You Truly,” Decca, 1934.
(With wife, Dixie Lee) “A Fine Romance,” Decca, 1936.
(With son, Gary Crosby) “Sam’s Song,” Decca, 1950.
A Crosby Christmas, Decca, 1950.
The Best of Bing, MCA, 1965.
Seasons, Polydor, 1977.
The Radio Years, Volumes 1-4, GNP Crescendo, 1985-88.
Christmas Songs, MCA, 1986.
Bing Sings Again, MCA, 1986.
(With Bob Hope) Bing & Bob, Spokane, 1986.
(With Trudy Erwin) Bing & Trudy: On The Air, Spokane, 1986.
Merry Christmas, MCA, 1987.
Crosby Classics, Columbia, 1988.
Greatest Hits, 1939-1947, MCA, 1988.
Holiday Inn, MCA, 1988.
Bing in the ’30s, Volumes 1-6, Spokane.
Der Bingle, Volumes 1-3, Spokane.
A Christmas Sing With Bing, MCA.
The Crooner: The Columbia Years, 1928-1934, Columbia.
Distinctively Bing—Volume 1, Sunbeam.
Hey Bing!, MCA.
Holiday Inn/Bells of St. Mary’s, Spokane.
Kraft Music Hall Highlights, Spokane.
Bing Crosby on the Air: 1934 & 1938, Spokane.
Rare 1930-31 Brunswick Recordings, MCA.
Shillelaghs & Shamrocks, MCA.
That Christmas Feeling, MCA.
The Small One/The Happy Prince, MCA.
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, MCA.
(With Louis Armstrong) Havin’ Fun!, Sounds Rare.
(With Armstrong) More Fun!, Sounds Rare.
(With Al Jolson) Bing & Al, Volumes 1-6, Totem.
Shepherd, Donald and Robert F. Slatzer, Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man, St. Martin’s, 1981.
Thompson, Charles, Bing: The Authorized Biography, McKay, 1975.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Nationality: American. Born: Harry Lillis Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, 2 May 1901 (year of birth also given as 1903 and 1904 in various sources); nickname "Bing" acquired in grade school through avid reading of comic strip "The Bingville Bugle." Education: Attended Gonzaga High School; Gonzaga University, 1920–22. Family: Married 1) Wilma Winnifred Wyatt ("Dixie Lee"), 1930 (died 1952), sons: Gary, Philip and Dennis (twins), and Lindsay; 2) Kathryn Grant, 1957, children: Harry Jr., Mary, and Nathaniel. Career: 1922—drummer and vocalist with band "The Musicaladers"; 1926—singer with Paul Whiteman band; 1927—dropped from Whiteman show reportedly due to heavy drinking; teamed with Al Rinker and Harry Barris as "Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys" appearing on Keith circuit; 1929—initial film work in Hollywood at Pathe and for Sennett; 1930—solo singer on nightly broadcasts from Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles; 1931—began broadcasting for CBS; five-picture Paramount contract: association with Paramount lasted until 1956; 1932—debut as featured actor in The Big Broadcast; 1934—signed with Decca Record Co.; 1935—coast-to-coast broadcast for Kraft Music Hall; 1936–46—host of Kraft program; 1945—two films produced by Bing Crosby Productions do poorly at box office; 1964–65—actor in TV series The Bing Crosby Show. Awards:
Best Actor, Academy Award for Going My Way, 1944. Died: 14 October 1977.
Films as Actor:
Two Plus Fours (Ray McCarey—short); Ripstitch the Tailor (Ray McCarey—short, unreleased); King of Jazz (Anderson); Check and Double Check (Brown) (cameo role); Reaching for the Moon (Goulding)
Confessions of a Co-ed (Her Dilemma) (Burton and Murphy) (as voice); I Surrender Dear (Sennett—short); One More Chance (Sennett—short)
Dream House (Lord—short); Billboard Girl (Pearce—short); The Big Broadcast (Tuttle)
Blue of the Night (Pearce—short); Sing, Bing, Sing (Stafford—short); College Humor (Ruggles); Too Much Harmony (Sutherland); Please (Gillstrom—short); Going Hollywood (Walsh)
Just an Echo (Gillstrom—short); We're Not Dressing (Taurog); She Loves Me Not (Nugent); Here Is My Heart (Tuttle)
Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove (Lewyn—short); Mississippi (Sutherland); Two for Tonight (Tuttle); The Big Broadcast of 1936 (Taurog)
Anything Goes (Milestone); Rhythm on the Range (Taurog); Pennies from Heaven (McLeod)
Waikiki Wedding (Tuttle); Double or Nothing (Reed)
Doctor Rhythm (Tuttle); Sing You Sinners (Ruggles); Don't Hook Now (Short)
Paris Honeymoon (Tuttle); East Side of Heaven (Butler); The Star Maker (Del Ruth)
Road to Singapore (Schertzinger); If I Had My Way (Butler); Swing with Bing (Polesie—short); Rhythm on the River (Schertzinger)
Road to Zanzibar (Schertzinger); Birth of the Blues (Schertzinger)
Angels of Mercy (short); My Favorite Blonde (Lanfield) (as guest); Holiday Inn (Sandrich); Road to Morocco (Butler); Star Spangled Rhythm (Marshall) (as guest)
Going My Way (McCarey) (as Father O'Malley); The Road to Victory (Prinz—short); The Princess and the Pirate (Butler) (as guest); Here Come the Waves (Sandrich); The Shining Future (Prinz—short)
All Star Bond Rally (Audley—short); Hollywood Victory Caravan (Russell—short); Out of this World (Walker) (as voice); Duffy's Tavern (Walker) (as guest); The Bells of St. Mary's (McCarey) (as Father O'Malley); Road to Utopia (Walker)
Monsieur Beaucaire (Marshall) (as guest); Blue Skies (Heisler); The Road to Hollywood (compilation of early Crosby shorts)
My Favorite Brunette (Nugent) (as guest); Welcome Stranger (Nugent); Road to Rio (McLeod); Variety Girl (Marshall) (as guest)
The Emperor Waltz (Wilder)
A Connecticut Yankee (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; A Yankee in King Arthur's Court) (Garnett); "Ichabod Crane" ep. of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (Geronimi and Algar) (as narrator); Top o' the Morning (Miller); The Road to Peace (Webb—short); You Can Change the World (McCarey) (as guest)
Riding High (Capra); Mr. Music (Haydn)
Angels in the Outfield (Angels and the Pirates) (Brown) (as guest); Here Comes the Groom (Capra); A Millionaire for Christy (Marshall) (as voice)
The Greatest Show on Earth (DeMille) (as guest); Son of Paleface (Tashlin) (as guest); Just for You (Nugent); Off Limits (Military Policemen) (Marshall) (as guest)
Scared Stiff (Marshall) (as guest); Little Boy Lost (Seaton); Faith, Hope and Hogan (Denove—short) (as guest)
White Christmas (Curtiz); The Country Girl (Seaton)
Bing Presents Oreste (Dmytryk—short)
High Society (Walters); Anything Goes (Lewis—not a remake of 1936 film)
Man on Fire (MacDougall); The Heart of Show Business (Staub) (as narrator)
Showdown at Ulcer Gulch (Culhane—short)
Alias Jesse James (McLeod) (as guest); Say One for Me (Tashlin)
Let's Make Love (Cukor) (as guest); High Time (Edwards); Pepe (Sidney) (as guest)
The Road to Hong Kong (Panama)
Robin and the Seven Hoods (Douglas)
Cinerama's Russian Adventure (Bing Crosby in Cinerama's Russian Adventure) (doc) (as narrator)
Bing Crosby's Washington State (Gardner—short) (as narrator)
Golf's Golden Years (Evans—short) (as narrator)
Dr. Cook's Garden (Post—for TV) (title role)
Cancel My Reservation (Bogart) (as guest); The World of Sport Fishing (Morgan—for TV)
That's Entertainment! (Haley Jr.) (as narrator)
By CROSBY: book—
Call Me Lucky, as told to Pete Martin, New York, 1953.
By CROSBY: article—
"The Bing Crosby Experience," interview by R. Kent, in Inter/View (New York), September 1973.
On CROSBY: books—
Crosby, Kathryn, Bing and Other Things, New York, 1967.
Pleasants, Henry, The Great American Popular Singers, New York, 1974.
Thompson, Charles, Bing: The Authorized Biography, London, 1975.
Bauer, Barbara, Bing Crosby, New York, 1977.
Bookbinder, Robert, The Films of Bing Crosby, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1977.
Church, James Thomas, Bing: The Melody Lingers On, New York, 1977.
Thomas, Bob, The One and Only Bing, New York, 1977.
Zwishon, Laurence J., Bing Crosby: A Lifetime of Music, Los Angeles, 1978.
Barnes, Ken, The Crosby Years, New York, 1980.
Shepard, Donald, and Robert Slatzer, Bing Crosby, New York, 1981.
Crosby, Gary, and Ross Firestone, Going My Own Way, New York, 1983.
Crosby, Kathryn, My Life with Bing, London, 1983.
Morgereth, Timothy A., Bing Crosby: A Discography, Radio Program List, and Filmography, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1987.
Osterholm, J. Roger, Bing Crosby: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1994.
On CROSBY: articles—
Marill, A. H., "Bing Crosby," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1968.
Passek, J.-L., "Bing Crosby," in Cinéma (Paris), December 1977.
Warner, A., "The Gold of His Day," and letter from M. Kreuger in Films in Review (New York), January 1978.
Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, rev. ed., London, 1979.
* * *
Although Bing Crosby had made films for Paramount Pictures from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s, it was during the 1940s with his "Road" films that he achieved major box-office status. In 1944 he reached the acme of star ranking in Hollywood and remained there for five consecutive years. All his "Road" films with Bob Hope ranked among the top grossers for their respective years. But so did Going My Way, Here Come the Waves, Blue Skies, Welcome Strangers, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, all Crosby films sans Hope. Indeed, in l944 Crosby stood as the American film industry's number one star, earned an Academy Award, and recorded "Swinging on a Star," a record that sold a million copies.
Bing Crosby retained his ranking as a top movie star until l954. Throughout the early 1950s, he continued to win awards and generate millions for Paramount, the studio for which he had labored so long. In 1954, for example, he earned an Academy Award nomination for The Country Girl and starred in White Christmas, the highest grossing film of the year. It was in 1956, with Anything Goes, that he terminated a 24-year association with Paramount, and began to freelance as a movie actor working for Twentieth Century-Fox, Columbia, United Artists, and Warner Brothers. In the mid-l960s he ended his movie career, and turned to full-time work in television with his second wife and new brood of children.
Surprisingly, his success in the new visual medium of television never matched his popularity in films. There were the annual specials featuring family and guest star, Bob Hope. But his only weekly television series, a domestic situation comedy for ABC entitled The Bing Crosby Show, proved a major disappointment, and was canceled in l964 after only one season. In the long run, Crosby's greatest success in television came through his production company with such popular series hits as Ben Casey, The Wild, Wild West, and Hogan's Heroes.
Crosby first achieved national popularity on the radio, and would never forget these origins: he continued with a weekly radio show well into the 1950s. His popularity on radio during the Great Depression ignited his career as a phonograph recording star. It was in this sector of American show business that Crosby's impact was truly staggering. He sold 22 million single records; he recorded more than 2,600 different songs; he sold 400 million records total (by 1975). And one recording, "White Christmas," went on to sell more than 30 million copies alone.
His radio, record, movie, and television activities made Bing Crosby one of the richest persons in the history of American show business. He was one of the first stars of any media to incorporate himself—in 1936. Once his show business success was assured, he began to invest in real estate, mines, oil wells, cattle ranches, race horses, music publishing, baseball teams, and the aforementioned television production company. But his greatest wealth probably did not even come from his extraordinary movie and singing career but from his financing of what later became the Minute Maid Orange Juice Corporation. This investment alone made him a multimillionaire.
Crosby's successes as a movie star should best be thought of as an extension of his enormous popularity as a singer and radio star. Through hundreds and hundreds of "performances," he was able to project an image as the unexceptional, even lazy character who sang effortlessly, always playing himself. He became an extension of the icon of the "bashful hero." Along with Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper he represented the "average American male," who always seemed to stumble toward success. With his stable, solid image in a world of depressions, world wars, and cold wars, Bing Crosby more than any star became a symbol for his generation.