Born: May 3, 1903
Died: October 14, 1977
Born into a Catholic family in Spokane, Washington, Harry "Bing" Crosby began singing in church, inspired by records of Irish tenors and Al Jolson. In his teens he performed at dances and provided film scores with various bands. He also began drinking heavily in his youth, which coincided with alcohol prohibition.
In 1925, Bing and bandmate Al Rinker drove to Los Angeles and the engaging young pair soon had work on the Vaudeville circuit with their humorous musical act. In 1926, the duo was signed by Paul Whiteman, and Bing started singing and recording with the Whiteman band, the same year Louis Armstrong released the scat single "Heebie Jeebies," a great influence on Bing and other singers. Bing became the first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra, and ultimately made more studio recordings than any other singer, including the most popular record ever ("White Christmas").
"I'm proud to acknowledge my debt to the Reverend Satchelmouth. He is the beginning and the end of music in America. And long may he reign," Bing responded when asked in 1950 who had influenced him most. Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins wrote in his biography of Crosby in his early days, "Louis [Armstrong]'s influence on Bing extended to his love of marijuana, which he alternately called mezz (after Mezz Mezzrow), gage, pot, or muggles. Bing didn't develop the lifelong appetite for it that Louis did, but he enjoyed it in the early days--it was legal--and, like Louis, surprised interviewers in the 1960s and 1970s by suggesting it be decriminalized, to set it apart from more harmful and addictive drugs.
Bing's eldest son, Gary, argued that pot had a lasting effect on his father's style: 'If you look at the way he sang and the way he walked and talked, you could make a pretty good case for somebody who was loaded. He said to me one time when he was really mad, ranting and raving about my heavy drinking, he said, "Oh that fucking booze. It killed your mother. Why don't you just smoke shit?" That was all he said but there were other times when marijuana was mentioned and he'd get a smile on his face. He'd kind of think about it and there'd be that little smile.'"
Crosby "had a smooth casual style which a later generation would have termed 'laid back'," wrote an Armstrong biographer. "Bing's voice has a mellow quality that only Bing's got. It's like gold being poured out of a cup," Louis told Time in 1955.
Not the least of his achievements was his role in ensuring the prosperity -- in some instances, the very survival -- of several major entertainment corporations, incluidng CBS, NBC, ABC, Decca Records, Paramount Pictures, and Ampex tape. He perfected the use of the microphone and financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry. He raised $14.5 million in War Bonds during WWII and created the first and longest-running celebrity pro-am gold championship.
Crosby began a successful film career in 1931, starring in Max Sennett films while also undertaking a long series of popular national radio broadcasts. In film, he was "the unflappable maverick with a pocketful of dreams," Giddins wrote. "Bing's casual Huckleberry Finn demeanor as a pipe-smoking idler who never dresses up or removes his hat was portended by his odd name." In Frank Capra's 1951 film "Here Comes the Groom," Bing is advised by his left-behind fiancee Jane Wyman, "Why don't you relax and light your pipe, maybe it will all come back to you." He soon does (pictured above) and sees her in an apparition.
Crosby was considered conservative but as early as 1939 he spoke for tolerance against the anti-semitic remarks of radio priest Father Coughlin. In 1936, after winning the contractual right to produce his own pictures, he hired Louis Armstrong and gave him star billing, a Hollywood first for a black entertainer. Later he let it be known that he opposed the Vietnam War, advocated the legalization of marijuana, and despised Richard Nixon. Although he recorded for Chesterfield in an era when tobacco advertisers ruled the airwaves, he never allowed himself to be filmed or photographed smoking a cigarette. A signature tune, "Please" that was the title of a Crosby two-reeler and was reprised in a feature film, "College Humor," influenced VIP John Lennon in the writing of the Beatle's beakthrough hit "Please Please Me."
In High School the boy who would film a series of "On the Road" movies with Bob Hope wrote this poem,
lying on my couch one night
I dreamed a dream of wondrous light.
I thought I was an ancient king
Of the Mystic East -- I heard them sing
My praises high in accents grand,
While cymbals echoed loud --
and As I sat in robes of white
With vassals kneeling left and right,
Strong, dusky slaves from Hindustan
Alighting from the caravan
Upon their head and in their arms
Bore spice and all the Orient's charms,
While flowed the music soft and sweet
They piled them high about my feet.
But I was snatched from this away
In rudeness by the dawn of day.
That year, he saw Al Jolson perform "Sinbad" in Spokane. In "The Road to Bali," a film that features a dance number with a Shiva theme, Crosby plays a pipe and a girl appears (pictured right).
Bing was "the most influential and successful popular performer of the first half ot he twentieth century," Giddins wrote. "He was the voice of the nation, the cannily informal personification of hometown decency--friendly, unassuming, melodious, irrefutably American. In his looser and wilder years, when the magnitude of his stardom was without precedent or equal, he had been reckoned the epitome of cool. But universal acceptance demanded of him a willful blandness that obscured the full weight of his achievement. . . .Combining musical cultures as no one had ever done...he made the country a more neighborly and unified place. . .. If Churchill, in his Savile Row pinstripes with his cigars and learned oratory, incarnated the British lion, Bing, in his peculiar motley (shirttails, beat-up hats, torn sweaters, mismatched socks) with his pipe and preternatural calm, embodied the best in American individualism....More than anyone else he had come to define--at a time when national identity was important--what it meant to be American." An archetype that's been compared to a laid-back stoner, crafted by one who was.
Sources: G. Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, 2001, Little Brown & Co. (Boston)
Louis Armstrong: An American Genius James Lincoln Collier Oxford University Press 1983
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