Bing Crosby

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Bing Crosby Pencil Portrait
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It goes without saying that Bing Crosby was, without doubt, the most popular and influential media star of the first half of the 20th century. The undisputed best-selling artist until well into the rock era (with over half a billion records in circulation), the most popular radio star of all time, and the biggest box-office draw of the 1940s, Crosby dominated the entertainment world from the Depression until the mid-‘50s, and proved just as influential as he was popular. As Tony Bennett so aptly put it in a 1999 PBS interview:

‘Just imagine something five times stronger than the popularity of Elvis Presley and the Beatles put together. Bing Crosby dominated all of the airwaves. He was the only guy who had hour shows on radio stations, where other artists would just have one record played.’

As with all the jazz-oriented stars of the first half of the 20th century, his chart popularity would be affected by the advent of rock & roll in the mid-‘50s. What impressed me about Crosby was the near effortless way in which he sidestepped emerging trends to forge new musical avenues. Though 1948’s “Now Is the Hour” would prove to be his last number one hit, this lack of chart success merely channelled Bing’s efforts into more adult orientated album projects and successful Hollywood movies.

Though he’ll never be forgotten, if only for his 30 million selling single “White Christmas,” the Crosby legacy is more deserving of a wider appreciation amongst millennium boomers. Will it happen though?

Unlike the many vocal artists before him, Crosby grew up with radio, and his intimate bedside manner was a style perfectly suited to emphasize the strengths of a medium transmitted directly into the home. He was also helped by the emerging microphone technology: scientists had perfected the electrically amplified recording process scant months before Crosby debuted on record, and in contrast to earlier vocalists, who were forced to strain their voices into the upper register to make an impression on mechanically recorded tracks, Crosby’s warm, manly baritone crooned contentedly without a thought of excess.

Information about Crosby’s formative years in Spokane can be located at:

For those prepared to listen, Crosby’s warm, mellifluous baritone is still as engaging and moving as ever, and yet in comparison to many of his contemporaries, he is today, greatly overlooked. Much of the fault for this public oversight must rest with the organizations that control the rights to his performances. While the estates of Sinatra and Presley have taken steps to make sure the catalogues of these iconic artists remain accessible, the only Crosby music that has been readily available in the three decades plus since the singer’s death, were Christmas albums and basic greatest-hits collections.

Since 2009, that situation has been gradually changing, with the singer’s music — particularly from the harder-to-hear later portion of his career — being made available more than ever before, in the compact-disc era. His posthumous 1977 album “Seasons,” recorded in London shortly before his death, was a welcome release, but the real meat lay in the vast seven-CD box from Mosaic Records, “The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56).”

The CBS Radio” box is an extraordinary mother lode of previously unreleased Crosby: 160 songs that no one has heard unless they were listening to the singer’s daily 15-minute radio series of the mid-1950s. Although some of the tracks were issued with overdubbed orchestration, shortly after the singer’s death, we’re safely in the hands of audio-verite with this package. It’s an amazing amalgam of everything from ancient tunes Crosby remembered from his childhood – “They Didn’t Believe Me” – to a variety of contemporary hits that were then on the jukebox, even such unlikely items as mambos – “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” – and country songs – “I’m a Fool to Care”. The old groaner is accompanied by pianist Buddy Cole and his trio, and everything stays light and highly swinging.

Crosby’s fledgling film career faced two obstacles – premature balding and jug ears. His rather endearing frankness about both these visual impediments is apparent in the following interview with the “Saturday Evening Post” in April 1953:

Crosby’s modesty, his lack of vanity, were real. He insisted that his success was due to luck – “Call Me Lucky” he was wont to say. He knew his looks were nothing remarkable, and he never tried to glamourise himself: at Paramount, he refused to have his big ears pinned back and resented having to hide his receding hairline. Most remarkably, he insisted on the famous Crosby clause in his contracts, by which he refused to be billed alone above the picture title: minor actresses were elevated into co-stars. This was shrewdness as well as modesty, of course; if the picture failed, it wasn’t his fault alone.

When the author and broadcaster Barry Norman interviewed Crosby’s son Gary for his series “The Film Greats” in 1984, he attempted to clarify Bing’s reputation as a tyrannical father. The victim of a stern victorian upbringing himself, Crosby had rebelled in his late teens, eventually perceiving considerable wisdom in such parental control when his four sons were born.

Recommended listening

Fancy meeting you here (1958)

My own personal favourite amongst Crosby’s duets albums, and an opinion shared by Rosemary Clooney herself.

Following hot on the heels of Sinatra’s best selling Capitol release ‘Come fly with me,’ ‘Fancy meeting you here’ would extend the lighthearted travel theme idea by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen,

Taped in three sessions at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, CA, during July & August 1958, the album remains a tour-de-force showcase for Crosby’s vocalising. Rosie takes the top line melodies, whilst the avuncular Bing weaves intuitive counter-melodies throughout. These sequence of notes, perceived as a melody, and written to be sung or played simultaneously with a more prominent lead line, perform a vital if subordinate role, and are typically heard in a texture consisting of melody plus accompaniment. Many a novice duettist will be ‘thrown’ by the more familiar melody line, yet in Crosby’s case, his baritone would almost never caress the more familiar tune. This ability made him an ideal partner for any major songstress.

The pair’s verbal sparring – spontaneous or not – fits the globetrotting theme perfectly. On ‘Isle of Capri,’ for example, Rosie’s reading of ‘that Capri isle was a real ringer-dinger’ sparks an audible chuckle from Bing. Similarly, both in the opening of ‘You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,’ when Bings suggests that someone knit Brigitte Bardot a ‘hug-me-tight’ so she won’t ‘catch her death of a cold’ and, in ‘Calcutta,’ when he refers to a snake as a ‘Hope double,’ his line readings tickle Miss Clooney’s funny bone.

Billy May, a man whose sartorial sense veered close to a ‘sack of spuds,’ is right on the button with his arrangements, his sonic palettes reinvigorating compositions, some of which were already two, three, and incredibly four decades old by the late 50’s. Bing remains content to play the heel, whilst Clooney is the cooing lovesome lass. Loaded with what we now call ‘special material,’ not a single number is delivered ‘straight,’ thus ramping up the novelty factor. Rosie wasn’t ‘top drawer’ – certainly no Ella, and suitably devoid of Julie London’s vampish qualities – yet she was highly personable, and remained Crosby’s favourite singing partner.

The CD reissue is bolstered by some television air checks, but these codas remain superfluous, the real meat lying with the infinitely superior studio ‘originals.’

Recommended viewing

Recommended reading

Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years 1903 - 1940 (Gary Giddins) 2002

Key pivotal figures in the history of music deserve a more detailed analysis of their cultural impact, and this is best achieved by breaking down their careers into key periods.

From 1934 to 1954 and beyond, Bing Crosby utterly dominated American entertainment. Nobody had the the impact on radio or television that Crosby did; nor did anybody have as many hit records and his rise in Hollywood was unprecedented. In ‘A Pocketful of Dreams,’ the first volume of the definitive Crosby biography, award-winning music critic Gary Giddins chronicles the ascension of Bing’s career. From his early days in college minstrel shows and vaudeville, to his first hit recordings; from his eleven-year triumph as star of America’s most popular radio show, to his first success in Hollywood teaming up with Bob Hope, Giddins provides the most detailed study yet of the rise of an American star.

Bing Crosby reflected the aspirations and fears of America itself, and reinvented himself like no star before him ever had. His influence extended to Sinatra and Elvis, and far beyond. Published to coincide with the author’s extensive partcipation in Ken Burns’ 18-hour PBS documentary Jazz, A Pocketful of Dreams recaptures one of the richest chapters of American history, and firmly reclaims Crosby’s place in it.

Giddins is an award winning author, critic, essayist, producer and educator. His website can be located at:


The Gonzoga University Bing Crosby Collection

Gonzaga University is a private Catholic, Jesuit, and humanistic university providing education to more than 7,800 students. Situated along the Spokane River near downtown Spokane, Washington, it is routinely recognized among the West’s best comprehensive regional universities.

Crosby lived in Spokane from the tender age of three, hence the university’s strong association with the singer.