Harry Lillis Crosby (1903-1977) was one of the best-loved show business personalities of his time. He seta crooning style which was imitated for years, recorded over 1,600 songs, had his own radio show for over 20 years, starred in over 60 films, and made many guest appearances and specials for television.
Bing Crosby was born in Tacoma, Washington, on May 2, 1903 (although there is some dispute about the year, which is also variously stated as 1901 and 1904). He was one of seven children, all of whom were given music lessons by their musically inclined parents (one brother, Bob Crosby, later earned fame and fortune as a band-leader in the 1930s and 1940s). While he was still a boy the family moved to Spokane, Washington, where he grew up, graduating from a Jesuit high school in 1920 and for a while attending the Jesuit Gonzaga University.
He was christened Harry Lillis Crosby at birth, but was dubbed Bing while in grade school. According to his autobiography, he was an avid fan of a comic strip called "The Bingville Bugle" which appeared in one of the Spokane Sunday newspapers. Friends noticed that, like a number of characters in this strip, the young Crosby had large ears and took to calling him "Bingo" which in time was shortened to Bing. Publicity material issued during the 1930s, however, asserted that his name came from the fact that when he played cowboys and Indians as a child he shouted "bing" instead of "bang."
Crosby began singing professionally in the early 1920s. Throughout the decade he was active with a number of singing groups. The most notable of these groups was the Rhythm Boys, a trio which achieved a great deal of popularity through its association with the then immensely successful Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The trio became an important part of Whiteman's act, touring with the orchestra across America. But in time the trio decided to strike out on its own in Hollywood. Soon the group broke up, and in the early 1930s Crosby achieved recognition on his own.
A Natural for Movies and Radio
Crosby's beautiful voice and engaging style were perfect for the movies, which had just converted to sound, and to radio broadcasting, which was just coming into its own as a national medium. As the knowledgeable Garson Kanin has pointed out with regard to Crosby at this time: "nothing is so powerful as a crooner who has met his time." Crosby's mellifluous voice, his laid-back persona, and his casual delivery set a crooning style for singers that was widely imitated for years. But he had no real competition until the 1940s and the advent of Frank Sinatra.
Crosby's radio career began in 1930 while he was performing in night clubs in Los Angeles as a band singer. By the following year he had his own 15-minute radio show, and he would have some kind of radio show for over two decades, until the mid-1950s. His theme song, "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day," became one of radio broadcasting's classic theme songs. Crosby is probably best remembered as a radio personality for his stint as the star of NBC's hour long Kraft Music Hall with which he was associated from 1935 to 1946.
When after World War II Crosby wanted to make use of newly developed technology to pre-record the show he met strong resistance from NBC and from the sponsor, Kraft. He moved to another network and easily found another sponsor. Crosby was a star in various mediums. His movies drew well at the box office; his records sold in the millions. But as journalist John Dunning convincingly argued, "radio first spread his name far and wide …, and kept Crosby synonymous with top show business for three decades."
Less good fortune marked Crosby's forays into television. He made many guest appearances before undertaking a weekly show in the mid-1960s. It lasted only a single season and was not a critical success. In 1966 Crosby did his first Christmas special; the last one was aired two months after his death. These specials attracted millions of Crosby's fans and were generally considered successful. Yet, overall, television was not a medium that was kind to Crosby.
A Success in the Movies
The movies were another matter. Crosby was a top star for over 30 years, and for a period of time in the 1940s he was among the top ten box office draws in the United States. He made over 60 films, most of them for Paramount, which released 45 of the films. His association with the studio lasted for a quarter of a century. His movie career began in the Paul Whiteman film King of Jazzin 1930 as one of the Rhythm Boys.
His first important role in a Paramount film was in The Big Broadcast (1932), in which he played a happy-go-lucky crooner singing at a failing radio station. This film, which gave him his big break and which was successful at the box office, set the pattern for most of the other movies he made during the 1930s. These movies were light-weight comedies with Crosby as an easy-going singer with an affable style. It made no difference if the setting was on shipboard (Anything Goes, 1936), at a girl's school (Going Hollywood, 1933), by a showboat (Mississippi, 1935), or in contemporary Los Angeles (Sing You Sinners, 1938).
While he continued to make some similar films during the 1940s, it was the "Road" films that moved his star even higher. In 1940 he embarked with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour on the Road to Singapore. Over the years there followed Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1945), Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952), and Road to Hong Kong (1962). All of these films were good-natured spoofs which played on the personalities of their leads and were filmed with amiable gags, outrageous quips, and a variety of send-ups.
Another important extension of his talents also took place during the 1940s when he played a relaxed amiable singing Irish priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). Both these films were smash hits, and Crosby was critically acclaimed. For his first portrayal of Father O'Malley he was awarded an Oscar. These films were followed by more conventional musicals such as Blue Skies (1946), Mr. Music (1950), and Just For You (1952), which were no more or less than their titles indicate.
As the audience for such film fare began to diminish in the 1950s Crosby changed pace and undertook with considerable success a number of dramatic roles, including the part of the has-been alcoholic Broadway actor in the film version of Clifford Odets' bittersweet play The Country Girl. For his moving portrayal Crosby won an Oscar nomination and a New York Film Critics Award. His film career declined in the 1960s. His last major role, really a character part, was as a drunken doctor in the embarrassing remake (1966) of the classic 1939 Western Stagecoach. His last on-screen appearance was as one of the narrators in the nostalgic compilation film That's Entertainment (1974), which dealt with MGM's musical past.
Millions of Records
One of Crosby's films—Holiday Inn (1942)—provided him with his greatest success as a recording artist. The Irving Berlin song "White Christmas," sung by Crosby in this film as the lament of a New Englander spending Christmas in snowless Southern California, struck a responsive chord during World War II when millions of soldiers were away from home during the holidays. Crosby's recording of that song has remained a best seller since then. It is estimated to be among the best selling singles ever recorded, having sold over 100 million copies. It has contributed to the fact that Crosby is among the greatest selling recording artists of all time. During his 51-year recording career Crosby recorded more than 1,600 songs and is estimated to have sold over 400 million records.
Bing Crosby was married twice. The first time, in 1930, was to the actress-singer Dixie Lee, who died of cancer in 1952. They had four sons—Gary (born 1934), Dennis and Phillip (born 1935), and Lindsay (born 1938). In 1957 Crosby married actress-starlet Kathryn Grant who was some 30 years younger than him. They had two boys (H. L. Crosby, Jr., born 1958, and Nathaniel, born 1961) and a girl (Mary, born 1959). Crosby died as the result of a massive heart attack on October 14th, 1977, while playing golf on a course in Spain. He is buried in Los Angeles.
During his years in show business Crosby earned a fortune, which he augmented by wise investments and careful management. At his death Crosby was estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, and his holdings were said to include everything from real estate and oil and gas wells to stock in the Coca-Cola company. He was one of the wealthiest show business personalities of his day and also one of the best loved. His popularity never really waned. He was, to use cinema historian John Kobal's words, "an American institution … relaxed to the point of disinterest, or so it seemed, but beneath that outward charm lay a tough showbusiness professional. …."
Further Reading on Harry Lillis Crosby
Bing Crosby's autobiography is Call Me Lucky (1953). His second wife, Kathryn Crosby, has written an interesting memoir, Bing and Other Things (1967). The authorized biography is by Charles Thompson (1976). Other friendly biographies are by Bob Thomas (1978) and Barry Ulanov (1948). Crosby's son Gary also published a biography of his father, Going My Own Way (1983), and Kathryn Crosby released another memoir, My Life with Bing (1983). A quick once over of the films is by Robert Bookbinder (1977). Donald Shepherd and Robert L. Slatzer, Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man is an unfriendly biography (1981).