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Bing Crosby, America's First Superstar and More

Updated on November 7, 2014

Mature, Bing Still Had Cool

Bings reputation for jazz age sophistication and talent had inventiveness and business savvy to go with it.
Bings reputation for jazz age sophistication and talent had inventiveness and business savvy to go with it. | Source

You Don't Know Bing Crosby

Decades before Elvis was big, Bing Crosby was the first real superstar, his creative energies and talent leading him to strings of hit records, movies and radio shows were everyone listened before television.

Unlike the handful of hugely popular stars to follow, he was as much a promoter of new technologies as he was an inventor of styles.

To his credit in a culture embedded with racism, Crosby risked stardom as an unselfish advocate for civil rights. When he insisted on it, Louis Armstrong became the first black movie performer to be listed in the credits. The movie was Pennies from Heaven, and this breakthrough didn't come until 1936.

Leading Edge of Mass Media Entertainment

Born too late to appreciate him in his prime, I still knew Bing Crosby as a household name growing up, his popularity so pervasive that you took for granted everyone knew who "Bing" was, nor surname required.

The Beatles, Stones and good old rock-n-roll had my generation's attention, but an innovator all his life, Crosby continued to work at fitting in. He made a movie with pop idol Fabian while in his 60s and recorded a now famous duet with David Bowie for a Christmas special in 1977. (See the video below.)

To treat longtime fans, he was also planning a new On The Road Movie with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Bing wanted On The Road To The Fountain Of Youth to have a more antic, surreal quality - like, believe it or not, Monty Python.

Televised classic movies uninterrupted by commercials has spurred a new generation's appreciation for Bing Crosby the actor. Improved restoration techniques have made many of his old recordings a pleasure to hear.

Personal Touch with Bing Crosby


A few years ago, we were lucky to watch a restored version of Crosby's hit musical, High Society, on a big screen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Introduced by Bing's widow, Kathryn, watching the movie - which also stars Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly (her last film), Celeste Holm and Louie Armstrong - was for me a discovery of the best of that American era, one still worth visiting whenever I can.

A longtime supporter of black entertainers, in the years when greats like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole were not allowed to be seated as guests in the lounges where they entertained, Bing Crosby used his star power to get Armstrong his first credited movie role, and he risked his reputation in segregated America by performing publicly and recording with both Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

A fan now, I own copies of his movies, High Society, White Christmas and Bells of St. Mary's along with numerous recordings, including duets with Fitzgerald and Armstrong, some taken from his radio shows.

But the powerful secrets that are the least known of Crosby's achievements are the innovations he came up with to advance his career, from his first transformative stage performances as a crooner to his commitment to raising troop morale in World War II and his role in pioneering the recording of performances for later broadcast.

People may not remember - or maybe his laid back style helped them forget - that Bing Crosby was a cutting edge pioneer all his life.

Bing Crosby recorded the top selling single record of all time, White Christmas, but he also invented the now ubiquitous laugh track used to make recorded programs seem to have a live audience. You love White Christmas, but Bing's laugh track has had a lot more to do with the entertainment you've appreciated all your life.


Musical Perfection

The Definitive Collection
The Definitive Collection

An updated, refreshed collection that will convince anyone that Bing Crosby was an unmatched original.

 

Bing Crosby, Crooner

A New Way To Sing

Bing Crosby's style of singing, which influenced others from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley, was innovative as much from luck as from talent.

Before Bing, popular vocalists like Al Jolson belted out songs in a vaudeville style, trying to reach the back rows of theaters. Lucky for Bing, his career launched just as microphones became popular, allowing for more careful readings.

Two other factors weighed in his favor. Like Judy Garland, he had a voice that seemed too big for his body, a rich baritone that filled a room with timbre. And by nature, he was so laid back that the relaxed delivery of his lines became known as "crooning," singing in a soft low voice - generously amplified by a microphone.

Fighting The War With Music

World War II's Greatest Morale Booster

It became popular later, but entertaining the troops stationed overseas was a way of contributing to the war effort in which Bing Crosby was a pioneer.

As a father with dependent children, Bing was ineligible for the draft, a circumstance he found embarrassing. But he was one of the first to volunteer when entertainers were asked to do their part to keep up morale. He was so effective, Yank magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Army recognized him as the person who did more for morale than anyone else.

At least partly because of that, polls showed him to be the "most admired man alive." He beat out Eisenhower, the Pope, and the legendary baseball great Jackie Robinson. Not bad for a kid from Tacoma.

Interesting, it was during his volunteer service to troop morale in World War II that led him to pioneer innovations in the broadcast industry few recognize him for these days.

Bing Crosby, Radio Pioneer

Establishing A Standard That Stuck

One of Bing Crosby’s greatest achievements as a pioneer in entertainment came from his learning about magnetic tape recording while serving in Germany. He saw how using this new technology could help produce better radio broadcasts.

In 1945, most radio broadcasts were live, warts and all, including Bing’s show on NBC. But using his popularity (and his cash), he tried to to convince the network to agree to let him record and edit his show before it went on the air. Valuing the spontaneous nature of live broadcasts, NBC said, “No,” and Bing walked out, not to return for over six months, and was sued by his sponsor, Kraft.

Mutual and upstart ABC networks were happy to broadcast his recorded shows. His production team was able to edit out gags and music that didn’t work and make repairs, shows as close to perfection as possible.

And one more important thing came out of this experience. During one taping, comedian Bob Burns had everyone howling but his jokes were too off-color and ran on too long for the broadcast. They cut the jokes but kept the laughs. They were used later to prop up a show that wasn’t funny.

Next time, you hear that annoying laugh track rise up during insipid comedy of a network sitcom, you know where it came from. Preserved and reengineered laughs came from the great innovator, Bing Crosby.

Bing and Bowie, Christmas 1977

Bing Crosby, Sharing The Stage

Welcoming friends and newcomers...

This is the biography of Bing Crosby as a pioneer. He achieved great things in his life, and most of those are well-known, but when I researched, I was surprised about how little is known about how he pioneered and innovated.

Along with what I wrote about above, he did some remarkable and original things as an entertainer. Here are what I consider highlights.

In an America then so segregated that black and white troops were kept separate throughout World War II, Bing Crosby performed enthusiastically with black performers. He recorded with Louis Armstrong as early as 1950 as well as an album of duets with Ella Fitzgerald.

Bing welcomed newcomers who competed with him for record sales and popularity. At the peak of Sinatra's popularity, Bing and Frank performed one of the best musical duets in movie history, "What A Swell Party This Is," in "High Society."

In 1960, he starred in a movie, High Time, with Fabian, a teen singing sensation, and Tuesday Weld. The theme was "Bing goes to college with a bang." He was 57, Fabian 17.

Staying modern until the end, his last recording on film was what has become a perennial favorite, his recording of Little Drummer Boy with flamboyant rocker David Bowie. At the time, Bing was 74 and died before the Christmas show aired. Bowie, his duet partner, was 27.

Bing Crosby ran out of power, or rather, his heart did, before he ran out enthusiasm or his passion to perform and innovate.

Sinatra and Crosby

High Society (1956)
High Society (1956)

My favorite. Bing, Frank, Ingrid Bergman, Celeste Holm, and Louis Armstrong.

Great music, a lot of fun and the beautiful Bergman in her last movie before becoming Princess Grace.

 

Bing Crosby Movies - Three Times Nominated for an Academy Award

Unlike other singing starts to come who turned to movies for the money, Bing Crosby really could act. He was nominated for best actor in "Bells of Saint Mary's," "Going My Way," and "The Farmer's Daughter."

But because it's so much fun, "High Society" is my favorite among his roles.

Going My Way (Universal Cinema Classics)
Going My Way (Universal Cinema Classics)

Bing's second turn as a priest sent to solve problems in a parish.

 
Holiday Inn (Special Edition)
Holiday Inn (Special Edition)

Bing plus Fred Astaire in a love triangle. The music and dance would be enough, but the story is strong and well acted.

 

Conclusion

Bing Crosby was the first of a small crowd of performers to popular in the early decades of mass media entertainment that he nearly defined it

His songs and movie performances were augmented by his genius and an innovator and inventor. This star is worth remembering forever.

What do you think?

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    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 4 years ago from West Virginia

      The Little Drummer Boy by Crosby and Bowie is one of my favorites.

    • David Stone1 profile image
      Author

      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @Elsie Hagley: Why, thank you. I appreciate that - and the great Bing Crosby.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 4 years ago from New Zealand

      I am a Bing Crosby fan, he was one of my favorites. I have a article on him also, but I thinks this ones nicer than mine.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @Erin Mellor: Right, Erin. We try to watch White Christmas every season. Thanks.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      It's not Christmas in our house until Bing sings.

    • Susan Zutautas profile image

      Susan Zutautas 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @David Stone1: What a funny thing for him to say.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @SusanDeppner: Yeah, Susan, I especially like that so many great videos are out there to plug in for Bing.Thanks.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I was raised on music by Bing Crosby and the other early crooners and we still love his music. This was a great read plus, of course, I love the videos.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @SBPI Inc: Interesting story. Bing was so much more than an entertainer.

    • SBPI Inc profile image

      SBPI Inc 4 years ago

      Great lens. I recall the Bing Crosby Open also when I was a student at the university I was engaged in a marketing assignment which was assigned by Professor Treadwell who had managed, according to him, his marketing campaign. At that time I did not know that. Th assignment was to developing a marketing plan for a new product and I thought of hat-umbrella. The day the professor was returning the graded assignment he chose my paper for open discussion. He told me directly that a hat-umbrella was a great idea but was not new because Bing had come up with the same idea a long time ago.Then he reminisced on Bing Crosby until the class was over. Oh! I did get an 'A' and really did not know about Treadwell and Bills connection or the hat-umbrella till that day.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @masunyoananda: You're welcome, and thank you for visiting.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      Forgot to mention how dismayed I am to learn that he's to blame for the "laugh track!"

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @lesliesinclair: Well, responsible for the laugh track, yes, but maybe not for its abuse.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @lesliesinclair: I think we were at the same party, but I came a little late. Thanks, Papier.

    • profile image

      masunyoananda 4 years ago

      I love reading your lenses as you have great writing skills. Thanks a lot for this interesting sharing...:)

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      I'm of an age to have enjoyed Bing Crosby in his heyday, prior to turning my fancies to the folk singers and rock guys.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @Margaret Schindel: Try out his duets with Ella or his radio show on a few records. They're great.In the meantime, did you know that the nickname "Der Bingle" came from the propaganda broadcasts he did in Germany during the war? That's what the Germans called him, and it stuck.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      I was never a big fan of most crooners (although Sinatra is one of the exceptions). But seeing Der Bingle through your eyes and learning about what a terrific guy and pioneer he was makes me want to listen to his music again with a new appreciation. Thanks!

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @Nancy Hardin: He owns Christmas in my book although Nat King Cole's version of Mel Torme's "Christmas Song" is a strong runner up.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I always loved Bing, but you've shown me a new side of him with these innovations. His voice always means Christmas to me, because nobody sings White Christmas as beautifully as he does. Lovely lens!

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @Susan Zutautas: My wife did too, but I wasn't a fan yet. Did you know that his last words were reported to be, "That was a great game of golf, fellas?"I love Bing and Fred in Holiday Inn, but my favorite Christmas movies are "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Meet Me In St. Louis." Oh, and the oldest version of "A Christmas Carol."

    • Susan Zutautas profile image

      Susan Zutautas 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      It isn't Christmas to me until I've seen Holiday Inn. One of those traditional movies for me. I actually shed tears the day I heard that Bing had passed away.

    • David Stone1 profile image
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      David Stone 4 years ago from New York City

      @BarbaraCasey: I did read that, Barbara. They also made him wear wigs he hated. I guess one more innovation is that Bing resisted being a product as so many become today.

    • profile image

      BarbaraCasey 4 years ago

      Bing Crosby was big news when I was growing up, though I didn't see his movies until they hit the TV screen. "Going My Way" and "Bells of St. Mary's" are such classics now. Did you ever read that Bing's ears stuck out so much that the movie studios wanted him to glue down his ears with spirit gum?

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