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Biography

Singer, actor. Born Harry Lillis Crosby on May 2, 1903 (some sources say 1904), in Tacoma, Washington, the fourth of seven children to Harry Lowe Crosby, a bookkeeper, and Kate Harrigan. His nickname “Bing” was derived from a popular comic strip figure that he admired as a child.

Crosby graduated from Gonzaga University High School in Spokane, Washington and enrolled at Gonzaga University. Before dropping out, Crosby had been singing with a local group. In 1925 he and the band's piano player, Al Rinker, went to Los Angeles, where they developed a singing act. In 1927 they were hired by the immensely successful Paul Whiteman, whose big band helped define the Jazz Age. Later, Crosby and Rinker were joined by Harry Barris, a singer and songwriter. The trio performed as Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys. (One of Crosby's first successful recordings was the Harry Barris-Gordon Clifford song "I Surrender, Dear," which also provided the title for a two-reeler featuring Crosby that was produced by Mack Sennett in 1931.) After touring separately and with Whiteman, the Rhythm Boys appeared with Whiteman's big band in an early talking picture, The King of Jazz, in 1930.

The next year Crosby became a solo star after William S. Paley, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, began giving him airtime on a sustained basis. Although Crosby had already done some film work, it was his growing radio audiences, and a record run of performances at the Paramount Theater in New York City in 1932, that made him a popular idol and guaranteed more and better parts in movies. He had several radio programs during the 1930's, enjoying his greatest success with "The Kraft Music Hall," of which he became host in 1935. The program featured as guests many of the biggest names in show business and included a resident comedian with whom Crosby exchanged wisecracks. The annual highlight of this series was Crosby's Christmas Show, which later became a feature of the holiday season on television.

Crosby's singing style, known as "crooning"--a relaxed, seemingly effortless rendition of sunny songs and ballads--was welcomed by Americans suffering from the Great Depression blues. So, too, was the humor employed on his radio shows and in films. A natural ad-libber, Crosby had the timing of a comedian and could perform equally well as straight man or comic. His growing popularity was of great benefit to the recording industry, which had suffered near catastrophic losses during the Great Depression. Record sales nationwide had fallen from $73 million in 1928 to only $5 million in 1934 when Crosby became the first artist to sign with Decca Records, enabling the firm to survive hard times and become a leader in the industry.

Although Crosby always had an attractive voice, in early recordings his style resembles that of jazz singers of the 1920's, Al Jolson in particular. He often sang near the top of his range and with greater intensity than in later years. As he matured, Crosby stayed with his natural baritone, avoiding the thinner, high end of his range and abandoning jazz mannerisms as a rule, although he continued to slur certain notes ("groaning," it was called, and he was sometimes called "the groaner").

Crosby was one of the first popular singers to take advantage of electronic amplification, thereby pioneering a revolution in pop music. Before the microphone was introduced, lungpower and projection were important to pop singers, whose styles were built around these requirements. Crosby, in contrast, developed an intimate, almost conversational way of putting over a song, knowing that the microphone would carry his subtleties of inflection and phrasing to every audience member. Though other singers followed his lead, none equaled his mastery of the idiom he had created.

Crosby was often compared with Fred Astaire, another great popular artist who made what he did look easy, but in some ways he was closer to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first major politician to adapt his oratorical style to radio--notably in the "fireside chats." Crosby's influence persists to this day, for although the popularity of his kind of ballad faded with the coming of rock and roll in the 1950's, the apparent informality and naturalness of contemporary "soft" rock singers result from Crosby's innovations.

In addition to his long career on radio and television, Crosby appeared in one hundred motion pictures--including two-reelers, travelogues, and cameo performances. Among the most popular feature films were his "road" movies--The Road to Singapore (1940), The Road to Zanzibar (1941), and seven others, in which he costarred with Bob Hope. Their mock feuding in pictures and over the air was one of the staples of American popular culture for several decades. Another long association, that with Louis Armstrong, dated from 1936, when they both appeared in the hit film Pennies from Heaven. They performed together often after that and made outstanding recordings as well, the last being "Bing and Satchmo" in 1960.

Although most of his films exploited his singing voice and easy charm, Crosby had considerable dramatic gifts, winning an Oscar in 1944 as best actor for his role as a priest in Going My Way. His performance opposite Grace Kelly as an alcoholic husband in the 1954 film The Country Girl, though it did not result in an Oscar, was the most accomplished of his career. Beginning in 1943, Crosby was among the top ten box office attractions for twelve consecutive years. In five of those years he headed the list. Since he was also recording and performing on the air, he was at this time easily the number one star in show business.

Of his many films Crosby's personal favorite was High Society (1956), which had a superb score by Cole Porter and featured Grace Kelly again, plus Frank Sinatra and a stellar cast including Louis Armstrong, Louis Calhern, and Celeste Holm. It also resulted in the twentieth and last of his records to sell a million copies, "True Love," a duet sung with Kelly.

During World War II, Crosby entertained the troops at home and abroad. Although "Silent Night" was the most popular song he ever recorded, the most popular song of the war was Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," introduced by Crosby in the film Holiday Inn (1942). It was the first song in a decade to sell more than one million copies of sheet music, and led the Hit Parade--music's equivalent of a Nielsen rating--nine times. As sung by Crosby, it embodied the overwhelming nostalgia induced by the war's separation of loved ones better than any other piece of music.

After the war Crosby led the music industry through its next technical revolution, becoming the first performer to record his radio show on audiotape. He did this when he left "The Kraft Music Hall" and started a new program, "Philco Radio Time," on the American Broadcasting Company network in 1946. This step marked the beginning of the end of live radio performances. From taping his shows Crosby progressed to recording vocals in Los Angeles over instrumental tracks recorded earlier in London. In his fifty-one years as a recording artist, he went from recording on wax to using thirty-two-track tapes.

Crosby recorded more than 1,600 songs that sold at least 500 million copies. He seldom rerecorded, unlike many artists, who recorded their most popular songs over and over again. There were some notable exceptions, such as the five-record Decca album, Bing--A Musical Biography, which was released in 1954. Near the end of his life a two-record set of his London Palladium concerts, Big Crosby Live at the London Palladium, included a selection of his hits from the 1920's through the 1970's. Crosby was always most interested in fresh material; few, if any, popular artists equaled him in the number of new songs introduced. Curiously, he never learned to read music. By the late 1950's Crosby's long and brilliant career in show business was winding down. Ballads were giving way to rock. The tastes of movie audiences had changed. After 1960 he appeared in only seven films, two of them travelogues. His portrayal of a drunken physician in the remake of Stagecoach (1966) was much admired by critics. He appeared on television in his Christmas specials, as a guest on other shows, and as one of the rotating hosts of a series called "Hollywood Palace," which ran from 1964 to 1970. His only series, "The Bing Crosby Show," a situation comedy, lasted just one season (1964).

In 1975, Crosby made his first theater appearance in many years at a tribute honoring the Mills Brothers. The next year he organized and starred in his own concert, which was highly successful at the box office and praised by critics. He gave many such concerts thereafter, including several at the London Palladium--one engagement there lasted for two weeks. These concerts typically lasted two hours, with Crosby being on stage throughout, and ended with a thirty-minute medley of his favorite hits. For a man over seventy, who had had part of a lung removed as a result of a fungus acquired in Africa, these were considerable feats.

Crosby married Wilma Winifred Wyatt, an actress known professionally as Dixie Lee, on September 29, 1930; they had four sons. Her death in 1952 ended a marriage that had survived despite many difficulties, some a result of Crosby's harsh disciplining of his children--a futile regime that produced more rebelliousness than obedience. In October 1957, Crosby married Kathryn Grant, an actress thirty years his junior. They had three children.

Crosby was one of the best-paid entertainers in the country and, despite the high taxes levied on earned income during the 1940's and 1950's, he amassed a fortune. But he made light of his wealth, telling Barbara Walters in a 1977 interview for one of her television specials that he would leave an estate of about $1.2 million. They were, at the time, on the grounds of his Hillsborough, California mansion, which alone was worth more than that. Crosby had incorporated himself in 1936, shortly after he began earning big money. Over the years his companies, limited partnerships, copartnerships, and corporate affiliations spanned an enormous range of businesses, including investments in real estate; frozen orange juice; mines; oil wells; cattle; race horses; a horse breeding farm; a race track; music publishing; videotape and audiotape recordings and machines; professional baseball, football, and hockey teams; prizefighters; radio and television stations; banks; and television and motion picture production companies. At his death he was probably worth in excess of $150 million.

Apart from show business, sport was Crosby's great passion. He enjoyed hunting, fishing, and going on safaris, but his dedication to golf, which he played expertly, was world famous. The Bing Crosby Pro-Amateur Golf Tournament, held annually at Pebble Beach, California, became one of golf's classic events. In 1950, Crosby was awarded the William D. Richardson Memorial Trophy for his contributions to the game. On October 14, 1977, while playing at the Moralejo Golf Club near Madrid, Spain, he suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly. Crosby was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Los Angeles.

As a young man Crosby had pursued wine and women in addition to song. Indeed, it appears that Paul Whiteman let the Rhythm Boys go because of Crosby's drinking--which was interfering with his performances. Crosby was a spendthrift as well, and had little to show for his money when it first began to roll in. But during the early 1930's, as his star rose, Crosby changed. He stopped drinking excessively, created an organization to handle his business affairs in which his brothers Laurance and Everett held key positions, and became the complete professional. As so often in show business, the public image of Crosby as an easygoing, unflappable charmer was part of his act. In private he was more disciplined, more reserved, sterner, and not especially generous. However, his work as a performing artist was close to faultless. From the time he began taking his career seriously until his last performance, at the London Palladium four days before his death, Bing Crosby gave the public its money's worth each and every time. One of the greatest American popular artists, he was important, too, for personifying gentlemanliness and grace. Crosby was loved all over the world, but he also had the world's respect.

Biography Resource Center, © 2001 Gale Group

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