He was born the middle of seven children in the great American northwest. His father was an English-American bookkeeper and his mother a second-generation Irish American, making young Harry about as American as apple pie. The rest of his story is classically American as well as he grew to become one of the grandest figures in Christmas history, touching a variety of American industries to become the first multimedia superstar.
Harry was born in an era predating airplanes, radios and automobiles. By the time he would pass from this world he mastered the emerging technologies of the 20th century to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams and famous and respected all over the world.
Growing up in Spokane, Washington, the magic of technology was far from young Harry’s mind and even further still from his grasp. But he had quite the active imagination and loved to read a spoof newspaper publication from his home town. Harry so loved to read and mimic the Sunday feature that a neighbor took to calling Harry “Bingo from Bingville”, a name that somehow stuck with him. Harry would henceforth be known as Bing.
Bing Crosby’s rise to superstardom is a familiar American success story. He was a man of considerable talent whose hard work put him in the right place at the right time and continues to inspire generations of Americans born long after he died.
His early success influenced an entire stable of American artists who fashioned their own talents after his and tried to mimic his business success. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett all credit Bing Crosby as a guiding influence. Bennett’s uncle told the young Tony to “keep your eye on Bing Crosby. He’s the one you want to be like. He taught us all how to do it”, Bennett says.
What was it?
It was a warm musical style that combined elements of note-bending jazz with the rhythm of pop to create a sound that seemed to reach out from the radio and affect people. It was more than just the buttery smooth delivery of his singing style. It was a distinctive overall package.
It is difficult for many young people today to think of Bing Crosby in these terms. That is likely because Crosby had such a long career that was masterfully managed and crafted as he aged. His impact, especially on Christmas music, is indeed ageless.
But in 1928 Crosby was just another singer from a jerkwater town whose own inspiration was born of vaudeville performers. Al Jolsen was a favorite, for example, and as performers would come in to Spokane’s small theater – where Bing worked — he learned the craft of using his voice to great effect in hearing the likes of Jolsen belt out song after song to reach those in the back rows.
Bing paired with other singers and band leaders of that time, getting radio airtime and solo spots as he began to be recognized for his singular baritone sound and the terrific range that enabled him to perform a wide variety of music.
His earliest known Christmas song was a solo version of Silent Night, but it would become just the first in a long line of Christmas performances.
By 1931 Crosby had gone solo, performing with some of the biggest bands of the era, capturing radio audiences on both CBS and NBC. The segments were just 15 minutes long but they were so effective in reaching America’s youth that Bing became, seemingly overnight, a sensation.
This was in a time long before Elvis, Sinatra or the Beatles. He would go on to greater heights, some would say, than all of those artists combined.
Crafting his musical style was one thing. Getting radio producers to allow him to perform it the way he wanted was quite another. In this respect, the early efforts of Bing Crosby foreshadowed what was to come in future heartthrobs Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
The creative stifling that Crosby suffered from was not unique. While radio was the perfect medium to make him known he had to sing the songs in a way different than his talent dictated.
He clashed with producers over sound quality, song length and arrangement, insisting that their only concern was for the studio audience who saw him versus the millions instead who were only hearing him. To prove his point he merely pointed to the toupee they made him wear.
As Crosby’s influence and wealth expanded so too did his reach in changing the circumstances of how he performed. In building his career he had pioneered the art of singing with – instead of in front of — the microphone. Those early bits of artistic touches with the microphone might seem to be simple showmanship today that everyone does – but back in those days it was radical and unheard of and it changed how artists performed and put the focus on the soloist instead of the band playing behind him.
Crosby built his own studios and started to record his own shows. This allowed him to place the microphones where he wanted, to produce the numbers he wanted in the way that he wanted them. He would rehearse and record before trying it before a studio audience, sometimes using the rehearsal copies of the recording in a final show package instead of the live performance. It took some doing but Crosby was finally able to persuade the networks to air his recorded programs. This allowed him to focus on show production in the studio, sometimes producing an entire series of shows at one time while freeing up his time for live appearances. This broadened his exposure even more.
In the production of his own shows Crosby invented standard techniques that are still is use today. He invented the laugh track, for example. Working with German engineers prior to World War II, Crosby invested in the development of recording tape technology that was so clean it could be used to produce broadcast quality recordings that sounded as good as live performances. This led to other things like over-dubbing, allowing an artist to harmonize with himself or other singers, taking the performance of a song to a whole new level.
Throughout the 1930s and into the 40s Crosby became the leading singer in America and radio’s biggest star. He parlayed that into acting, eventually starring in 79 feature films over the course of his career. This dual media exposure made Crosby the first superstar and set the stage for a later career that kept him in demand well into his 70s.
Outside of performing music and acting, Crosby was a savvy business man who invested heavily in technology and new business. His self-produced radio shows, for example, were sponsored by something called Minute Maid orange juice, an emerging idea of the time built on investors like Crosby. He dabbled in golf, using his love for the game to promote charities and he became one of the biggest owners in race horse history. Though he often joked on his shows about his horses coming in last for decades the horses produced on his farms excelled and established Crosby in the world of horse racing with a sterling reputation.
His image was wholly American. In tune with the times, Crosby seemed to sing what people were thinking. When Irving Berlin wrote the song White Christmas in 1941 there was never another choice when it came down to who would be singing it. And though a simple song, according to Crosby himself, it spoke directly to the American heart and soared to the top of the charts and stayed there – year, after year, after year. For 11 consecutive Christmas seasons other artists tried to knock off White Christmas – including Crosby himself with other classic tunes like I’ll Be Home for Christmas and It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.
But White Christmas could not be stopped, eventually becoming the best-selling single of all time, outperforming decades of classic hits from artists all over the world. At more than 70 years old, the song White Christmas remains the defacto anthem of Christmas with hundreds of millions sold and making it the most performed Christmas song by artists in nearly every genre.
World War II not only redefined Christmas music in America it too reshaped an emerging image of Bing Crosby, who along with Bob Hope, served during the war entertaining the troops in war zones. He was the man everyone wanted to hear sing. And by 1948 he was considered the most trusted man in America, bigger than the president of the United States and even the Pope.
During these years Crosby began to churn out what are now considered classic Christmas albums. Jingle Bells, sung with the Andrew Sisters, Melekalicki Maka, and Christmas in Kilarney continue to be alternative Bing favorites.
As the 1950s came around Crosby naturally took to television and annual Christmas specials. In 1957 he produced another Christmas album, this one called How Lovely is Christmas.
As time marched on Crosby took on the role of the elder statesman of music, appearing alongside Elvis, Sinatra and other stars of the day. He remained visible and in demand well into the 1970s.
Little did the world know that this would be one of Crosby’s last Christmas performances. He died suddenly after a round of golf in Spain in 1977.
Crosby’s name belongs alongside those of other artists such as Charles Dickens, Clement Moore and Norman Rockwell in shaping the modern Christmas. The ever unfolding scroll of American music at Christmas is anchored by Bing Crosby and the music he made for a generation that never seems to lose its influence.