Bing grew up in a large working-class Irish-Catholic family
in Spokane, Washington and lived in a simple world. His father spent an entire pay check on a Victrola so the family could have music. Crosby discovered the sounds of John McCormack, Sophie Tucker, and Al Jolson. He also developed an early love of Dixieland bands, which in Bing’s formative years were comprised of all-white musicians.
His first trip outside of Spokane was at the age of 22,
when he dropped out of law school at Gonzaga College (now University) to head to Seattle and eventually California with a neighborhood pal, Al Rinker. Their style of popular singing and comedy made them popular and they were eventually hired by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Whiteman partnered them with songwriter and singer Harry Barris, and the three became The Rhythm Boys. As the orchestra toured in the late 1920s, Crosby was exposed to black musicians and the jazz influences that dramatically changed his singing style.
Singers prior to Crosby were tenors who might use a megaphone to amplify their voice in a theatre or club setting, or “belters”, such as the legendary Jolson, one of Crosby’s primary influences.
However, at the time Crosby was becoming known, the microphone was just starting to be used to amplify a singer’s voice. No longer did a vocalist need to be loud or sing in a high range to be heard – now a singer could sing in a natural style and be heard by individuals. Crosby’s baritone was perfectly suited for the new technology, and his style allowed the lyrics of Gershwin, Porter, or Berlin to shine. Several future notables followed Crosby’s lead and the era of the crooner was ushered in.
Rarely are Crosby’s contributions to race relations mentioned. He quietly contributed to the defense fund for the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s and the Mills Brothers, an African-American quartet from Ohio, were featured performers on Crosby’s 1933-34 Woodbury Soap radio show at Bing’s insistence.
Crosby had befriended jazz musician Louis Armstrong in his early performing days and in 1936, when Crosby was set to star in the film Pennies from Heaven, it was at his insistence that Armstrong receive equal billing to the white stars of the picture – something unheard of at the time.
Crosby also added a black gospel group, The Charioteers, to his Kraft Music Hall show in 1942, again challenging the status quo of network radio.
He actually crossed racial barriers as early as 1930, when as a member of the Rhythm Boys he recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. To Crosby, this only made sense – he loved jazz music and Ellington and Armstrong were the best of the jazz musicians – race and petty politics didn’t get in Crosby’s way. He merely wanted to make good music.
Bing’s desire to record his radio shows and not do them live helped drive the successful development of audio tape.
As the financial backer and first implementer of this new technology in 1947, he revolutionized radio – and eventually television, through his financial support of video tape development. Along the way, Bing’s support and encouragement let to musicians Les Paul and Buddy Cole developing overdubbing, which ultimately led to multi-track recording.
Another Crosby innovation was the development of the “laugh track”. When his taped radio shows had been edited to remove “goofs”, or “fluffs”, as Bing called them, a gap in time opened. Just a few seconds short of the time needed to fill the entire 30-minute radio program, Crosby suggested his engineers edit in a few extra seconds of laughter on a joke of which he was especially fond. It isn’t known who first added recorded laughter to shows that weren’t funny.