“That’s just a press agent’s puff… You know how press agents are; they’ll say anything.” – Bing Crosby, 1977
The uppermost quote, whether concocted by a press agent or not, must certainly be true. Bing Crosby’s voice literally saturated the 20th Century. This is a statistical verity that can hardly be denied. Nobody else even comes close in terms of longevity, frequency, popularity, or familiarity. Consider the endless string of song-drenched Hollywood movies that made him one of the top box-office draws in motion picture history. Then there are the thousands of phonograph recordings that have sold nearly a billion units on 78, 45 & 33 1/3 rpm and tape formats, as well as the CDs and downloads that continue to make these Crosby records available in every corner of the world. Television, too, played a huge role in delivering the voice of Bing Crosby to millions of people, first on a series of heavily anticipated “all-star spectacular” specials during the 1950s, throughout the 1960s and his six-year stint as the recurring host of “The Hollywood Palace” and countless guest shots, culminating in the annual Christmas specials during the 1970s, for which TV audiences perhaps best remember him.
But though Crosby is primarily lauded these days for the way in which he reigned as king of the box-office and jukeboxes of his day, there is no doubt that the primary factor in disseminating Bing Crosby’s voice to the masses during his peak years of legendary popularity was radio.
Radio was the wonder of the age; the miracle invention that, combined with the advent of the big networks, turned the entire country into a single recreation room. It’s important to remember that Crosby wasn’t just the latest in a string of performers who captured the attention of an established radio audience. Rather, Bing entered the field when the whole idea of electronically reproduced entertainment (network radio, talking pictures, and electronically recorded discs) was just blossoming. As such, he and radio matured together as Bing became the first mass-media pop music star, introducing millions of people to a concept that has shaped the industry ever since. Significantly, the first successful radio network (NBC) appeared the same year that Bing Crosby made his very first recordings. Before long these three entities: radio, records, and Bing Crosby, would become synonymous in the hearts and minds of the public.
It wasn’t just the timing though, or the fact that Bing Crosby’s voice was a naturally pleasing instrument that carried beautifully over the airwaves. The fact is, Bing Crosby was an intuitive genius who instinctively combined his jazz-informed, highly original and improvisational conception of vocalizing with a deep understanding of the microphone’s sensitivity to nuance, subtlety and vocal shading, creating intimacy. His became the first completely “Radiophonic” voice of the era, one which was totally geared towards the advantages and requirements of electronic presentation and reproduction.
Glib, charming, confident, and altogether admirable, Bing Crosby (or his handlers) practically invented and went on to perfect the use of broadcasting as part of the new cycle of pop music promotion. Crosby’s latest songs, heard either in his films or purchased by legions of record fans, were highly anticipated as part of his broadcasts, which in turn sent countless additional listeners right back to the theaters and record emporiums, etc., in a can’t-miss chain reaction model of star-powered commerce. The “American Idol” franchise has nothing on Bing Crosby.
Bing’s work on radio began during his years as a more-or-less anonymous band singer, and carried on through decades of Bing-helmed series and additional specials and guest appearances. His longevity in the medium was singular: He started out during the industry’s formative years, and remained a regular radio performer – creating original programming specifically for radio listeners – into the early 1960s, long after his contemporaries had moved into TV, quit performing entirely, or simply passed on.
Network radio series that either starred or regularly featured Bing Crosby:
- OLD GOLD PRESENTS PAUL WHITEMAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA (1929-1930)
Bing is a featured member of the greater Whiteman organization.
- BING CROSBY – THE CREMO SINGER (1931-1932)
- MUSIC THAT SATISFIES – (1933)
- THE MAKERS OF WOODBURY FACIAL SOAP PRESENT BING CROSBY – (1933-1935)
- THE KRAFT MUSIC HALL – (1935-1946) Crosby’s most famous series.
- PHILCO RADIO TIME – (1946-1949) Network radio’s first prerecorded series.
- THE BING CROSBY SHOW FOR CHESTERFIELD – (1949-1952)
- THE BING CROSBY SHOW FOR GENERAL ELECTRIC – (1952-1954)
- THE BING CROSBY SHOW – (1954-1956) Fifteen-minute daily series.
- THE FORD ROAD SHOW – (1957-1958) Five-minute daily series.
- THE CROSBY-CLOONEY SHOW – (1960-1962) Twenty-minute daily series.
as host or contributor to wartime broadcasts for servicemen, including such legendary series productions as “Mail Call”, and “Command Performance”.
Radio brought the voice and personality of Bing Crosby into the American home during some very turbulent and transitional years. He captivated listeners during the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean & Cold Wars, and that space-age “brief shining moment” when the hopeful world of Camelot co-existed with the local neighborhood basement fallout shelter. The postwar changes in music and the arrival of television also had great impact on entertainment in general and Bing’s career specifically, but he survived them all, even if his radio career finally succumbed in the early 1960s. For almost every other radio star it had happened a decade earlier.
Of course, radio had changed drastically by this time. With television serving as the public’s primary source of entertainment, radio became the domain of the disc jockey. Stations supplied a non-stop backdrop of a given musical format – i.e. “Rock”, “Easy Listening”, “Classical”, etc. Disc jockeys were nothing new; they’d been around since the beginning of radio, and even in this realm, it’s important to note Bing Crosby’s all-encompassing historical role. Edward J. Smith, associate editor of Musical Digest Magazine, published statistics in the 1940s stating that of the 80,000 hours spent broadcasting recorded music over the nation’s radio outlets, more than HALF of those hours were devoted to the playing of Bing Crosby records. Many of these Crosby spins were to be heard during deejay “Crosby shows”, wherein Bing’s records would be played in local programs of 15 minutes to an hour’s length, on several stations in any given radio market – a truly remarkable, yet often unacknowledged phenomenon.
Bing’s acceptance on radio, both in his own programs and in the great frequency with which his records were played, was due to the fact that he had created a persona that relied not only upon his unique attributes as a highly uncommon and distinctive “Everyman”, but also upon his canny understanding of the ways in which his vocal skills were particularly suited to the magic of the microphone. Radio, along with movies and records, supplied the means by which Bing Crosby could, and did, become the most popular and beloved entertainer the world had ever known.
History has a tendency to pigeonhole memorable performers, to create a set of familiar clichés so as to more easily place these performers in a convenient, if over-simplified historical context. One of these clichés was the description of Bing Crosby as one whose role was to soothe, to relax his audiences into a state of pleasant lethargy in the face of the world’s problems. This does history, and Crosby, a disservice: Bing Crosby came to the American airwaves in the early 1930s on the vanguard of a new and excitingly different way to make music. He thrilled his fans, excited both male and female listeners, and inspired a generation of future singers to take up the trade. Bing created excitement and anticipation for his every professional move. Millions of radio listeners crowned him the virtual king of the airwaves, and became devotedly and enduringly enchanted by his every radiophonic utterance. For them, radio was Bing, and Bing was radio.