Regular readers know that I’ve offered up a number of pieces about crooners, and will also recall that I’ve written about Bing Crosby more than once. In fact, just a week or so back I featured him in a post called Laughing At The Cowhand, and another — Bing Crosby Gets a Mulligan — is one of the most-read ever. But today I thought I’d feature the early Bing Crosby, a period in his life when he more or less reinvented the art of crooning.
It’s a little ironic that my inspiration this time around was a book about . . . Frank Sinatra. I’ve been reading Frank: The Voice, James Kaplan’s great new biography of Ol’ Blue Eyes. In the book, the author not only repeats the well-known fact that Sinatra idolized Der Bingle (as he was sometimes called) but adds details of how the young wannabe would listen spellbound to Crosby on the radio in his New Jersey home.
Over a period of several years beginning in the late 1920s, Harry Lillis ‘Bing’ Crosby progressed from singing in an obscure group called the Rhythm Boys to full-fledged superstar — not only on records and radio, but also in the movies. He did it with a combination of incredible talent, hard work, and being able to take full advantage of something new — the modern electronic microphone.
Crooners were nothing new at that time, but the technology wasn’t always up to the task of presenting them at their best, which made megaphone-wielding singers like Rudy Vallee the norm. And even though Crosby’s idol was Al Jolson — whose vigorous voice needed no amplification — Bing was one of the first to wrap his smooth baritone around the modern microphone and sing to his audience in a way that curled ladies’ toes.
Crosby began to attract notice while still performing with the Rhythm Boys, a singing act attached to the Paul Whiteman orchestra. As you can see below in an excerpt from a rare 1930 color film called The King Of Jazz, Crosby was already beginning to show the singing style that would make him a star. His talent was unmistakable and his confidence remarkable. Even in the early days he was so fearless — and so comfortable in his utter coolness — that he could both croon and scat-sing while recording a song with the Mills Brothers.
I guess it wasn’t that surprising that a teenage Frank Sinatra would find him so fascinating. And he just might have learned a few things too. After all, Sinatra would soon have a lot of ladies swooning too.