The incomparable Bing Crosby had perhaps the most successful career of any artist in the twentieth century. As both singer and actor he entertained the public for more than forty years and spent much of that time on top of the charts, both music and box office. His smooth, rich voice is instantly recognizable by all and capable of subtle emotions that few other singers could match. He was America's favorite crooner, recording everything from ballads to swing to blues, and his lovable personality shone through both over the airwaves and on the silver screen.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, on May 3, 1903,* Bing's family moved to Spokane in 1906. He received his nickname during childhood when friends began calling him after the lead character in the comic strip ''The Bingville Bugle.'' In 1920 Bing entered Gonzaga College to study law. His career choice changed, however, after he bought a mail-order set of drums and joined a local group called The Musicaladers, managed by Al Rinker. When the group broke up in 1925 Bing and Al headed to Los Angeles, where they joined the vaudeville circuit. Their big break came one night in 1926 when orchestra leader Paul Whiteman heard them sing and hired them.
Shortly after their debut with Whiteman problems arose during a performance at the Paramount Theatre in New York in January 1927. The theatre didn't have electronic amplification, and the audience had difficulty hearing Crosby and Rinker's vocals. To solve the problem they were teamed with a third vocalist, Harry Barris, and they returned to the orchestra in March as the Rhythm Boys. The result was a big hit, and they soon became Whiteman's star attraction.
Bing's love for having a good time eventually began to get in the way of his performances, however. When he was arrested for drunken driving during the filming of the movie The King of Jazz, featuring Whiteman and his orchestra, it was the last straw for the bandleader, who released the trio after the completion of the film. The group soon found a job with Gus Arnheim's band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. Arnheim began pushing Bing to the forefront as a soloist, and in January 1931 Bing recorded his first solo hit, ''I Surrender Dear.''
Increasingly, crowds came to hear Bing, and the Rhythm Boys as a group receded to the background. As Bing's popularity soared he began to skip performances at the club. When the manager docked his pay Bing walked out in protest, taking the Rhythm Boys with him. The manager persuaded the local musicians' union to ban the trio for breach of contract, and the Rhythm Boys were forced to dissolve. By that time, however, Bing had established himself well enough as a performer that he didn't need a group or an orchestra to support him. He was quite capable of maintaining himself as a solo artist.
At about this time Bing also began his career in film. He had attracted the attention of movie producer Max Sennett while he was performing at the Cocoanut Grove. Sennett hired him to star in six comedy shorts, which led to his signing a contract with Paramount. His first of fifty-five feature films was The Big Broadcast in 1932. Between 1944 and 1948 Bing was the number one box office draw in the country. In 1948 he won an Oscar for his performance as a priest in Going My Way. Some of his most popular films include the Road movies with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.
Bing recorded more than 1,700 songs during his career, most of them on the Decca label, for whom he was under contract from 1934 to 1955. He is considered the most successful musical artist of all time. His recording and film activities fell off during the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, as he was plagued by health problems. A non-cancerous tumor was removed from Bing's lung in 1973. After his recovery he resumed an active career, recording ten albums in the last three years of his life. The end came suddenly. Bing suffered a heart attack and died while playing golf in Spain on October 14, 1977.
*Throughout his life, Bing claimed May 2, 1904 as his birthdate. It was only after his death that baptismal records confirmed his true birthday.