Bob Crosby is best remembered for the Dixieland band that bore his name during the 1930s and early 1940s. The Bob Crosby Orchestra, along with its combo side group, the Bob Cats, was considered one of the greatest jazz bands of all time. The orchestra was actually led by sax player Gil Rodin, however. Crosby himself was simply the front man, chosen for his personality, looks, and famous last name.
The younger brother of Bing Crosby, Bob got his first break in show business when bandleader Anson Weeks offered him a singing job in 1931. He was working for the Dorsey Brothers in 1935 when asked by Rodin to front his new outfit, which had been formed the previous year by a group of disgruntled Ben Pollack bandmembers. Rodin's band had played briefly behind Red Nichols on the Kellogg College Prom radio series and recorded a few sides under the name of singer Clark Randall. When Benny Goodman made it big the group decided to strike out on its own. They offered Jack Teagarden the job as leader. Teagarden declined due to his contractual agreement with Paul Whiteman, and agent Cork O'Keefe offered three choices to Rodin: Fred Waring singer Johnnie Davis, Whiteman trumpeter Goldie, and Crosby. Rodin, who had met Crosby and liked him, offered Bob the position.
Crosby turned out to be the perfect front man. A friendly fellow who had a way with the crowd, he respected and admired all the musicians and made no effort to exert his influence on them, letting Rodin quietly run things behind the scenes. In return, the band made his name a household word and became one of the most respected of all time.
Their music was not appreciated by all, however. The two-beat Dixieland style they aggressively played was considered old-fashioned by many of the young hipsters who flocked around Goodman, but those worldly enough to appreciate them recognized the immense talent the band possessed and the fantastic music it produced. The band's rhythm section was led by drummer Ray Bauduc and bassist Bob Haggart. The duo wrote many fine numbers, including the now classic ''South Rampart Street Parade'' and the immortal ''Big Noise from Winnetka.'' In its early days the band featured such musicians as Charlie Spivak and Billy Butterfield. Singers included Kay Weber, Teddy Grace, Marion Mann, and, briefly, Doris Day.
The band continued to be critically successful until 1938, when Tommy Dorsey raided it, taking Spivak, pianist Yank Lawson and arranger Dean Kincaide. The loss of such integral members had an immediate effect on the group, which began to play less and less Dixieland and more commercial arrangements. In 1939 they became the featured orchestra on the Camel Caravan radio program. Dorothy Claire was vocalist at that time. Helen Ward and Johnny Mercer were also part of the program.
By 1940 the orchestra had abandoned Dixieland altogether, hiring such arrangers as Paul Weston, Ray Conniff, Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle, and featuring a nondescript vocal group called the Bob-O-Links, which included future Glenn Miller military vocalist Johnny Desmond. In 1941, however, the band returned to its Dixieland roots, with Liz Tilton on vocals.
The following year saw many of the group's key members, including Rodin and Bauduc, fall victim to the draft. Crosby was offered a movie contract and, seeing the end near, accepted it, leaving Eddie Miller in charge of the band, which folded soon when Miller was drafted. Crosby himself didn't escape the draft, receiving a commission from the Marines. He spent his tour leading bands in the Pacific.
After his discharge Crosby continued with his movie career and formed a new orchestra. The new group, which focused on ballads, found success on the radio and television. The Bob Crosby Show ran on CBS daytime from 1953 to 1957. Crosby, who wanted the show to be aired in the evening, took it to NBC in 1958, where it premiered as a summer replacement series. By this time, however, rock and roll was all the rage and poor ratings doomed the program. After it was cancelled Crosby began to concentrate more on his solo career. Over the years he occasionally reunited the Bob Cats and in the early 1970s toured the country with a package orchestra. Bob Crosby died in 1993 after a battle with cancer.