Wait a minute, Bing Crosby - that Bing Crosby? Was really popular with my great great grandparents or whoever, did White Christmas which does the rounds every year but I know he was a massive star. There was that Christmas duet with David Bowie which was kind of weird now you think about it, but misunderstood? I don’t think so. I understand that he was a big star in his day. Right?
Sure, Bing Crosby was a massive star in his day, but he firmly deserves his place on this illustrious list not because of his musical success, as huge as it was, but because of his now frequently forgotten and under appreciated massive influence on the recording industry. Oh and he helped usher in video recording. So yes, I think definitely pretty misunderstood.
Crosby was born in 1903 at a time when music for the most part meant performance. To hear and to experience music meant seeing someone live. And this before amplification was a thing. So as well as musical ability, the key skill for a successful singer was the ability to project their voice. Whether it was opera, music hall vaudeville, jazz or anything else, to reach the top of the game, you had to be able to sing LOUD.
Gramophone recordings were invented at the end of the 19th century but for a while the same principle applied. Records were made by everyone crowding around a gramophone horn and singing and playing VERY LOUDLY in one take as everything was recorded directly onto the master record. No overdubs, no re-recording, no post production, all in one go. Which is why the most successful records in these early days of acoustic recording featured loud singers and instruments that could be played loudly like pianos, trumpets and other brass instruments, banjos, drums and so forth.
For the singers making records, they had come through the live circuit so singing very loudly on record was really no different from singing very loudly in a concert venue. But in the 1920s, microphones finally entered the scene and the first person to really grasp how this could change everything was, yep, Bing Crosby.
Crosby realised that using a microphone enabled him to sing in a much more intimate manner by toning down the volume and really increasing the emphasis of the lyrics. This new style of singing soon got a name, ‘crooning’.
Today if a performer is described as a ‘crooner’ it’s probably not intended as a compliment. But back in the 1930s, Bing Crosby’s innovation was huge and influenced, well everyone. As no less an authority than Bob Dylan later said: “A lot of people would like to sing like Bing Crosby, but very few could match his phrasing or depth of tone. He’s influenced every real singer whether they know it or not. I used to hear Bing Crosby as a kid and not really pay attention to him. But he got inside me nevertheless.”
Bing’s new style catapulted him to the very top of the music tree. Some have even argued that during the great economic depression of the 1930s his enormous popularity helped see the business through the massive collapse in record sales. He certainly helped future performers by negotiating for a royalty share of each record rather than a flat fee which was still commonplace.
Following microphones and electrical recording the next major innovation in the music industry was tape and one artist above all was instrumental in helping establish it in the business and build awareness among consumers. Yep, Bing Crosby.
Crosby had had a radio show in the US since the 1930s which he needed to present live every week. By the 1940s he was becoming tired of this burden on this time and wanted to be able to pre-record his show both to free up this time but also edit the show prior to transmission. Existing recording techniques revolved around recording onto gramophone discs and the process was cumbersome and not the same quality as live radio.
However after the Second World War ended the German invention of recording tape became available and Bing leapt at the chance. In fact he was such a believer in tape that he personally invested in the company behind this exciting new technology, Ampex, and used one in his 1950 film Mr Music which was for most of the film’s audience the first time they ever saw a tape recorder. The ability to now edit out small mistakes in a radio show recording left small gaps of silence, so Bing came up with the idea of filling the space with canned laughter. The ‘laugh track’ had been invented.
Meanwhile this was also the time that television was taking over living rooms around the world. However TV production had to largely be live in the early days as there was no technology for recording video. But our Bing was convinced that what tape had done for music recording and radio it could also do for television. So he actually set up his own electronics research unit in his Bing Crosby Enterprises business and poured money into it. In 1951 the world’s first demonstration of video tape recording was given by, you guessed it, Bing Crosby Enterprises.
In the end the system that ended up being used by the TV industry was one developed by Ampex, ironically who Crosby still had a significant shareholding in. But without question by personally championing and funding so much research into video tape recording he helped speed along its development and establish pre-recording as an integral part of the television landscape.
Today Bing Crosby’s name lives on in the collective cultural consciousness to varying degrees, supported in large part by the perennial White Christmas. But his huge creative influence on the recording business is rarely noted any more, and his foresightedness and active involvement in audio and video technology even less so.
Which is a great shame as in today’s technology landscape the worlds of tech and creativity, invention and content, can seem to be largely distinct. Each side trying to understand and reach out the other, often with less than successful results. The life of Bing Crosby shows us that they can exist harmoniously. I don’t think many people understand or appreciate that about him any more.
And that duet with David Bowie on Little Drummer Boy is a fitting place to end this story. It is undoubtedly a bit weird when you first come across it, and was weird for them as well. The two didn’t know each other and Bowie, who didn’t even like the song, only made the appearance to promote his new record, Heroes. Crosby meanwhile was happy to have a hot young rock star on his Christmas show but had hardly been a champion of the Thin White Duke before this time. But as I say, it is a very fitting place to end - why? Because Bing Crosby died a month afterwards so his duet with David Bowie, Little Drummer Boy, was the last TV show Bing Crosby, the pioneer of video pre-recording, ever pre-recorded.