Bing Crosby talks about how he got started in the entertainment industry, some of the fun times that her had with some of his contemporaries such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. He touches on what he considers to be his most influential song and why.
Interviewer: In fact though when you started off your adult life, Bing, you trained to be a lawyer, didn’t you?
Bing: Yes, I studied for the law. I was– I had a little dance band at the time. I was a singer and a drummer in the band and I was studying law at Gonzaga University, school I went to through high school and then to Gonzaga University and I was studying law part-time and going to school part-time playing the drums and singing part-time. I thought I had I could be a lawyer because I’d been in a lot of elocution contests and gone to the debating society and I thought I had a facility for saying things on my feet and I lulled myself into the belief that I could be a great criminal lawyer and the drama of the courts appeal to me. But I found out after I’d been working about six or eight months for this lawyer; and he was a very well-known lawyer in the town and a good one, I was making as much money playing the drums as he was a pursuing the law so I gave up the law and enlarged my entertainment career.
Interviewer: What a very wise choice you made as well?
Bing: I guess so because I’d have been a lousy lawyer.
Interviewer: Who were the influences, the singers who influenced you at that time?
Bing: Oh well, when I was sixteen or seventeen I used to go down and work in the local theatre whenever any of the great touring shows came through town like Jolson or The Follies or The Passing Show or the artists and models or any of the shows when they came to Spokane. I was an assistant in the property department you know they sent me on errands and one thing or another and whenever Jolson was in town he played there three or four times with Bombo and Sinbad the Sailor and I forget some of the others but I always managed to get a job and watch him. I’m sure I picked up a lot of hints from, not only from his singing but from his stage deportment. He was electric when he came on the stage he just generated electricity that I’ve never seen duplicated before unless it was by Frank Sinatra when he gives a concert. No one else I think ever achieved that in my opinion.
Interviewer: You can’t define it, can you what it is?
Bing: No. The way he moved his body his movements without doing anything sinuous or suggestive but he was charged up himself and he communicated that enthusiasm and that electricity to the audience and they were just on the edge of the seats until he was finished.
Interviewer: The extraordinary thing about Jolson too of course was his voice got better, didn’t it?
Bing: He made some appearances. I had a radio show then. He made about ten straight appearances with us after the picture about his life The Jolson Story. Larry Parks played Al Jolson then Joe Lee did the tracks and it had revived interest in Jolson. He semi-retired then and he did about ten shows with me on the radio and I never heard him sing so beautifully. He had a quality and his range seemed to improve and he was sixty-something then. It was amazing.
Bing: I remember the first time he was on a show with me it had been a number of years since he’d been a big star. He’d never really done anything else since his big, successful years and the audience was mostly young people who didn’t relate to him very much except from the movie and I was kind of concerned how he would go. He didn’t sing two bars of the Toot Toot Tootsie or whatever it was you know ‘Toot Toot hard to do good-bye.’ He had them all. They were on their feet cheering all the way through the song and that night of course, he was a tremendous success from then on every time we had him on.
Interviewer: When you went on the road first of all as a young man you went with another musician, just the two of you on the road?
Bing: He was a piano player in a little band and the arranger and we’d worked up some duets together and we took off from Spokane, Washington we drove all the way to Los Angeles. His name was Al Rinker and he had a sister working in Los Angeles in a nightclub down there name Mildred Bailey. In my opinion was one of the great singers of all time and she’d established herself in very substantial fashion down there in Los Angeles and we thought we would just move in with Mildred and she’ll get us set and that’s exactly what happened.
She had us sing a few songs and she introduced us to a fellow had a nightclub in town My Climene’s Tent Cafe and we went on there for several weeks. And we sang a lot of little songs like Mary Lou and In Little Spanish Town To Us On A Night Like This and a lot of little doubles. We had a couple little double entendre things that were rather spicy, you know. I remember one we had
‘Where’d you go, Where’d you stay sweet mama where’d you stay last night? When you came, when you went away, when you came home, comb your hair little shoes were laced up tight. must have met another one loving lad with a loving way but you’ll come back yes you’ll come back like a dog you’ve had your day. Oh, you must’ve slept like Aphrodite cause when you when you went away you didn’t take your nightie, where’d you go?’
That’s was a number we used to use just in the cafe’s we didn’t do that in the bars. We played all up down the coast in the Middle West in Vaudeville. Then we finally wound up – after a year or two – down in Los Angeles. Paul White was playing and million dollar theatre in Los Angeles. We were playing the Metropolitan; at that time we had done pretty well. We had a pretty good little act they’re going to send a representative over to hear us and he was reasonably pleased with our performance and so we joined Whiteman a week later in Chicago and we spent almost three years with him.
Interviewer: And of course it was a very big breakthrough. It was the break, wasn’t it?
Bing: Oh that was what really got us started. Yes.
Interviewer: You’re right in fact you made that film under some duress, didn’t you because you were in prison at the time?
Bing: Ah, Yes. Well, I’d been involved in a little automobile accident and the band was all out there and they gave us a little automobile to run around and I was driving home one night with a young lady I’d had a few toddies, you know?
Interviewer: This is during prohibition too?
Bing: Yes and a fellow ran into me with his car. Quite an accident and I took the young lady into the lobby of the nearby hotel to see that she was administered to and the police arrived and they said you appeared to have been drinking. I said, “Yes” and they said, “Come along”. They took me down to the station, lock me up. The next day Whiteman got me out on bail because we were right in the middle of this picture and I had to get out about eleven days later for an appearance in front of the judge. So I went down although I’d been playing golf. I had on golf knickers and loud socks and a loud sweater very like very gaily dressed and sure of myself that there’d be nothing to it. The judge says, “It says here on the complaint that you had been drinking”. I said, ‘Yes”. He said, “Well, don’t you know there’s a prohibition law in the state, in the country?” I said, “Yes, but nobody pays any attention to it”. He says, “You’ll have thirty days to pay a lot of attention to it” and there I was for thirty days. The last half of the sentence they just let me come out of the set with a policeman in company with me. He had the time of his life and that’s when we did that song – In Durance vile.
Interviewer: You’re so close apart from singing with a band you were made to sit in with the orchestra and pretend to play a violin weren’t you?
Bing: That was traditional in those days. All the singers in every band were supposed to be instrumentalists as part of the band and they- of course the Rhythm Boys were sort of extroverts. If we held an instrument in the band we had to play something make a noise on it whether to fit in with their arrangement or not. They tried me on French horn and saxophone and I couldn’t resist you know when they’re playing some big heavy arrangement I would ‘ummpa’ along you know and sometimes I would ‘ummpa’ on the chord and sometimes I would ‘ummpa’ on another chord so they took the instrument after one after another away from me and finally they gave me a violin with a rubber strings and I would just stroke away on that. I was happy with that.
Interviewer: Because when you got put in the string section you got put in with one of the great legendary figures, Joe Venuti.
Bing: Joe Venuti. Of course, anything I want to do that was comical or funny or out of line, he encouraged that. One time when we were playing– Whiteman was playing the overture of eighteen twelve and there’s at the end of the overture if you remember the burning Moscow and the bells are ringing wildly all over and he had about six sets of these bells hanging up long. And the Rhythm Boys and Skin Young and other vocalist and Charlie Gaylord and John Philip – there were six of us and when this climax comes it goes for – I don’t know how long- couple of minutes, the orchestra is blaring away and the bells are ringing wildly and Moscow is burning and we’re supposed to beat on these bells. Well, we beat hell out of those bells. We shellacked them so well we finally broke about six or seven sets of bells and the stage manager finally goes to Whiteman, he said, “How far do you want these guys to go?” He says they’re running us out of bells. Our verve just outlasted the supply of bells.
Interviewer: Poor Whiteman must have been near a heart attack I do imagine.
Bing: Oh, they gave him an awful time.
Interviewer: I read another story about Venuti eating Whiteman’s violin
Bing: He did that one time, yeah.
Interviewer: How did that happen?
Bing: Well, Whiteman always had a violin that he kept on the bandstand in the one point that he’d play three o’clock in the morning in the middle of an arrangement to get up. Whiteman wasn’t the greatest violinist and Joe knew that. Whiteman was getting ready to play his solo, he was conducting and just about time the modulating into three o’clock in the morning and Joe just picked up his violin and made out he was salting a little dinner and started eating. Whiteman reached down for the violin and he just picked up a mess of wreckage you know and Joe says, “See what you can do with that, Pops”
This is a little indelicate but Joe was famous for the roseberry. He could give the most fantastic roseberry I’ve ever heard. I think the roseberry means the same thing here as it does… “Pssst.” Yeah. Only Joe could give– He could form an amateur with a tremolo. A beautiful thing and he could just blast the walls of the theatre and one time in San Diego we’d been out on the town this was a matinee and everybody came back to play the matinee. Joe was a had had a long Continental lunch and was a lot of chianti there and he was fairly good shape. I remember the playing of Victor Herbert medley and had finished with one of his big Victor Herbert songs and they’re going to have a big climax and the band just played up and Whiteman’s leading and they go tham tha tha tham tham tha dum dum duum and Joe stood up and goes “Psssssst”. But he could do it in perfect tune. His intonation was immaculate and he had about three times that much volume and Whiteman was furious, absolutely furious.
Interviewer: What about some of the other people that you worked with in this period thinking particularly now about your career in the film industry you worked with some of the great legendary characters, didn’t you? You starred with Marion Davis who was to say the least was a protégé of William Randolph. What was… She was an extraordinary character to work with.
Bing: I made one picture with her. That was a career took a year to do because the schedule on that was really casual. They would come on the set about nine or ten o’clock. Marion would come on the set. She had an orchestra on the set, a live orchestra, all the time playing hits of the day, songs from some of the successful Broadway musicals, you know, Gershwin music or whatever. And then when they get ready to do scene where they subside and about noon maybe had one take and then we’d go to a long Continental lunch in her bungalow. The word bungalow is not very accurate because it was about fifteen rooms of a large dining room and we’d have the Ryan wines and the pâtés and the caviar. About three o’clock we go back because nobody was very good shape to work then. The band would play we do a little singing then we get another take and that would be the end of the day. That be about a five day week then we don’t go to San Simeon for the weekend. I’d get back sometime Monday before noon, it was great. Great experience.
Interviewer: It must have been an extraordinary place at that time
Bing: Unbelievable. He’d have a sixty or seventy-five guests up there for a week or two weeks and the only requirement he insisted upon you had to be there for dinner and dinner was eight o’clock. The rest of time you could do whatever you pleased and there were two or three swimming pools, there were horses to ride and there was golf not too far away, there was tennis of course and you could just amuse and entertain yourself any way you wanted. The castle itself at San Simeon takes three or four days to see all of that.
Interviewer: At this point in your film career the studios are still pushing you as this great romantic idol weren’t they?
Bing: Oh yeah. Beating up an empty road, I’m afraid.
Interviewer: What good lengths did they go to sort of change you physically?
Bing: Well I remember one time they said my ears stuck out too far looked like a taxi with both doors open. And so they got the makeup man to study and he glued them back. That I looked like a whippet in full flight. The glue used to itch back there you know and of course in those days they used a lot more light when they were lighting a set than they do now and very hot. That made the glue come loose and they pop out and it would be cut and back to the makeup department big glue job again. So one day they popped out I said, “They’re going to stay out”. That time I had made a few pictures that were moderately successful so they let them go on that way you know sticking out.
I remember when first trying to get him pictures in Hollywood that’s when I was in the Coconut Grove their agent took me around to see the head of Twentieth Century Fox studio and I sang a song for him and read some lines for him. He said, “Very good but he said the ears are winging”. I thought he said “The years are winging”. I said, “Oh, I’m not all that old.” “No, I don’t mean that. Your ears stick out. There’s no way we could photograph you because the ears would be such a…You know people would right away look at the years and the scene would go down the drain.” So he says, “I’m afraid we can’t use you”. Later on, I got signed up by Paramount was doing very well and we used to go to the same church Catholic Church and on the way of coming back from communion I’d pass his seat and I give it a show, you know.
Interviewer: When you look back over your career as a singer which was the period for you when you thought your voice is at its best, when you were seen best of all
Bing: I think that but the period of that down by the river it sounded like you know I had some range then which I don’t have now and didn’t have in later years. Right in through there I think maybe I was singing adequately.
Interviewer: Most people I suppose when they think of you think automatically as well of Bob Hope.
Bing: Yes, it’s been a great relationship.
Interviewer: How did it start that relationship?
Bing: We were both in Vaudeville and one of those times I told you about he was on the bill once or twice with me, notably at the Capitol Theatre, one time in New York. He used to do an act with a young lady, the Two Act. Oh, he was a gay one there you know he had the straw hats, the spats and the cane and they did a few little numbers and he did some jokes. We also belonged to an actor’s club called the Friars in New York where everybody congregated when they weren’t working and that’s where I knew him and we started palling around together. Then I went on the radio, so did he. I went out to Hollywood first and then he came three or four years later. Then I used to work on his radio show and he worked on mine and the writers of the radio show used to cook up these gags about how fat I was or how hammy he was or you know, just needling one another and from that the people at Paramount thought well when we put these two guys together in a movie and that’s how it developed.
Interviewer: Are you still in fact friends with them?
Bing: Very close and his wife’s very good friend of my wife. They work together on some hospitals and on the Eisenhower Hospital notably which is now finished and on some other projects. She’s very civic-minded- Dolores Hope is and Kathryn is too and quite close.
Interviewer: Do you still play golf with him?
Bing: Occasionally. Of course, I live in San Francisco now and I don’t see as much as I used to but when I go to Palm Springs I always have a game and if he comes to San Francisco we play.
Interviewer: Is he a good golfer?
Bing: He is a good batter. He makes a game where he can’t lose, really.
Bing: He’s more like a jurist on the first tee. One is out there and I always take him for a partner because I know that you can’t win if you accept the game that he lays out for you. So I say, “Bob you are my partner” and I sit down and then he starts working on the opponents about what the handicap should be and how we should play and if you miss he’s got quite a crowd around caddies and people who are waiting to tee off or people who are coming through. When he gets a sizable audience and he does a monologue. He’ll do ten or twelve minutes and by then his opponents are so unnerved that they accept the proposition he’s made which is futile for him. They can’t win. And away we go and we pick up the ten or twenty dollars.
Interviewer: You ever seen him… He always looks so kind of unflappable in charge of the situation. Have you ever seen him embarrassed, a visibly embarrassed Mr Hope?
Bing: Ah, not very often. Once, Yes once I did. Yeah. We made a picture here at the Shepherd Studios and we both like to play golf. So we tried to find a house in the country and we found a house out near Windsor somewhere and the golf course was right between Shepperton and the house. You know, about fifteen minutes to the golf course and another fifteen home. Which is an ideal set up because it was in summer and you had those long English twilights and we’d finished five thirty or six o’clock and we’d just whip to the golf course and play till dark and then home to dinner. So one day we were doing a scene they were supposed to be in a harem and the villains had captured us and they decided to give us a soiree, a big orgy with dancing girls and wine and dancing and everything going on because they thought they were sending us to our death in the moon capsule but we never returned. And they hope to stretch out on the chaise lounge and girls were curling his hair and another girl was painting his toenails red and they were doing his nails and carrying on like that and I was laying on another chaise lounge they were spreading the wine into me and they were just covering us with unguents and oil frankincense and myrrh. All those things and we finally finished the scene and the director says cut and we whipped over to the golf course played thirteen holes came back in the locker room there at Wentworth and you know the locker rooms of British golf courses are very austere – they just have a bench, a nail to hang your sweater on or your coat on and a cold basin over in the corner. And we’re sitting down and he’s changed taken to took off his golf shoes and his socks and I was just too British gentlemen sitting on the bench across from us. Typical British country types, you know, with this with the ‘stash and the tweed coats and I saw one of them his eyes went to Hope’s feet, you know. And then he turned to his companion and nudged him and his companions looked up and they looked at me and I went… I looked down again at these red toenails and finally one of them said “ Mr Crosby, sir, is your friend with the ballet?” He put on his shoes and socks and he went out didn’t anything; not a word.
Interviewer: I don’t blame him. We talked about professional friendship there what about the professional rivalry that was drummed up about you and Sinatra when Sinatra first arrived on the scene? Was that rivalry real?
Bing: Oh no, no. We were very good friends and it as you say it was drummed up just to get some something in the newspapers. I’m sure neither one of us took it as serious rivalry. I admired his work and I hope to believe that he admired mine. We saw a lot of one another. He was on my radio show several times and I went on a couple shows he had.
Interviewer: Can I just give you a quote that he said about you once. His letter said about you, it’s a famous one. Sinatra said about you, ‘Crosby happens once in a lifetime, why does it have to be in my lifetime?’
Bing: I didn’t influence Frankie in any way and I certainly didn’t halt his progress in any way because he’s a brilliant performer.
Interviewer: I was going to ask you your assessment was of Sinatra as a singer?
Bing: Oh he’s a great singer he creates a mood which very few people are able to do. I don’t think I create a mood when I sing. Nat Cole could do that. Sinatra does it in a memorable way.
Interviewer: I’m going to ask you an impossible question and I don’t expect to single answer and I don’t expect an answer. Of all the titles that you’ve recorded, Bing, which is your favourite?
Bing: Well the easy answer is A White Christmas because it did so much for me and I’m eternally grateful to Irving Berlin for writing it and making it a song in a picture we did called Holiday Inn.
Interviewer: That’s right.
Bing: Because now the song is identified with me and it’s used every Christmas. I do a Christmas show and there’s no way to avoid singing it at the end. That’s a song really and most influence on anything I ever accomplished.