Bing Crosby and economic hardship during the Great Depression

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.


Harold Lillis “Bing” Crosby Jr. was born on May 3, 1903, in Tacoma, Wash. Crosby was the fourth of seven children in a low-class family who loved to sing. In his youth, he was briefly sent to vocal lessons by his mother, until he grew bored of the training. Crosby’s musical inspiration returned when he took a summer job as a property boy at Spokane’s Auditorium, where he witnessed some of the finest acts of the day, including Al Jolson, who “held him spellbound with ad-libbing and parodies of Hawaiian songs.”

After graduating high school in 1920, Crosby enrolled at Gonzaga University where he studied for three years before dropping out (although he was awarded an honorary degree later in 1937). In 1923, Crosby was invited to join a new band composed of high-school students a few years younger than himself. Al Rinker, Miles Rinker, James Heaton, Claire Pritchard and Robert Pritchard, along with drummer Crosby, formed the Musicaladers, who performed at dances both for high-school students and club-goers. The group performed on the Spokane radio station, but disbanded after two years.

Although the Musicaladers broke up after a short run in 1925, Crosby was eager to stick with the music business. He had made considerable money during the band’s career, and he and Rinker were confident they could make it in California. Thus, they packed up their belongings, and headed for Los Angeles, finding good money working in vaudeville until they were hired by Paul Whiteman. For a few songs during Whiteman’s shows, Rinker and Crosby sang as the Rhythm Boys with Harry Barris (a pianist, arranger, vocal effects artist, and songwriter later known for recordings such as I Surrender Dear and Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams). With their talent for songwriting and stage routines, the trio soon became one of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra‘s most popular attractions, and Crosby took a vocal on one of Whiteman’s biggest hits of 1927-28, Ol’ Man River.

Shortly after his time with Whiteman and the Rhythm Boys, Crosby made his national solo debut on Sept. 2, 1931. (Before the end of the year, he signed with both Brunswick and CBS Radio). Conducting a weekly 15-minute radio broadcast, Crosby became a hit. Out of Nowhere, Just One More Chance, At Your Command and I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store) were among the best-selling songs of 1931.

Fast forward to 1941, the song White Christmas (originally by Irving Berlin) became Crosby’s most famous recording. The song hit the charts on Oct. 3, 1942, and rose to No. 1 on Oct. 31, where it stayed for 11 weeks. “A holiday perennial, the song was repeatedly re-released by Decca, charting another 16 times. It topped the charts again in 1945 and a third time in January, 1947.” The song remains the best-selling single of all time.

As with all the jazz-oriented stars of the first half of the twentieth century, Crosby’s popularity was affected by the rise of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. His 1948 recording Now Is the Hour proved to be his last No. 1 hit. “Crosby now had the time to concentrate on album-oriented projects and collaborations with other vocalists and name bands.” His recording and film schedule began to slow significantly in the 1960s (though he recorded several LPs for United Artists during the mid-’70s, and returned to active performance during 1976-77). While golfing in Spain on Oct. 14, 1977, Crosby collapsed and died of a heart attack.


Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (1930)

The song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (also known as Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?) was written in 1930 by lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, and has become known as one of the most famous American songs about the Great Depression. The song was initially created as part of the soundtrack to the 1932 musical revue Americana. However, the song was deemed by many Republicans to be “anti-capitalist,” and the song was almost dropped from the show. (Attempts were even made to ban it from the radio.) However, when the song was recorded by Bing Crosby (and later, other artists such as Rudy Vallée), the song became a huge success — mainly for its meaning.

Joel Dinerstein of Tulane University highlights in the episode that during the Great Depression, there was more solidarity among Americans than at most historical moments. During most of the 1930s, “25 per cent of Americans are unemployed and not only is there vast unemployment, but there is not much sense of how the future will work out. There’s a certain amount of pessimism about technology because people work, at best, factory jobs. So there’s this moment on which there’s solidarity between the artist and the vision of a sort of people they’re speaking to.” The song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? embodies this:

‘Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee doodly dum
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell
And I was the kid with the drum’

References:

John Bush. “Bing Crosby Biography: One of the most popular and influential male vocalists of all time, with a relaxed approach that proved to be a stylistic game changer.” Allmusic.com, 2020, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/bing-crosby-mn0000094252/biography.