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Conversations 1967: Bing Crosby

In this 1967 interview from the ALL ARTS vault, Bing Crosby is described as the "paradigm and the paradox" of Hollywood. The singer and actor found huge success despite being self taught in both arts. He discusses his biography entitled "Call Me Lucky" and he outlines the lucky breaks that helped push his career along, though he ends up attributing his success to God.

AIRED: February 04, 2020 | 0:28:55
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TRANSCRIPT

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Bing Crosby is a paragon and a paradox in show business.

For two thirds of his life,

he's maintained a successful spot

on top of the heap in the entertainment world,

and, yet, he's a musician

who had no formal musical training,

though he was given an honorary doctorate of music degree

by his alma mater, Gonzaga University.

He's an actor who's never studied acting,

but has received the highest award

in the motion picture industry, an Oscar,

for his role as a priest in "Going My Way."

He's a business tycoon with no business background,

and a millionaire who once worked

as a part-time janitor to put himself through school.

Harry Lillis Crosby was one of seven children

born to Catherine and Harry Crosby

of Tacoma, Washington.

They moved to Spokane while Harry was still a toddler

and made their headquarters in Spokane for several decades.

Young Harry became "Bing"

through an addiction to a comic strip,

"Bingsville Bugle," and he's been Bing ever since.

The family of nine lived on a modest income

that the senior Crosby earned as a bookkeeper

with the Inland Brewery, and the boys worked at odd jobs

to put themselves through school.

Bing pursued a law major at Gonzaga University,

but had a very brief bout with the law

because he couldn't resist his first and only love --

show business.

And he's been non-resisting it for about 40 years since.

-[Laughs] -Mr. Crosby,

your success has, of course,

brought you a considerable fortune.

Magazine writers estimate it between $40 million

and $70 million. -Oh!

[ Laughter ]

But whatever it is,

it's considerable. -Uh-huh.

I suspect there must've been a time

in your career, very early,

when you thought that

a fortune of this magnitude

would solve all of your problems.

Has the acquisition of money

brought any disillusionment at all

about the power of money?

Well, you just accumulate more problems, Jim.

First, I must tell you that the estimates of my worth

are grossly exaggerated, fantastically exaggerated.

But that's true, I guess, when they go into figures.

They always take it on the high side.

And it hasn't -- it's given to me many more problems

than I ever thought that I would acquire

if I ever became affluent.

Mm. What kind of problems?

I mean, just problems of managing the money?

Managing and trying to save a little and trying to see

that it's channeled into the right directions...

♪♪

Well, honestly, no real genuine problems,

nothing that can't be overcome, that can't be solved.

One can still be happy, though wealthy, then?

I guess so, yes.

You'd have to say that.

You've made a good deal of your luck

in the success you've had. -Mm-hmm.

Your autobiography is entitled

"Call Me Lucky." -Mm-hmm.

Do you really think luck was a major factor in it?

Well, I used to call it that

and my mother used to get furious when I did

because she said luck had nothing to do with it --

it was the good Lord, and her prayers.

And, lately, I've become convinced that she was right.

But there were some lucky things that happened --

meeting the right people at the right corner,

at the right time, becoming associated with people

who are qualified to give advice and direction,

and who were qualified to pick material for me

and find places for me to work.

People like Jack Kapp, who got me started recording;

and my attorney, John O'Melveney,

who has handled my affairs since I started;

and my brother Everett, who has done a lot of that, too.

Like Buddy da Silva at Paramount Pictures,

who put me in a lot of good things.

I was just drifting around and I had a ready ear

and I was able to listen to people and do what they said.

If I thought they had experience and were knowledgeable,

I followed them implicitly

and I guess that's kind of lucky.

You say that, more recently,

you've come to think that, perhaps,

your mother was right about her prayers.

What's happened more recently

that's caused you to think

that luck is a little less important?

Well, maybe I've become a little closer to religion

and, thinking it over, and the way things go,

you become convinced that there is a divine Providence

that looks after you.

I don't suppose the good Lord was lookin' after me,

whether or not I record this or record that,

but you'd have to feel that some influence,

other than something worldly, was working.

Why have you been brought closer --

My mother was such a wonderful woman

and she did so many good things and so much good work

and she wanted success and happiness for me, so,

maybe the Lord, to make her happy,

had good things happen to me.

Why have you been brought closer

to religion in recent years?

Well, I can't account for it, except, as you get older,

you seek the solace of religion.

I always was a pretty good Catholic.

I had lots of transgressions, for which I was properly sorry,

but, in our Church, if you're penitent,

you're still in the fold.

But, as you get older, Jim, as you know --

you're just a young fella,

but you'll come to it later in life,

-[Chuckle] -when you become sere

and yellow like me, that religion is a great solace

and a great refuge and a great comfort.

When did you first sing?

Can you recall that?

I guess when I was old enough to talk, I sang.

And, when I was 8 or 9 years old, or 10,

I sang publicly in little parish hall entertainments.

And, when I got to be 12, 13, 14, I got a set of drums --

small set I sent away for, cost about $40,

with the Japanese sunset on the bass drum head

and the cymbal and the triangle.

And then, I got into an orchestra and a band

and I sang around college.

I sang in all the shows at the parish hall

and, whenever they needed a singer,

why, I'd sing a few things by Carrie Jacobs-Bond.

"One Fleeting Hour" was one of my numbers

and "Little Grey Home in the West"

and "Smilin' Through"

and things of that caliber -- Irish songs, of course.

Oh, John McCormack, I forgot to mention, was --

-Was a hero. -Ohh!

His records were in our house,

every one of them that came out, and I knew all his songs

and I thought he was a wonderful singer,

with great appeal and great sincerity

and quality in his voice.

Like a bird, I thought he sang.

Mr. Crosby, apparently,

the casualness and the presence,

and so forth, didn't come easily

in your early years, because you're quoted

in your own book as saying,

"Having to sing in public embarrassed me

until I'd almost finished high school."

Well, it did. My mother used to dress me up

in some fantastic attire -- -[Laughing]

you know, the knickerbockers and flowing tie and...

That embarrassed me more than the singing, I believe,

and, of course, the fellas that I ran around with,

the boys, all thought that singing was really for girls

or for sissies or certainly not for anybody

who was gonna be a baseball player

or a football player or an athlete.

Because we were mostly, as a group of boys,

were mostly concerned with rock fights

and going down to the millpond and running logs

and hooking rides on railroad trains

and robbing the bakery wagon,

and things of that caliber were considered

a little more adventurous and more colorful

than standing up in front of the ladies' sodality

and singing "One Fleeting Hour."

[ Laughter ]

Your mother did encourage you

in your singing, didn't she?

She certainly did.

She gave you...

Every break, and, in fact, she took me to a teacher for --

I had about three lessons and she paid for the lessons

and she didn't have the money to spare, at the time.

I think the lessons cost $5 a session.

And he gave me some things to vocalize on,

some scales on the piano,

and I think I went about three times for lessons,

but I did keep up the vocalizing for a few years, yeah.

I think it loosened me up,

but that's about the only formal musical training I ever had.

Why'd you give it up after three lessons?

-Didn't have the money. [laughs] -I see.

We ran a little short. [laughs]

That fin, you know, every second week,

was a little strong for my mother to come up with.

Yes.

Then, as you said earlier, you got into a band.

Was this The Juicy Seven, first, or...

It was called the Musicaladers.

-Musicaladers. -The Musicaladers.

Where that name ever came from, I don't know.

It was a clarinet, cornet,

piano and drums, banjo, and...

bass.

And it was quite a group.

I did the singing and we had a couple trios.

Played the drums, as well.

Played the drums, very badly.

My taradiddle was...

well, like Phil Harris said,

you could throw a dog through it, my roll.

[ Laughter ]

But we used to get the records.

We haunted the record shop, the local record shop,

when they came out, like Waring's Pennsylvanians

and The Cotton Pickers and Jean Goldkette

and some of the old bands -- Jack Chapman and Whiteman.

And we'd get the records and take them home

and Al Rinker, our pianist,

although he couldn't write music or read music,

he could listen to the records and separate the different parts

and then teach them to the boys, the harmony parts.

And we learned the solos.

The Memphis Five was another band we followed

and, of course, I mentioned The Cotton Pickers

and the Mound City Blue Blowers,

and Bennie Moten and the Kansas City Orchestra.

Hardly a man is now alive who'll remember

-[Laughing] -all these names, I guess.

And he could separate the different parts --

the saxophone, the trombone, the guitar, and the cornet --

and then teach each guy his part, by ear.

We all played by ear. -Mm-hmm.

And when we got finished rehearsing,

and if we got this down well enough, it sounded pretty good

and it was very advanced and very progressive

for musical circles in Spokane

and we became quite a hit around there.

We were playing songs that the other, real fellas

who belonged to the union really hadn't heard of yet.

They were much better musicians,

but we had access to this fresher material.

This is while you were at Gonzaga?

I was in Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga College.

-I see. -Mm-hmm.

And, at some point,

you made your decision to leave college.

Yeah. While I was in the law office,

I was playing a lot of jobs with the band,

dance jobs on weekends

and at the lake in the summer,

and then the operator of the Clemmer Theatre

thought it'd be a good idea to come down

and sing a little prologue before --

The pictures used to run about two weeks there.

These were silent pictures and, if it was a sea picture,

why, I'd sing a sea chantey, in appropriate costume;

and, if it was a Western picture,

I'd sing a cowboy song

and the organ would accompany me and I picked up --

I think it was $40 or $50 a week for that.

What led, then, to Paul Whiteman?

Well, Paul Whiteman, when we were playing

the Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles,

he was playing the Million Dollar Theatre.

And Rinker and I had become --

Oh, we knew more songs

and we were doing them a little differently

and I'd started singing some ballads, then.

My big ballad was "In a Little Spanish Town,"

and another one was "Mary Lou." -Mm.

And, of course, then, we had the rhythm songs

and he sent somebody over to hear us

and they liked us and he sent for us

and we went down to see him.

And I remember he had us come into his dressing room

and it was very plush.

And he weighed about 300 pounds, then,

and he was seated on sort of a pouf,

a round, circular pillow, and he had a cooler next to him.

This was after the first afternoon show,

about 4:00 in the afternoon,

and in the cooler was a bottle of champagne

and alongside was about a pound of caviar.

-[Laughs] -And Whiteman seated on the pouf.

He looked like a Buddha there,

an Oriental potentate of some kind,

munching caviar and sipping champagne.

And he had a piano in the room

and he had us do a few songs for him

and he asked us if we'd like to join him.

He was going to Chicago.

And asked him -- We said we had another week to play.

So he made us an offer --

I think $300 a week for the team --

and he'd pay our way to Chicago.

So we had one more week to play for Fanchon and Marco

and that particular circuit, so we finished that out

and we joined him in Chicago at the Tivoli Theatre

on the South Side of Chicago. -Mm-hmm.

And, if I may be a little immodest,

we were an immediate hit.

-You were? -This went very big.

The band, at that time,

we had some great figures in the band,

people like Charlie Strickfadden and Chester Hazlett

and Roy Bargy and [indistinct] Moll

and Bix Beiderbecke and Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.

And the Dorseys came in a few months later

and that was a great training ground for us

to be associated -- -He was about the biggest

in the country, at that time.

Well, he hired every good musician he could find

and he really started the move to increase musicians' salary.

If a fella was a specialist on any instrument

or could double, Whiteman would pay him more money.

And he raised musicians' salaries tremendously,

at a time when they were more or less static.

And we played around Chicago three or four weeks.

And then we went to St. Louis, where we did well.

Then we went to Detroit, Cleveland,

Baltimore, Washington -- did very well.

Then we went into the New York Paramount.

Were you -- Excuse me.

When you say "we"...

Rinker and I.

-Just the two of you, at that time? -Yeah.

This was before The Rhythm Boys

-That's right. -were created. Mm-hmm.

And we went into the New York Paramount.

Jack Partigan was the producer there.

And we went on a regular spot, you know, and we went out there

and we laid, not an egg, but an omelette.

Nothing happened!

They just looked at us.

Why New York?

I can't figure it out.

We were never able to understand this.

And he kept us on for a couple days

and then, he just put us back in the band

and we sat there holding instruments

which we couldn't play

-[Chuckle] -and we'd do a little humming

with some of the arrangements.

He had three other singers --

Skin Young, Johnny Fulton, and Charlie Gaylord.

And we did a little humming counterpoint

and we did that for quite a few weeks

at the New York Paramount, the Brooklyn Paramount,

and then, he went into a big café, and the same thing.

And then, Harry Barris was working

at the George Olsen club and he was doing a single.

And Whiteman conceived the idea

of putting the three of us together

and Harry had written a few things, little jump songs,

and the big one was "Mississippi Mud."

And so we worked with Whiteman

for quite a while, with The Rhythm Boys,

and then we took a year leave

and we went on the Keith vaudeville circuit.

We played all over the country.

And then, we went out to Hollywood

to make a picture with Whiteman, "The King of Jazz."

Along about that time,

I got involved in an automobile accident.

And I had been

hitting the grape a little that evening

and they put me in jail for 30 days.

Mm.

So Whiteman fired me and we stayed in Hollywood

and we worked at Brandstatter's Café,

went into the Cocoanut Grove with Gus Arnheim,

which was a great break. -Was this a blow, at the time?

Oh, yeah, when Whiteman dropped us.

Well, it wasn't because of the pokey episode, completely.

He was going on a concert tour

and the kind of material we were doing

wasn't really suitable for the type of presentation

that he was going to put on,

plus the fact that we hadn't rehearsed too much.

We hadn't developed anything new.

We were kind of stagnant.

We were resting on our laurels.

I was playing a lot of golf. and not doing too much work

and having a great deal of fun -You didn't take your work

too seriously? -Not very.

We had, really, no ambition, really, to go anywhere.

Mm-hmm.

We wanted to be in the business.

[No audio] drive to become

stars, or anything like that.

We just liked to do what we were doing.

So we parted friends.

I think, first, we came up,

we played Seattle and Vancouver

and, after that, we left him,

and so hastened back to California, to the golf.

You still feel grateful, although he fired you?

Oh, yes. The association with Whiteman was

one of the most invaluable things

that ever happened to me and with the band.

Why, aside from the fact

that he put you in the spotlight?

Well, because we had the benefit of the association

with these wonderful musicians

and they wrote things for us that we recorded,

choruses and some of his band.

And "Wistful and Blue" was one, that Matty Malneck wrote,

and some other things, names I don't recall,

that really helped us a lot.

And, being around with these great musicians,

we developed a taste, I believe, for progressive things

and for good things in the jazz field.

And Barris learned an awful lot about composition.

Had some great arrangers in the band --

Bargy and William Still

and Bill Challis and Tom Satterfield --

people whose names are really legendary --

and Ferde Grofé, of course.

Ferde Grofé wrote a lot of things that we sang in,

did arrangements for us, made vocal arrangements

which he taught us

for these band records and to use on the stage.

We had the benefit of tremendous training.

And, of course, the year or two

we were in vaudeville was very valuable, too.

We worked with some great acts, saw what they could do --

comedians, worked in some of their acts

and they worked with us and...

we stole a lot of material [laughing] from them,

which we used later --

a lot of jokes, things of that kind.

Was this the beginning of your association

with Bix Beiderbecke?

Yeah, while he was in the Whiteman band, yeah.

You apparently had

a considerable feeling for him.

Yeah, he was a tremendously appealing fella and a genius.

We roomed together quite often on the road.

It used to vary.

We'd room with this guy or that guy, depending.

And he had a wonderful nature, very warm,

human, sympathetic sort of a fella and...

When you say a genius, do you mean as a musician?

Oh, exactly, yeah. I think, if he'd have lived,

there'd be no limit to what he could've done in his field.

He was a real...

Well, he was very advanced.

He was far ahead of his time.

Not so much with the cornet.

We know what he was, as a cornet player,

but the things he did on piano --

he only did a few things before he passed on,

like "In a Mist" and some other things,

but they're remarkably fresh, even today.

-Mm-hmm. -And he was a good musician

and he could put things down on paper with some help.

He wasn't a real arranger,

but, he could assemble things and get them together.

This is where your own

solo style developed, I suppose.

-Yeah. There and with Whiteman. -Mm-hmm.

And, well, of course, as I said,

when we were in Fanchon and Marco,

I used to sing a solo or two, with some trepidation.

I never thought I was much of a singer.

But those were good songs, "Spanish Town," "Mary Lou,"

and you couldn't hardly mess with them,

if you get you a nice pin spot with the proper lighting.

Now, your first movie

came about as a result of singing

at the Cocoanut Grove, did it not?

Or have I got...

The first job I did in an important movie, yeah.

Edmund Goulding was making a picture

with Doug Fairbanks Sr. called...

"Reaching for the Moon," I think,

and he'd been in the Cocoanut Grove

and heard us sing and so he had me come out

and sing a song called

"When the Folks High Up Do the New Low-Down."

I remember they were shooting at night

and I went out there after I finished

my evening's work at the Cocoanut Grove

and did this number for the Doug Fairbanks movie.

That was the first time I appeared

in a feature picture, I'm sure.

You had appeared in shorts before this one.

Yeah, I had made some Mack Sennett shorts

and some shorts for the Christie brothers.

What kind of things were the shorts for Sennett?

Was it comedy? -Well, they took 'em some song titles,

like "Mary Lou" and "I Surrender Dear,"

and I can't think of the others.

And then, they wrote the little comedies around them

and always wound up with a chase.

And then, I worked in a picture

with Phillips Holmes and Sylvia Sidney,

where I sang a song, but I don't remember the name of the song.

The picture was, I think, "Confessions of a Co-Ed."

Yeah.

Sounds pretty dicey, doesn't it?

-Yes. -[Laughing]

Uh, then, I don't think I did any more picture work

till, uh, I went east

and Mr. Paley put me on CBS Radio

and then, I came out to do

"The Big Broadcast." -This was a solo

-Yeah. -part?

And I came out to do "The Big Broadcast."

Yes. That was the first

major movie. -Yeah, where I had a leading role, yeah.

Of course, everybody on radio was in that picture --

Burns and Allen, [sniff] Kate Smith,

"Street Singer," Mills Brothers,

Boswell Sisters.

Those are just a few who I recall.

They were all in the film.

I say I had a leading role.

I said a few words, where they didn't have too much to say.

-Yes. -But they had some good songs in there.

"Please" was one of them.

What else?

Well, "Please" is good enough.

That's a pretty good song. -Yes.

You've already mentioned the influence

of Al Jolson when you were a youngster.

-Mm-hmm. -What about in the later years?

Was he still an influence, of any sort?

Yes, in fact,

after the picture "The Jolson Story,"

that revived a lot of interest in Jolson

and we worked together on the "Kraft Music Hall."

I guess we did 10 or 12 shows.

And working with him was still a great experience.

I'd have to say he was the greatest entertainer

I've ever seen, in the things he did -- singing.

I've never seen a man create an electricity

like this man could, even after he'd been

out of show business as long as he had

and was comparatively unknown

to the generation of people that we were working for.

The first show he did for us was in Los Angeles, in Hollywood,

and we did it in front of an audience.

It was a radio show.

And I was wondering --

Most of the audience was young people

who had seen the movie, possibly,

but they didn't know anything about him in person.

And I was wondering how it would go

and I introduced him and he came out

and we exchanged a few jocosities

and then, he went into a song, and it was one of those

"Toot, Toot Tootsie" things, you know?

And, for about eight bars, they just kind of looked at him

and then, all of a sudden, you could just see that audience

become enthralled with what this fella was doing,

the way he moved and the way he sang

and the enthusiasm and the zest he put into it.

And, when he finished, the theater fell apart.

And he was on there about 10 minutes.

What are the qualities

that electrify an audience?

You must've done it many times. -It's something indefinable, really.

I'm not an electrifying performer, at all.

I'm a very just -- I just sing a few little songs.

But this man could really galvanize an audience into --

into a frenzy, could really tear 'em apart.

I remember seeing him at the Winter Garden in New York.

This was many years ago, when I was, uh,

with Whiteman, before -- just when I went with Whiteman.

He'd come out on the runway at the Winter Garden.

On Sunday nights, they had -- the theater was dark.

If there was a Broadway show playing there,

why, Sunday night was dark

and they used to have a variety show

and he was the featured performer.

He'd come on that runway and do an hour and a half, singing,

and just tear an audience to pieces.

Judy Garland is the --

when she went into these personal appearances later,

is the only performer I can think of

who can do the same thing.

But not to -- not --

she never reached the heights that he could, that he did.

How long do you intend to continue singing?

-Not much longer. -You've built a career

-[Laughs] -as a character actor.

Not much longer, Jim.

It sounds a little -- -Why not?

Oh, it doesn't sound so good anymore.

I make a record now, and...

the tape or the disc comes back to me

a few days later and I play it at home

and I play it about half through and take it off.

It sounds too bad.

It, uh...

And, yet, you've developed a style,

over the years, that is flexible.

You've sung --

You've long since left the "boo-bubba-boo" days...

-Mm-hmm. -...and got into hymns and --

Well, there again, was one of the influences

that I mentioned when we first started talking, Jim --

Jack Kapp, who was head of the Brunswick and then Decca.

He saw this, that, you know, a singer,

if he could be induced to diversify,

particularly a singer who is known as a popular singer,

could really broaden his scope

and he put me into hymns, into Hawaiian,

into Western, into patriotic.

And he coupled me with the Boswells,

with the Mills Brothers, with Woody Herman,

with the Dorsey Brothers, with Lombardo,

with Eddie Dunstedter, with Jesse Crawford.

With every kind of an orchestra,

every kind of an ensemble, vocal groups, with Waring.

I could go on and on and on with the organizations.

And, lots of times, I thought he was out of his mind,

the things he wanted me to sing.

And then he got into "Silent Night"

and things of that type,

and "Adeste Fideles" and recitations and...

-Yes. -..."Star-Spangled Banner."

And I can't begin to name

all the things that he talked me into,

and many of them, I was -- I was timorous about.

I didn't see how that -- But I had confidence inhim

because he was a successful man and --

and he had a very persuasive, uh,

way of describing these things

and what they might accomplish or what they might do for me.

Are you timorous about anything today?

No. I'd be timorous about singing anything serious today.

I'm not timorous about...

♪♪

I'd be timorous about a Broadway play.

Mm-hmm.

I don't think I'd be very good in that.

And, of course, uh, certain roles, I wouldn't try,

but that's not temerity, that's just, uh, sensible.

-Yes. -I just know I couldn't handle it.

Do you look forward to a day

when your life will be filled entirely

with fishing and hunting and golf?

No, I'd always like to be in show business a little, Jim.

And I think that there are probably

hundreds of thousands, millions of people,

who hope that you will continue in show business.

We look forward to this for a long time,

Mr. Crosby.

[ Whimsical theme plays ]

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