Bing Crosby (London, 1973)
Bing Crosby was one of the most popular and influential entertainers of the 20th century, with a career spanning several decades and different forms of media. Crosby was an architect of modern entertainment and a driving force in the development of motion pictures, recorded music, and radio. He was a talented actor, a radio star, a gifted singer, and is perhaps the most iconic pipe smoker of all time. Crosby demonstrated his impressive acting skills in dozens of memorable films and recorded several hit songs that showcased his smooth, mellow, and rich baritone voice. Crosby was rarely seen without a pipe in his hand or clenched between his teeth, with the slender, long-stemmed pipes he frequently smoked considered iconic by many in the pipe-smoking community.
Early Life and Career
Harry Lillis Crosby Jr. was born on May 3, 1903 in Tacoma, Washington, eventually moving with his family to Spokane a few years later. Crosby was the fourth of seven children born to Harry and Kate Crosby, and grew up in a relatively poor, working-class family. Crosby did well in school and exhibited a strong interest in sports, music, and singing. Music had always been a prominent part of Crosby's family — his father played the mandolin, often leading the family in song, and purchased one of the first phonographs in Spokane.
A pivotal moment in Crosby's life occurred in 1917 when he landed a backstage job at a local theater where the legendary Al Jolson was performing. Seeing Jolson on stage amazed the teenaged Crosby, who later said in an interview, " He knocked me out, I tell you when I saw this guy work. He floored me. I think I picked up a lot of Jolson's singing mannerisms." (Gilliland, 1994).
Crosby went on to attend Gonzaga University in Spokane to study law, but left two months before earning his degree. While in college, Crosby was asked by Al Rinker to be the drummer in a five-piece dance band but impressed his bandmates with his pleasant singing voice. "Even at that age, Bing had a mellifluous, solid baritone with good range, a steady sense of time, and a casual charm. With his uncanny memory, Bing could learn songs after hearing them once, though he never learned to read music." (Giddins, 2007).
Seeing Jolson on stage amazed the teenaged Crosby
In 1925, Crosby and Rinker ventured out to California to pursue a music career, eventually finding stable work after a successful audition they landed with help from Rinker's sister, singer Mildred Bailey. The duo performed several vaudeville shows along the West Coast and caught the attention of renowned bandleader Paul Whiteman, who quickly hired them as a singing act for his band. Crosby and Rinker were then joined by pianist and singer-songwriter Harry Barris, forming The Rhythm Boys, with the trio notably appearing in the groundbreaking film, King of Jazz in 1930.
Soon after, The Rhythm Boys left Whiteman's band and joined Gus Arnheim's Orchestra, performing nightly in the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. Crosby's brother, Everett, sent recordings of Bing's singing "I Surrender Dear" and "Just One More Chance" to William S. Paley, president of the CBS radio network, after learning they were searching for a new singer. Paley was impressed and gave Crosby a daily radio show, which quickly became popular with listeners. Crosby also went on to perform for 20 consecutive weeks at New York City's Paramount Theater, an engagement booked by Everret.
Everett played a crucial role in Bing's early success, helping the up-and-coming singer navigate the business aspects of the radio and film industry. In his autobiography, Crosby spoke highly of Everret's tireless work ethic and assistance:
Playing at Cocoanut Grove also introduced Crosby to several prominent members of the filmmaking community, with producer Mack Sennett hiring Crosby to appear in several musical comedy films. In 1932, Crosby starred in his first feature-length film The Big Broadcast, featuring George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen in supporting roles. Crosby's success continued after NBC hired him to host their floundering program, Kraft Music Hall, replacing Paul Whiteman. The show became a hit, offering a variety of music as well as Crosby's charming personality.
An article written as part of PBS' American Master series explains why Crosby was so well-liked and respected by the public:
In late 1934, Crosby signed a contract with newly formed American label Decca Records and significantly changed the music industry. Audio engineer Steve Hoffman explained Crosby's pivotal role in helping preserve the record industry during the Great Depression:
Following a 1938 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the comedy film She Loves Me Not, Crosby humorously recounted a fictitious story to actress Joan Blondell and director Cecil B. DeMille regarding the origins of his nickname:
In reality, Crosby's nickname originated from his fascination with "The Bingville Bugle" comic strip that appeared each Sunday in The Spokesman-Review newspaper. The comic was formatted to resemble an actual newspaper, published in a fictional country town called Bingville and contained amusing advertisements as well as short, humorous stories involving the town's inhabitants.
For example, this ad was featured in the October 10, 1910 edition:
I went out and lost the stem outen my corncob pipe somers about the first of last week or the last of this week. I do not know where I lost it; if I did, I wouldn't ask you to find it for me. I'm awful put out by this, being as I can't smoke an I haft to chew. Find it for me please.
Crosby avidly read the comic as a young child, as did his friend and next door neighbor Valentine Hobart. According to Donald Shepherd and Robert F. Slatzer's book Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man:
Continued Success and Later Years
During World War II, Crosby became an even more prominent national figure, touring around the United States and overseas, selling war bonds, and personally responding to thousands of letters written by servicemen and their families. After the war there was reportedly a poll taken of U.S troops, who identified Crosby as the person who did the most to boost wartime morale, ahead of President Franklin Roosevelt, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and fellow entertainer Bob Hope.
U.S troops, who identified Crosby as the person who did the most to boost wartime morale
Crosby worked with Hope several times, with their series of seven Road movies being particularly memorable. While the films featured comedic bits and musical numbers, they were also satirical, poking fun at several genres that were popular at the time. Crosby and Hope were a natural team, brilliantly playing off each other's style and delivering hilarious moments in each film.
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby
Throughout the '30s, '40s, and '50s, Crosby was one of the world's most successful lead actors and starred in several famous films, including the holiday staples Holiday Inn and White Christmas. Fourteen songs performed by Crosby were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, with four of them winning the award. Crosby was nominated three times for his work as a lead actor, winning in 1944 for his performance as Father O'Malley in Going My Way.
Among Crosby's numerous accomplishments, he was the first to create a prerecorded radio series with Philco Radio Time in the late '40s. While it saved time and was significantly easier than broadcasting live, it also afforded Crosby the opportunity to produce a high-quality show, eliminate mistakes, and to not have to perform another live show for the West Coast. It was a groundbreaking approach to radio and other entertainers quickly followed suit, with PBS' website noting, "Billboard called Bing's gamble the most important show business story since the invention of talking pictures." (Giddins, 2007). However, Crosby also realized that sound recorded on large lacquered discs was inferior to a live broadcast. After seeing former Army engineer and sound recording pioneer Jack Mullin demonstrate a magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorder, Crosby agreed to sponsor Mullin's work.
It offered several advantages to recording his radio show, specifically the ability to edit. In his autobiography Crosby noted:
Crosby's success continued throughout the 1960s, recording hit songs, appearing in films, and doing more work on television. He primarily focused on business ventures and notably "had investments in real estate, mines, oil wells, cattle ranches, race horses, music publishing, baseball teams, and television. He made a fabulous fortune from the Minute Maid Orange Juice Corporation, in which he was a principal stockholder.' (Klebanoff, 2000).
Crosby was also an avid golfer and spent much time playing courses around the world in his later years. In the fall of 1977 Crosby flew to Spain to play golf at the La Moraleja club near Madrid and notably played with professional golfers Manuel Piñero and Valentin Barrios. Crosby played quite well and was in good spirits on October 14th, but when walking back to the clubhouse after finishing a game he suddenly collapsed and passed away from a massive heart attack. The news of Crosby's death stunned the world and greatly impacted millions of people who grew up listening to his radio shows and seeing him perform in films and on television. During a press conference hours after Crosby's death, his wife Kathryn told reporters, "I can't think of any better way for a golfer who sings for a living to finish the round."
Decades after his passing, Bing Crosby's influence continues to be felt in the pipe-smoking world. Savinelli's Bing's Favorite line pays homage to the long-shanked, long-stemmed Billiards Crosby often smoked, but incorporates a slightly bent stem to accommodate comfortable clenching. The side of the stem notably features a golf-inspired logo in honor of the performer's love for the sport. Even artisan pipe makers such as American carver Scottie Piersel craft tributes to Crosby, with the shape being known as simply "Bing's Billiard."
Additionally, Cornell & Diehl offers their Crooner blend, a cube-cut blend featuring Burley and Deer Tongue, an herb often added to blends to produce a pleasant, vanilla taste and aroma. The blend is meant to be a replication of one of Crosby's private blends and the recipe was allegedly shared with C&D by someone claiming to have worked at a now closed tobacconist that Bing Crosby shopped at often. The shop supposedly made a special blend for Crosby and after closing down, the former employee gave the recipe to C&D.
Bing Crosby and Pipe Smoking
In Charles Thompson's book Bing, it's noted that Crosby began smoking a pipe because of his mother: "It was because of her strong aversion to cigarettes that Bing gave them up and took to the pipe that was to be something of a trademark well into the 'seventies. It also led to the breakup of a lucrative radio contract." (pg. 67). When Crosby refused to say a scripted line that encouraged listeners to buy their mother a carton of cigarettes for Mother's Day, the company ended the contract. After recording the song "True Love" with Crosby, Grace Kelly described how it was working with him saying, "Bing was so easy, because he's used to it and you know he can record with his pipe in his mouth! I found it quite a worrying experience to be recording with a big orchestra, but Bing made me feel very relaxed and helped me through." (pg. 185-86).
An article written by Crosby in the July, 1946 issue of Pipe Lovers magazine titled "Me And My Pipes" detailed the performer's pipe-smoking preferences, including special pieces in his large collection and his approach to pipe maintenance.
At the time of the article's publication, Crosby estimated that his collection consisted of approximately 150 pipes, with pipes sent to him from U.S. soldiers overseas being the ones he valued most. Crosby appreciated the military members would take time out from their official duties to send him various war relics and gifts from foreign countries. He singled out one piece in particular: "Probably the strangest and most fascinating of all the pipes I received is a bona fide opium pipe sent to me by a former lieutenant who was with the Corps of Engineers stationed in Burma and China."
Crosby explained that the young soldier acquired the piece while visiting a small village in southwest China after meeting an old man who was enjoying his opium pipe, learning about the piece with help from an interpreter. Crosby notes, "The old man explained that the pipe had been his for 70 years and that the inlaid colored stones and silver trimming were genuine semi-precious gems and real silver. Although the pipe had the coloring of dark mahogany, it was merely bamboo that had darkened through age and use." The lieutenant thanked the man for kindly answering his questions and went on his way before being called back and gifted the pipe. Crosby mentions the pipe has a bamboo stem "about two inches in diameter" and that the bowl is quite small, "and in size and shape resembles an acorn cup." In regard to accenting materials, Crosby notes, "The inlaid semi-precious stones are bits of jade, amethyst and carnelian. The silver trimming polishes with all the brilliance of sterling, but regardless of the intrinsic value, it is truly a collector's item."
his collection consisted of approximately 150 pipes, with pipes sent to him from U.S. soldiers overseas being the ones he valued most
Though Crosby's collection contained several antique and unusual pieces from around the world, the majority of his pipes were fairly traditional and classically shaped. One of his most prized pieces was an imported English pipe gifted to him by his good friend, Paul Whiteman, who Crosby cites as a pivotal figure in helping launch his career.
Crosby wrote fondly of the pipe, despite the short time he owned it:
Crosby quickly found a new favorite in an English pipe gifted to him by Bob Burns, a fellow pipe smoker and entertainer who's best known for inventing the novelty brass musical instrument known as the bazooka. According to Crosby it had all of the qualities he looks for in a pipe, writing, "It has a straight stem, medium-sized bowl and is light in weight. With my particular kind of bite I prefer a light-weight briar and in all the years of pipe smoking I have yet to bite through a stem." Crosby was also known to smoke Mastercraft pipes, appearing in several print ads to promote the brand during the 1940s.
Crosby also frequented Edward Kolpin, Sr.'s Santa Monica shop where he would purchase his handmade pipes, according to a 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times. According to a 2006 LA Weekly interview with a 96-year old Kolpin, he mentioned how he made 16 pipes for Crosby and that the singer was one of his favorite customers. Kolpin was a true pioneer in the pipe and tobacco industry, notably establishing the Tinder Box franchise back in 1928. George Burns would also visit the tobacconist, reportedly buying 99 cent cigars for himself and $10 sticks to give to friends. Kolpin's other notable clients included Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, James Whitmore, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Crosby's second wife, Kathryn Grant, mentioned his pipe smoking in her autobiography My Life with Bing, recalling, "Bing was filling his pipe and tamping it down. He held a kitchen match in the fingers of his right hand, and struck it with the nail of his thumb." (pg. 19). She recounted another memorable story, writing, "After dinner I saw him surreptitiously reaching for his trousers leg. At first I thought perhaps his wool pants were itching. Then I realized that he held his pipe and was trying to get rid of the ashes. Since there were no ashtrays, he was putting them in his cuff." (pg. 49). When she voiced her displeasure and went to grab an ashtray, Bing responded, "Oh, it's good for the wool. Keeps the moths away."
Kathryn described the first dinner Bing had with her family, including when her aunt asked Crosby if he wanted dessert: "Bing fought for time to absorb this new gambit by cleaning his pipe, scraping out the bowl, filling it with a fresh bit of tobacco from the plastic pouch in his left pocket, tamping it down, lighting it with a kitchen match, and eyeing Aunt Frances through the thickening haze. 'You know, Frances, chocolate cake is my favorite dessert in the whole world.'" (pg. 73).
After returning home from a trip, Bing tossed a small tobacco pouch to his wife; it contained several jade beads. In her book Kathryn notes:
When talking about his preferred blends in the Pipe Lovers feature, Crosby notes, "My favorite type of tobacco is rough-cut and mildly aromatic. English, Irish and American blends all suit me providing they are not too strong and harsh." To ensure his tobacco remained moist and flavorful, he would keep an apple slice in his humidor. Crosby notably smoked Hayward Mixture, a now discontinued Burley-based blend with Virginia and Latakia. A tub of Hayward Mixture can be seen in a photograph in Crosby's autobiography Call Me Lucky, next to Crosby and his stand-in Leo Lynn while they rehearsed a scene. Crosby also appeared in a 1945 print ad for Seeman's Private Blend tobaccos.
For breaking in new pipes, Crosby notes, "I dip my finger in a jar of honey and line the bowl. I then fill about one-quarter of the bowl and start right in smoking." Crosby wasn't picky when it came to pipes or if they had a filter, explaining, "If a pipe itself is of the correct size and weight for me, and the tobacco is good, then the type of filter, or no filter for that matter, makes little difference."
While many pipe smokers have a designated pipe for each day of the week or rotate pipes throughout the day to allow them to rest between smokes, Crosby writes, "I have no set rule regarding the regularity of changing pipes or the number of pipes I smoke during the week.' Crosby estimated he switches pipes twice a week and periodically cleans his pipes with "some good cleaning fluid." Based on his own experiences, Crosby mentioned that excessive heat can cause a bowl to burn out and by maintaining a low, constant temperature, the pipe will taste better and each smoke will be enjoyable.
As a high-profile pipe smoker, Crosby was often asked by others what's the best type of pipe to purchase. He acknowledged that the question is impossible to answer as every pipe smoker is unique and has their own preferences. Crosby felt that a good pipe could be purchased at a reasonably affordable price, noting that "many of my best pipes were quite inexpensive." Crosby offered excellent advice, writing, "It isn't so much the price you pay for a pipe that counts, but the care that is given it, such as the way it is broken in, the frequency with which it is cleaned, and the care that it receives while it is being smoked."
Crosby felt that a good pipe could be purchased at a reasonably affordable price, noting that "many of my best pipes were quite inexpensive"
Crosby concluded his article writing, "Once a good one is obtained, take reasonable care of it, break it in right, and you'll have a real friend for life. After all, there's nothing like a good pipe and a good tobacco." If there was anyone who knew about good pipes and tobacco it was Bing Crosby — a true pipe-smoking icon.