All final grading is done and I took an evening to watch an informative documentary on PBS, “Bing Crosby Rediscovered.” It was a detailed, unvarnished and ultimately celebratory look at the man hailed as “the most popular and influential multimedia star of the first half of the 20th century.”
There were marketing lessons in the program (even during a break from teaching, I can’t get away from the subject.) To point, Bing Crosby seized two marketing environmental forces in his extraordinary career.
Social/Cultural Force: Like other popular music genres of the 20th century, jazz was an invention of African-Americans. As Gary Giddings writes for The New York Times, young singer/drummer Bing Crosby absorbed and performed jazz stylings, leading to new ways of phrasing for popular singers as Crosby’s career accelerated in the early 1930s.
Crosby was a white man singing like an African-American jazz artist, a bridging of cultures reminiscent of what Al Jolson did before him and Elvis Presley would do later, developing new musical “products” and opening new markets. Crosby idolized jazz legend Louis Armstrong, befriending him in the 1920s and insisting on his star billing in the 1936 film “Pennies from Heaven,” one of their many collaborations.
Technological Force: Crosby was known famously as a “crooner,” giving a nuanced delivery with softer dynamics and a more intimate feel (too intimate for some who felt he was seducing the nation two decades before Elvis’ swiveling hips caused a stir.) This signature style was only possible through the advent of the condenser microphone that could pick up and amplify such vocal techniques. Crosby contrasted Al Jolson who had to use considerable volume and heavy emoting to “reach the back row” in the early decades of the 20th century.
Crosby’s crooning was a natural fit for the ascendant media technology of the 1930s–radio. Everyone was in the front row at household receivers, able to appreciate Crosby’s cool, jazz-influenced vocals. Crosby was a weekly radio star through the 1940s, averaging tens of millions of listeners per broadcast.
By the end of World War II, he wanted a break from the grind of weekly live performance and insisted on recording his shows. Up to that point, recording technology was insufficient to capture the fidelity of live sessions. However, audio tape recording developed in Nazi Germany and appropriated by the Allies provided the solution. Crosby invested in the commercialization of magnetic tape recording, leading to multi-track music recording, video tape recording, and computer data storage technology.
Bing Crosby: singer, actor, technologist, social activist, marketer.