Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Crosby recorded over 1,700 songs for commercial release, beginning with “I’ve Got the Girl” (Columbia) in 1926 – and ending in 1977, the year of his death. He recorded in every one of those 51 years. From 1926 through 1928 he recorded with Paul Whiteman on the Victor label and then on Columbia again until 1931.

From 1931 into 1934 Crosby recorded for the Brunswick label. But in 1934 Jack Kapp, who had been an executive at Brunswick, started the Decca label and he signed Crosby to be Decca’s first recording artist. Crosby recorded exclusively for Decca through 1955, after which he free-lanced for several record companies, including Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. The vast majority of Crosby’s recordings were for Decca, which was purchased by MCA in 1962.

When Crosby died he was considered the world’s most successful singer, in terms of record sales. And there are currently more than 100 CDs available of his recordings, on a variety of labels.

Crosby’s success was in good measure due to his laconic, laid-back delivery and his impeccable sense of timing, coupled with that mellow voice. But these gifts and talents would have been of little value if the recording industry had not undergone a major change just as his career was beginning.

Until 1926 the recording industry used acoustic and mechanical means to make a master record. Singers and musicians gathered around a large horn, which funneled the sounds they produced down to a diaphragm, which vibrated and moved the cutting needle which translated that acoustical energy into a groove in the wax master recording.

But in 1926 the industry changed over to electric microphones and electrically-driven cutting needles. This made it possible to “close-mike” a singer, who no longer needed to project or “belt out” – or virtually shout – over the top of the musicians, as if on stage. (A similar revolution would soon bring microphones and amplification to the stage.) And this recording revolution made possible Crosby’s distinctively soft singing style, which quickly became known as “crooning.” Crosby’s first 1926 record advertised on its label the fact that it was made electrically, an obvious selling point.

Crosby sang as though he was standing next to you, almost conversationally. It made for a more intimate experience. And in Crosby’s wake other crooners would soon follow – most notably Frank Sinatra, who, as a youthful singer with the Dorsey Brothers band, would all but wrap himself around the mike stand on stage.

Crosby was a pioneer in the next stage of recording development as well: tape recording. He was the first major star to make use of this new recording medium. He used it first to record and produce his radio show in 1947, and in mid-1949 he began making his Decca recordings on tape. Until tape, it was almost impossible to edit a recording. If, in the course of recording, someone missed a cue or played a wrong note, that “take” had to be discarded and a new one begun all over again from the beginning.

These messed-up disk recordings sometimes included “blow-ups” from Crosby – a demonstration of his well-known temper – directed at whoever had messed up on that occasion. Some of these were not destroyed (as was supposed to be done) but were bootlegged into the hands of Crosby’s fans. These 78 rpm disks are now highly valued by collectors. They include a botched version of “I Wished on the Moon” from 1935, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” from 1939, and “Crosby Blows His Top” a disk released as “Private for Decca Officials in N.Y.” in 1940. There is also a 1950s label, Crosby Blows His Top, devoted to his recorded explosions of temper; it had a yellow label with black print.

Crosby spawned an incredible amount of memorabilia in his 51-year career. A check of eBay revealed over 1,200 items for auction, ranging from publicity photos to sheet music, and including cassettes of his 1940s radio shows. A signed letter was offered on another website for $500. And his music remains widely available on CD – a perfect accompaniment to the holiday season: music to listen to with a loved one while cuddling before a cheery fire in the fireplace.


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