Unlikely Revolutionary: How Bing Crosby Changed The Face Of MusicDecember 29, 2008
Today better remembered for his seasonal hit “White Christmas”, Bing Crosby was also a revolutionary recording artist, and without the innovations he brought, there’d be no Beatles, No X-Factor…or even the VHS video recorder. He truly changed the face of music and popular culture. But…how? Find out!
This man was an innovator!
Bing Crosby’s desire to pre-record his radio shows, combined with a dissatisfaction with the available lacquer/aluminum recording disks, was a significant factor in the development of magnetic tape sound recording and the radio industry’s adoption of it. He used his power to innovate new methods of reproducing audio of himself. In 1946, he wanted to shift from live performance to recorded transcriptions for his weekly radio show on NBC sponsored by Kraft. But NBC and competitor CBS refused to allow recorded radio programs (except for advertisements).
The live production of radio shows was a deeply-established tradition reinforced by the musicians’ union and ASCAP. The Mutual network, on the other hand, had pre-recorded some of its programs as early as the Summer 1938 run of The Shadow with Orson Welles. The new ABC network, formed out of the sale of the old NBC Blue network in 1943 to Edward Noble, the “Lifesaver King,” was willing to join Mutual in breaking the tradition. It would pay Crosby $30,000 per week to produce a recorded show every Wednesday sponsored by Philco. He would also get $40,000 from 400 independent stations for the rights to broadcast the 60-minute show that was sent to them every Monday on three 16-inch lacquer/aluminum discs that played 10 minutes per side at 33¨÷ rpm.
Crosby wanted to change to recorded production for several reasons. The legend that has been most often told is that it would give him more time for his golf game. And he did record his first Philco program in August 1947 so he could enter the Jasper National Park Invitational Golf Tournament in September when the new radio season was to start. But golf was not the most important reason.
Crosby was always an early riser and hard worker. He sought better quality through recording, not more spare time. He could eliminate mistakes and control the timing of performances. Because his own Bing Crosby Enterprises produced the show, he could purchase the latest and best sound equipment and arrange the microphones his way; mic placement had long been a hotly-debated issue in every recording studio since the beginning of the electrical era. No longer would he have to wear the hated toupee on his head previously required by CBS and NBC for his live audience shows (Bing preferred a hat). He could also record short promotions for his latest investment, the world’s first frozen orange juice to be sold under the brand name Minute Maid.
The transcription method had problems, however. The acetate surface coating of the aluminum discs was little better than the wax that Edison had used at the turn of the century, with the same limited dynamic range and frequency response.
In June 1947, Murdo MacKenzie of Bing Crosby Enterprises saw a demonstration of the German Magnetophon that Jack Mullin had brought back from Radio Frankfurt with 50 reels of tape at the end of the war. This machine was one of the magnetic tape recorders that BASF and AEG had built in Germany starting in 1935. The ½-inch ferric-coated tape could record 20 minutes per reel of high-quality sound. Alexander M. Poniatoff ordered his Ampex company (founded in 1944 from his initials A.M.P. plus the starting letters of “excellence”) to manufacture an improved version of the Magnetophone.
Bing Crosby and a ground-breaking tape recording machine in the 1940s
Bing Crosby hired Mullin and his German machine to start recording his Philco show in August 1947 with the same 50 reels of Farben magnetic tape that Mullin had found at a radio station at Bad Nauheim near Frankfurt while working for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The crucial advantage was editing. As Bing wrote in his autobiography, “By using tape, I could do a thirty-five or forty-minute show, then edit it down to the twenty-six or twenty-seven minutes the program ran. In that way, we could take out jokes, gags, or situations that didn’t play well and finish with only the prime meat of the show; the solid stuff that played big. We could also take out the songs that didn’t sound good. It gave us a chance to first try a recording of the songs in the afternoon without an audience, then another one in front of a studio audience. We’d dub the one that came off best into the final transcription. It gave us a chance to ad lib as much as we wanted, knowing that excess ad libbing could be sliced from the final product. If I made a mistake in singing a song or in the script, I could have some fun with it, then retain any of the fun that sounded amusing.”
Mullin’s 1976 memoir of these early days of experimental recording agrees with Bing’s account: “In the evening, Crosby did the whole show before an audience. If he muffed a song then, the audience loved it — thought it was very funny — but we would have to take out the show version and put in one of the rehearsal takes. Sometimes, if Crosby was having fun with a song and not really working at it, we had to make it up out of two or three parts. This ad lib way of working is commonplace in the recording studios today, but it was all new to us.”
Crosby invested US$50,000 in Ampex to produce more machines. In 1948, the second season of Philco shows was taped with the new Ampex Model 200 tape recorder (introduced in April) using the new Scotch 111 tape from the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) company. Mullin explained that new techniques were invented on the Crosby show with these machines: “One time Bob Burns, the hillbilly comic, was on the show, and he threw in a few of his folksy farm stories, which of course were not in Bill Morrow’s script. Today they wouldn’t seem very off-color, but things were different on radio then.
They got enormous laughs, which just went on and on. We couldn’t use the jokes, but Bill asked us to save the laughs. A couple of weeks later he had a show that wasn’t very funny, and he insisted that we put in the salvaged laughs. Thus the laugh-track was born.” Crosby had launched the tape recorder revolution in America. In his 1950 film Mr. Music, Bing Crosby can be seen singing into one of the new Ampex tape recorders that reproduced his voice better than anything else. Also quick to adopt tape recording was his friend Bob Hope, who would make the famous “Road to…” films with Bing and Dorothy Lamour.
The innovations brought by Bing Crosby started a new dawn for recording artists, which changed popular culture forever, and gave the world rock’n’roll, The Beatles’ innovative albums and so much more, as even today, many of the world’s biggest artists still rely on magnetic tape to make their recordings.
Mullin continued to work for Crosby to develop a videotape recorder. Television production was mostly live in its early years, but Crosby wanted the same ability to record that he had achieved in radio. The Fireside Theater, sponsored by Procter and Gamble, was his first television production for the 1950 season. Mullin had not yet succeeded with videotape, so Crosby filmed the series of 26-minute shows at the Hal Roach Studios. The “telefilms” were syndicated to individual television stations.
Crosby did not remain a television producer but continued to finance the development of videotape. Mullin would demonstrate a blurry picture on December 30, 1952, but he was not able to solve the problem of high tape speed. It was the Ampex team led by Charles Ginsburg that made the first videotape recorder. Rather than speeding tape across fixed heads at 100 ips, Ginsburg used rotating heads to record at a slant on tape moving at only 15 ips.
The quadruplex scan model VR-1000 was demonstrated at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Chicago on April 14, 1956, and was an immediate success. Ampex made $4 million in sales during the NAB convention. Ampex developed a color videotape system in 1958 and recorded the spirited debate (dubbed the “Kitchen Debate”) between Khrushchev and Nixon on a demonstration model at the Moscow trade Fair September 25, 1959. By this time, Crosby had sold his videotape interests to the 3M company and no longer played the role of tape recorder pioneer. Yet his contribution had been crucial. He had opened the door to Mullin’s machine in 1948 and financed the early years of the Ampex company. The rapid spread of the tape recorder revolution was in no small measure caused by Crosby’s efforts.
The decade following the end of World War II witnessed what has been called the “revolution in sound.” The Decca Company introduced FFRR 78 rpm records (Full Frequency Range Recording) that had the finest frequency response (80-15,000 cps) of any recording process before magnetic tape recording. Decca’s method of reducing the size of the groove and designing a delicate elliptical stylus to track on the sides of the groove would be the same innovation of the new microgroove process introduced by Columbia in 1948 on the new 33¨÷ rpm LP vinyl record.
White Christmas. More than a Seasonal flick…but a revolution!
Crosby’s sponsor Philco would join Columbia in selling a new $29.95 record player with jeweled stylus (not steel) tracking at only 10 grams (not 200) for these LPs. No longer would records wear out after 75 plays. Crosby’s Ampex Company would be joined by Magnecord, Webcor, Revere, and Fairchild in selling one million tape recorders to a rapidly growing consumer audio component market by 1953. The 1949 Magnecord tape recorder had stereo capability eight years before any vinyl record had it. These components soon began to feature the transistor invented by Bell Labs in 1948. Crosby’s 1942 film Holiday Inn (where he first sang his most famous song) would be remade in 1954 as White Christmas, the first film to use Paramount’s new VistaVision wide-screen film process with multi-channel magnetic sound.