Small Town Start for an Icon of the 20th Century

— by Stacey Bugg

In 1903, an American legend was born in a small town barely known outside the Pacific Northwest. The town of Tacoma was up and rising and had grown from its mere 100 residents at the time of its founding in 1872, to approximately 37, 000 residents in 1900. It was in this town of Tacoma on May 3rd, 1903 that Harry “Bing” Lillis Crosby Jr. was born in a small house on North J Street.

The craftsman-style house with the wide porch was located across the street from Saint Patrick’s Parish Church. There was a dispute about the year of Harry Lillis Crosby’s birth, his birthplace always undisputed, but the year even Mr. Bing Crosby himself got wrong in his autobiography. Part of the problem was that Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department had difficulty finding an official record due to Crosby being born at home. In 1903, it was common for childbirth to occur at home with the assistance of a midwife and family. The confusion continues with the plaque at his birthplace stating the year 1904. The dispute surrounding Crosby’s year of birth was later dropped when Saint Patrick’s Parish Church found records of Harry Lillis Crosby’s baptism in 1903 with earlier birth recorded on May 3rd, 1903.

Harry Lillis Crosby Jr. was born to Harry Lowe Crosby and Catherine Helen Crosby formerly Harrigan. Harry Lillis Crosby was the fourth child of seven born to Harry and Catherine. Harry Lowe Crosby was born in Thurston county and later moved to Tacoma where he met Catherine. Catherine Harrigan was born in Minnesota and later moved to Tacoma, Washington with her parents. She met Harry and the rest was history. Catherine was a strict Irish American mother and Harry was an English American carefree, loving father and hard-working bookkeeper. The family did not stay in Tacoma long, moving to Spokane, Washington three years after Harry Lillis Crosby’s birth in search of work.

It was in Spokane that Harry Lillis Crosby would later be called Bing Crosby. Around the age of six, he and a neighborhood friend enjoyed the newspaper humor column called “The Bingville Bugle”, which focused on rural life humor. “Bingo” was a reoccurring character in the humor column and had pear-shaped, protruding ears. Harry would help deliver the paper and it was soon after that the neighborhood friend would begin to refer to Harry as “Bingo” due to the similarities to the column’s character. Later the “o” would be dropped, and many would refer to Harry as Bing. Which we now know the icon kept the name, making it one of the most recognizable names in 20th-century America.  

Bing Crosby lived the rest of his childhood and part of his young adult years in Spokane, Washington. In 1917, Bing took a summer job at Spokane’s Auditorium where he worked as a property boy. It was through this summer job that Bing watched some of the finest acts of the day, one being Al Jolson. Bing Crosby was spellbound by Al’s performance and would later say, “To me, he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived.” Al Jolson influenced the young Bing Crosby, but it was not till a few years later that Bing would recognize his own talents and abilities. Bing continued with school and eventually attended Gonzaga University with the intent of becoming a lawyer. While attending Gonzaga, he joined a local band called the Musicaladers where he would later make enough money to drop out of college and pursue his dream in show business.

Bing paired with Al Winker and performed around the Spokane area before moving to Los Angeles, California. The pair continued to work on and off together when they caught the eye of Paul Whiteman, a famous bandleader in Los Angeles. Mr. Whiteman hired the duo, and they made their stage debut in Chicago in December of 1926. Later Mr. Whiteman added another bandmate to their pair, aspiring songwriter and pianist, Harry Barris. The trio was dubbed The Rhythm Boys. The Rhythm boys worked with Paul Whitman and other artists recording and performing. Bing Crosby soon stood out from The Rhythm Boys and in 1928, he recorded his first number one hit, a rendition of “Ol’ Man River”. Bing along with the other The Rhythm Boys grew tired of working with Paul Whitman’s crew and soon left. Bing began to rise to the top of the American Vocal Artist list in 1930. He later signed with Decca, a new record company by Jack Kapp, and Bing Crosby’s career took off shortly after.

Bing Crosby not only was known for his voice and his songs, but he was known for his acting career, his philanthropist career, his influence on up-and-coming artists, and his name is synonymous with the holiday season, specifically Christmas. He is often labeled as the first multimedia star because of his versatility in music, radio, and film. Bing Crosby dominated the music charts and had over 300 hit singles although he recorded over 1500 songs. It is said that he was the leader in radio plays, record sales, and motion picture grosses from the years 1930 to 1954.  He influenced such artists as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peggy Lee to name a few.

Bing Crosby sang one of the leading songs that describe Christmas and captures the hearts of the many who hear it. White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and made famous by Bing Crosby. This song was first aired and sung by Bing Crosby on December 25th, 1941 only a few short weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Bing Crosby crooned the song which can be described as longing, soulful, sad but is also a loving reminder of Christmas’s past and the desire to be there.  Bing Crosby became involved with raising funds for World War II shortly after the radio airing of White Christmas.  He would return to Tacoma, Washington with his USO troupe to perform for troops at Fort Lewis in August of 1942. It was noted shortly after Bing Crosby’s performance, the Tacoma local of the Boilermakers union purchased $50,000 worth of war bonds. One can only imagine how many more war bonds in the region were sold due to his local ties to the Pacific Northwest and his performance at Fort Lewis.

Bing Crosby’s voice and his singing style told a story through music and films. Shortly after he died in 1977, the Bing Crosby Historical Society was formed in Tacoma, Washington. The Bing Crosby Historical society had dreams of establishing a museum in honor of the American Icon, with such plans as converting the North J street home into said museum. The society collected memorabilia, records, and pictures of Bing Crosby throughout the years. The plans for the museum never came to light and the society folded shortly after 1993 and donated their collection to Gonzaga University, since this was the location that Bing spent his formative years, attended college, and first became famous. Bing Crosby’s childhood home in Spokane is located within blocks of the Gonzaga campus, has since been made a historical site, and Gonzaga University holds an impressive amount of Bing Crosby memorabilia. Bing Crosby is remembered as a legend and his start in life happened in our little city of Tacoma, Washington.

SOURCES:

Stacey Bugg wrote this article as her final project for Musical History of Tacoma, a class taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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