American singer and actor Crosby said in an interview that the happiest times in his entire career were those he spent working with Armstrong, who was a celebrated vocalist, trumpeter, composer and actor. They were friends for almost half a century, after meeting in their youth.
How did they meet?
Crosby, born in May 1903 in Tacoma, Washington, was a fledgling singer working with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in Chicago in the 1920s. At the same time, Armstrong, born in New Orleans in August 1901, rose to prominence as an inventive trumpeter and cornet player.
When Bing Crosby met Louis Armstrong, neither of them had begun the Hollywood entertainment careers for which they later became famous. In 1926, Crosby, who was 23 years old at the time, was urged by fellow singer Mildred Bailey to check out Armstrong’s live show at Chicago’s Sunset Café.
Crosby grabbed a front row seat and was mesmerised by 25-year-old Armstrong’s performance. The jazz trumpeter’s unique singing and lively showmanship grabbed the audience’s attention from the outset. He sang and played trumpet with passion and panache, while also injecting humour into his show – a combination which went down a storm.
Crosby and Armstrong started chatting, and 24 years later, Crosby said in an interview that he wished to “acknowledge his debt” to Armstrong, describing him as “the beginning and the end” of music in the United States. Crosby incorporated what he had learned from Armstrong and jazz music into his own singing style.
The respect was certainly mutual, as Armstrong later said that at the time of his Sunset Café gigs, he listened to Crosby’s singing and thought he was a “natural genius”. In 1926, Crosby released his first record, I’ve Got the Girl. He went on to make several records with The Rhythm Boys, which Armstrong also enjoyed.
Armstrong incorporated elements of Crosby’s singing style, known as “crooning”, into his own ballads, such as his 1931 recordings, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams and Stardust. He said Crosby’s voice had a unique “mellow quality” like “gold poured out of a cup”.
In a 1955 interview with Time magazine, Armstrong described Crosby as “one of the finest guys in this wonderful world” with a “big heart”.
So it was no surprise that the duo realised how well they worked together in the 1930s, when they both became regular fixtures on the NBC radio show, Kraft Music Hall. Crosby was the host of the show and Armstrong made regular appearances. They continued to work together on the radio for many years.
Movies and records
Their first film together was the musical, Pennies From Heaven, in 1936. Crosby, a major star of the era by this time, insisted Armstrong was given equally prominent billing and that he was featured on the film’s poster.
They recorded the soundtrack from the film, including a successful version of the title song, with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, achieving commercial success. Over the next decade, Armstrong worked with Bing’s brother, Bob Crosby, a jazz singer, playing on television shows with his band, Armstrong’s All Stars.
Bing and Louis also released a double album, Havin’ Fun, featuring recordings made at their radio shows between 1949 and 1951. The duo’s witty and relaxed style, complete with their ad-libbing and asides from trombone player Jack Teagarden, also featured on the album.
They collaborated again on the big screen in 1951 in the Frank Capra film, Here Comes The Groom. The film included a jam session featuring Crosby, Armstrong and Dorothy Lamour. The same year, Crosby and Armstrong played a live version of Gone Fishin’ on a radio show with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra.
It was a huge success, going down so well with the studio audience that Decca later released it as a single and it peaked at number 19 in the US singles chart.
One of the biggest successes of their career was the renowned MGM movie, High Society, in 1956. They starred alongside Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Celeste Holm, with the score composed by Cole Porter. Afterwards, Crosby revealed it was his favourite film of all the movies he made during his long career.
The cast had great fun making the film because Armstrong and his band the All-Stars had impromptu jamming sessions between takes and were always laughing and bantering. Armstrong and Crosby sang Now You Has Jazz, their voices filled with their own unique character, with Crosby adopting a swing style.
They also famously sang I’m Glad We’re Not Young Any More with Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee live on the Bing Crosby Show, to great critical acclaim.
Crosby and Armstrong continued to collaborate on records in the 1960s, releasing the album, Bing and Satchmo (Armstrong’s nickname). Containing 12 songs recorded with the Billy May Orchestra, the tracks included Rocky Mountain Moon and At the Jazz Band Ball.
Crosby always had fond memories of recording Bing and Satchmo. He said he had never met anyone who didn’t love Louis, adding, “It was a pleasure to be around him.”
Both artists each released their own version of the hugely popular hit song, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Crosby’s White Christmas was the biggest hit single of his career.
It appeared in his 1942 film, Holiday Inn, was number one in the US charts for 11 weeks and remains the best-selling single of all time, selling around 100 million copies all over the world, according to Guinness World Records.
Sung in his own unique style, Armstrong’s version of White Christmas featured on his Christmas album, Louis Armstrong and Friends: What a Wonderful Christmas.
Their final television appearance together was the 1967 show, Hollywood Palace, which ended poignantly with them walking off the stage together through the closing curtains.
The two remained friends until Armstrong’s death in July 1971. Crosby died six years later, in October 1977. His son, Gary Crosby, said that Louis and Bing had a great respect and affection for each other throughout their lives.
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