Bob Crosby is probably best remembered for the Dixieland band that bore his name during the 1930s and early 1940s. The Bob Crosby Orchestra, along with its combo side group, the Bob Cats, is considered one of the greatest jazz bands of all time. The orchestra was actually led by sax player Gil Rodin however. Crosby himself was simply the front man, chosen for his personality, looks, and famous last name.
The younger brother of Bing Crosby, Bob got his ﬁrst break in show business when bandleader Anson Weeks offered him a singing job in 1931. He was working for the Dorsey Brothers in 1935 when asked by Rodin to front his new outﬁt, which had been formed the previous year by a group of disgruntled Ben Pollack bandmembers. Rodin’s band had played brieﬂy behind Red Nichols on the Kellogg College Prom radio series and recorded a few sides under the name of singer Clark Randall. When Benny Goodman made it big the group decided to strike out on its own. They ﬁrst offered Jack Teagarden the job as leader. Teagarden declined due to his contractual agreement with Paul Whiteman, and agent Cork O’Keefe offered three choices to Rodin: Fred Waring singer Johnnie Davis, Whiteman trumpeter Goldie, and Crosby. Rodin, who had met Crosby and liked him, offered Bob the position.
Crosby turned out to be the perfect front man. A friendly fellow who had a way with the crowd, he respected and admired all the musicians and made no effort to exert his inﬂuence on them, letting Rodin quietly run things behind the scenes. In return, the band made his name a household word, and it became one of the most respected of all time.
The group’s music was not appreciated by all, however. The two-beat Dixieland style they aggressively played was considered old-fashioned by many of the young hipsters who ﬂocked around Goodman, but those worldly enough to appreciate them recognized the immense talent the band possessed and the fantastic music it produced. The band’s rhythm section was led by drummer Ray Bauduc and bassist Bob Haggart. The duo wrote many ﬁne numbers, including the now classic “South Rampart Street Parade” and the immortal “Big Noise from Winnetka.” In its early days, the band featured such musicians as Charlie Spivak and Billy Butterﬁeld.
The band continued to be critically successful until 1938, when Tommy Dorsey raided it, taking Spivak, pianist Yank Lawson and arranger Dean Kincaide. The loss of such integral members had an immediate effect on the group, which began to play less and less Dixieland and more commercial arrangements. In 1939, they became the featured orchestra on the Camel Caravan radio program. Female vocalsts included Dorothy Claire, Kay Weber, Teddy Grace, and Marion Mann. Helen Ward and Johnny Mercer were also part of the program.
By 1940, the orchestra had abandoned Dixieland altogether, hiring such arrangers as Paul Weston, Ray Conniff, Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle, and featuring, brieﬂy, Doris Day as vocalist as well as a nondescript vocal group called the Bob-O-Links, which included future Glenn Miller military vocalist Johnny Desmond. Liz Tilton was vocalist in 1941.
Starting in 1941, the band began to return to its Dixieland roots. By late 1943, though, many of the group’s key members, including Rodin and Bauduc, had fallen victim to the draft. Kay Starr was vocalist during this time. Crosby was offered a movie contract in early 1944 and, seeing the end near, accepted it, leaving Eddie Miller in charge of the band, which folded soon after when Miller was drafted. Crosby himself didn’t escape the draft, receiving a commission from the Marines. He spent his tour leading bands in the Paciﬁc.
After his discharge, Crosby continued with his movie career and formed a new orchestra. The later group, which focused on ballads, found success on radio and television. From 1953 to 1957, Crosby starred in his own daytime television program on CBS, The Bob Crosby Show, with the Modernaires and Paula Kelly as part of the cast. Crosby, who wanted the show to be aired in the evening, took it to NBC in 1958, where it premiered as a summer replacement series. By this time, however, rock and roll was all the rage and poor ratings doomed the program. After it was cancelled, Crosby began to concentrate more on his solo career. Over the years he occasionally reunited the Bob Cats and in the early 1970s toured the country with a package orchestra. Bob Crosby died in 1993 after a battle with cancer.