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, however the orchestra was actually led by sax player Gil Rodin. 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 the new outfit, which had been formed the previous year as a cooperative unit by a group of disgruntled Ben Pollack musicians, with Rodin as president and general manager. The 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.
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. By 1940, the orchestra had abandoned Dixieland altogether, hiring such arrangers as Paul Weston, Ray Conniff, Henry Mancini, and Nelson Riddle.
Hollywood and the Draft
Starting in 1941, the band went through many personnel changes and began to focus more on its Dixieland roots again, at least on its weekly radio show. Recordings continued to focus on popular tunes. Things began to fall apart in September 1942, however, when both Rodin and Bauduc enlisted in the service to join a coast artillery unit band stationed in California. Upon leaving, they gave up their shares in the cooperative unit, sparking a leadership clash between Crosby and the rest of the orchestra. When Crosby secured an MGM film contract soon after, speculation ran rampant about the future of the band. Crosby was to report to the studio at the end of the year, and there were hints that he had a radio deal pending as well for which he offered to use the band or any of its members who would go with him. This would have completely changed the band’s relationship with Crosby from figurehead to actual leader. In the end, Crosby left for Hollywood alone, turning the unit over to Eddie Miller, under whom it lasted a few more months until Miller was drafted.
Despite his new Hollywood career, Crosby didn’t stay away from leading a band. When he reported to MGM on January 1, the studio had no picture ready for him, and his booking agency put him on Jack Benny’s radio show in February and March leading a pick-up orchestra. Another orchestra was temporarily put together for a four week stint at New York’s Capitol Theater in April. Finally, in July 1943, he began a new radio program for Old Gold, assembling an 18-piece orchestra for the show with which he also began to tour. He continued with the new band until the draft finally caught up with him in mid-1944. He received a commission from the Marines and spent the rest of the war leading bands in the Pacific.
After his discharge in late 1945, Crosby formed a new orchestra, with Rodin returning to manage in early 1946. The later group, which focused on ballads and featured arrangements from Van Alexander, 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.
As a singer, Crosby provided male vocals for the band. Kay Weber was the band’s first female vocalist, joining in August 1936 and remaining until early 1938 when she retired to marry the band’s trombonist Ward Sillaway. Marion Mann took Weber’s place, joining by May 1938. In 1939 and early 1940, the group kept two female vocalists on staff. One would handle ballads and sing on the band’s Camel Caravan radio series, which they began in 1939, while the other would perform with the orchestra on stage. This arrangement began in February 1939 when the band hired Dorothy Claire while still retaining Mann.
Claire had been with Joaquin Gill and had become known for her rowdy style. Her hiring puzzled many. Down Beat magazine writer Milton Karle wondered why Claire, whom he called a “showmanly little singer with very little voice” who “used to yell her lungs out” would want to sing ballads. One New York tabloid intimated that she joined so she could be near one of the group’s married members. Music journalists soon realized the band’s intentions. Mann continued to handle the ballads, while Claire was used to her best advantage, singing the more animated numbers. Billboard magazine called Claire a “lively newcomer” who “shades a colorless voice with energetic versions of swingy ditties.”
During her Crosby days, Claire would rarely stand at the microphone while she sang. Instead, she would tear around the room, singing at tables or anywhere else she felt the urge. One Down Beat writer, remembering her performances, wrote:
Those of us who knew her were afraid to sit by the ringside. There’s no telling what piece of nonsense she’d introduce into her routine and more’n likely we’d be the guinea pigs.
Claire caused a sensation with Crosby, staying in the band through at least June, but by December 1939 she was gone. Mann left the orchestra in June to marry a tennis pro. Kay Starr briefly took Mann’s place but soon left to replace Marion Hutton in Glenn Miller’s band. Fellow Decca recording star Teddy Grace took over as studio vocalist for the latter part of 1939 but did not perform live with the group. Kathleen Lane was vocalist by November 1939, remaining until at least January 1940. Mann returned to Crosby that month, remaining until May. To replace Mann, Rodin hired Doris Day. Day had settled in Chicago and was singing with the Jimmy James Orchestra when she auditioned and landed the job. She joined them at the Blackhawk Cafe.
Several conflicting stories revolve around Day’s departure from the band. She remained with Crosby only two months, being let go in July. In her autobiography, Day indicates that the band released her in an effort to cut expenses, and that Gil Rodin, the group’s manager, helped her land a replacement job with Les Brown. According to Day, singer Bonnie King was handling chores on Crosby’s radio show at that time while Day was touring with the band. Day indicated that King was the girlfriend of “the man who handled the radio account.” Rodin told Day that the expense of flying King in each week to wherever the band was playing to do the radio show was too much, so they were going to make her their touring vocalist as well.
Down Beat reported Day’s firing and King’s hiring by stating that the ad agency who handled the Camel show found Day’s salary too large, though this is at odds with Day’s account as according to her she wasn’t singing on the radio program so her salary shouldn’t have been an issue. Down Beat also reported that King had been singing on St. Louis radio at the time. Other reports say Day decided to quit Crosby after a member of the band made strong passes at her and frightened her, and Brown stated in an interview that he’d heard Day was dissatisfied with Crosby’s group and was ready to leave. Whichever is the correct story, King replaced Day in July 1940 and handled both road and commercial work. King left as vocalist in April 1941 with Liz Tilton replacing her. Tilton stayed until at least April 1942 when she appeared with the band live. In March, however, Penny Piper sang for a few days that month until Muriel Lane joined. Lane also recorded with the band. It’s unknown but perhaps likely that Piper and Lane were filling in for Tilton who may have been out of the band temporarily.
In mid-1940, Crosby and Rodin attempted to emulate Tommy Dorsey’s success with the Pied Pipers by hiring a vocal quartet called the Downbeaters, which they had heard on Detroit radio station WWJ. Changing their name to the Bob-o-links, early reports suggested that audiences were “raving” about the three young men and their female accompanist. Music journalists had less then pleasant things to say about them though. Down Beat writer Dave Dexter Jr. once complained that they “clammed up many an arrangement with their trite and unrefreshing vocals.” They were gone by July 1941. In noting their departure, Down Beat writer George Frazier said “I don’t honestly think anyone will be gravely disappointed.” The Bob-o-links featured a young Johnny Desmond.
After the original Crosby band broke up in December 1942, Crosby formed a new unit in mid-1943 for both radio and theater work. In early 1944, vocal group the Town Criers joined Crosby’s orchestra and radio show. They made their first recording with Crosby in summer 1944 on the American label, just before he entered the Marines.
When Crosby returned from the service in late 1945 and formed a new band, Bonnie Lou Williams became female vocalist. She left in early 1946, replaced by Jewell Hopkins. Phyllis Lynne sang in mid-1946. While Crosby had been in the service, the Town Criers had became part of Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge. When Crosby formed his new band, they once again joined him while also still appearing with Kyser. They remained with Crosby’s band until May 1947. In 1946, Town Crier Gordon Polk sang solo for the orchestra, handling novelty tunes. Quig Quigley also sang novelty songs that same year.
In 1937, eight musicians owned stock in the orchestra, which was incorporated as the Bob Crosby-Gil Rodin Corporation. The eight stockholders were Crosby, Rodin, Dean Kincaid, Eddie Miller, Nappy LaMare, Ray Bauduc, Yank Lawson, and Matty Matlock. ↩︎