By Matt Micucci
Bing Crosby is one of the most influential musical artists of all time. His bass-baritone vocal style is also one of the most instantly recognisable, and led him to becoming the best-selling artist of the twentieth century.
One of the things that also led him to rise to unprecedented popularity – he was, in fact the first multimedia star, making his mark not just as a recording and live performing artist but also as a beloved radio and film personality – was his confidence in making full use of the new technologies, such as the microphone, that allowed him to develop a laid-back style full of warmth and passion.
This is a style that many vocalists aimed to downright copy. One of these was Frank Sinatra, who admitted to attempting to imitate it early on before finally coming to the realisation that the world did not need another Crosby, and using it instead as a foundation to develop his own unique style.
Growing up, Sinatra had a picture of Crosby hanging on his bedroom wall. He even got to meet his idol backstage in 1935 at a Newark Club, if only very briefly. The two would not meet again for almost a decade, by which time Sinatra had become an overnight sensation and indeed, a contender to the other’s throne. The media, of course, was all over it.
By the early forties, Sinatra had become an overnight sensation, breaking out as a solo artist and regularly playing sold out concerts at the Paramount Theatre. He became the king of the bobby soxers, and his avid female fanbase would scream, wail and flail their hands in a frenzy, a practice that became known as the swooning, much to the general worry of the older generation, that strongly disapproved.
Bing Crosby was still as popular as ever but never received such a reaction, which meant that he became the righteous party in the feud that was instantly instigated by the media between the two. On his part, Crosby never exploited this fact, and claimed that he thought Sinatra was the kind of singer that only comes around once in a lifetime, before adding humorously “but, why did it have to be my lifetime?”
Still, the scene was set for a phony and entertaining rivalry, in which Crosby and Sinatra traded some tongue in cheek back and forths. Most of these took place publicly on radio broadcasts, some of which can still be heard on Armed Forces Radio Service recodrings, in which the two would trade some childish insults, with Crosby calling Sinatra a loser, and Sinatra reminding the audience about Crosby’s receiding hairline. They would star in each other shows, or guest star together in other radio shows, and showed some great chemistry performing some terrific duets.
This didn’t stop fans from taking the whole thing seriously. In one instance, on September 18, 1944, an angry female fan of Bing’s plunged an ice pick into a loyal Sinatra worshipper.
The “heated” rivalry started to cool down by the second part of the forties. Around this time, Sinatra found himself with neither a recording nor a film contract. He would later rise to fame once again, and even arguably surpass Crosby as the greatest singer of all time, although Crosby would still outsell him in the long run. The two would go on to sing together numerous times, and even star in films together, most notably in High Society from 1956.
One thing is for certain – the two always had great admiration for each other and each other’s works. In one of the most touching moments of the rivalry, Crosby published a letter addressed to the young newcomer on the Motion Picture-Hollywood Magazine in 1943, in which he gave him some advice about setting up a long lasting career in show business. Here, he also took time to point out what a great impression Sinatra had instantly made on Crosby – he admired, for instance, the way in which when he first came to Hollywood, he didn’t flash the cash like many others but instead lived in a small apartment with his brother who cooked spaghetti for him every night in order for them to be able to send some money home to their mother. One passage particularly stands out:
“Then there was that party you went to where one of the boys, in his cups, started some talk about a minority racial group to which, incidentally, you don’t belong. Frank Sinatra didn’t feel like taking much of that talk. This particular racial group was having its ears beaten off in Europe at the time and you thought it would he fine if we had none of that in Uncle Sam’s back yard. So you gave out with a snappy left and a kayo right to the chin of this small-scale rabble rouser and ended the distasteful conversation.
For my money, you were Mr. America that afternoon, Frankie! I was proud to be in the same business as an Italian kid who would fight for the under dog in the good old Yankee way.“