Another String to Bing’s Bow

Bing Crosby always came across as a rather laid back old guy who could sing, but he had some pretty amazing sidelines. He and Bob Hope were instrumental in promoting the work of black musicians, in particular, their friend Louis Armstrong; I once heard a recording of Bob Hope heckling a racist comic. Bing was also a fine athlete, not just at golf, but horseriding and shooting; in fact he seems to have been good at pretty much anything he set his mind to. But he also helped to advance modern recording techniques. This is from David Byrne’s book, How Music Works:

He writes of how before World War II there were a lot of people trying to find an alternative to the wax disc to record music; when engineer Jack Mullin posted to Europe, he heard late night broadcasts by the Germans, and thought they must have been recorded, suggesting the Germans had made a breakthrough. After the war, he was stationed near to where the broadcasts had come from, and managed to get one of the tape recording machines, dismantled it and send it home. This machine didn’t just allow music to be recorded for storage or later broadcast, it also was the dawn of editing and splicing.

“After seeing a presentation by Mullin of his tape recording device, Alexander Poniatoff formed a company Ampex, to make more tape machines based on Mullin’s design. The banks, however, wouldn’t give Ampex the loans they needed in order to get things up and running- constructing the early machines required considerable capital – so it looked bad for the future of tape recording.

Around this time, Bing Crosby, the singer who mastered an innovative use of microphones, was getting tired of having to do his very successful radio show live every day. Bing wanted to spend more time playing golf, but because his shows had to be done live, his time on the links was limited. Crosby realised that buy using these new machines to record his shows, he could  conceivably tape a couple of shows in one day and then play golf while the shows were Bing broadcast. No one would know the shows weren’t live. He asked ABC radio if they would agree to the plan, but when they saw Poniatoff’s “factory”- which was a complete shambles, with parts scattered all over – they said no way. So Crosby wrote a personal check to Ampex that guaranteed the machines would start getting built. They did, and after Crosby’s initial order, ABC soon ordered 210 more. The era of tape recording, and all the possibilities that went with it, was under way.”

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