Bing, Jack and Les
Aug 17, 2009 2:08 PM, By Steven Miller
THREE NAMES THAT FOREVER CHANGED RECORDING
Ed Note: This is a chapter researched for the upcoming book Moses Never Ate Scampi by producer/engineer/label exec Steven Miller and is used with the kind permission of the author.
Every revolution needs its leader—the provocateur—the central figure in which everything emanates from and flows through. In the case of 20th century music and mass media technology, the figure having the greatest impact was not an inventor or scientist, but rather a singer.
And that singer was none other than Bing Crosby. Without question, he was the original superstar of multimedia and even when compared to the icons that followed him (Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson), is probably still the biggest. His White Christmas was the No. 1 recorded song in total sales (35+ million) for over 50 years. And for sheer volume, the 1,600 records he made have never been equaled. He performed on a staggering 4,000 radio shows, appeared in 300 television programs, 100 movies, and was the first popular singer to win a Academy Award for Best Actor (Going My Way, in 1944).
Along with his success, he gained enormous wealth and became an independent force to be reckoned with in the midst of the corporate powers that dominated the radio, film, and music industries. And because of his artistic need to innovate new methods of reproducing himself, he used his power to nurture the major technological developments of the past half century. Simply put, if it was not for Bing, music and mass media as we know it would be radically different.
To fully appreciate Crosby’s gargantuan impact, it’s important to understand where technology was in the 1940s. Magnetic tape recording, for all intents and purposes, did not yet exist. Recordings were made directly to disc—as they had been for over 40 years. Though the world of audio had come quite a way since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, the jump to hi fidelity sound was still around the corner.
It is amazing to realize how far we have come in a relatively short time (at least in reference to all of human history). And it is surprising to understand how great a role Bing Crosby played. But in order to fully grasp his role as chief provocateur, it is necessary to know about the two main men whose lives converged with him and forever changed how sound is made and reproduced.
Like thousands of other GIs just before D-Day in 1944, Jack T. Mullin was in England. Assigned to the Signal Corps, he was troubleshooting a problem the Army was having with radio receiver interference.
Working until two or three in the morning, he wanted music to listen to, but unfortunately, the BBC broadcast only until midnight. In searching for music at that hour, he discovered German stations that were broadcasting very well played symphony concerts—apparently twenty-four hours a day.
The American networks wouldn't permit the use of recordings in the early 1940s, because they claimed the quality was inferior. You could always spot the surface noise and the relatively short playing time of commercial 78-rpm discs. But there was none of this in the music coming from Germany. The sound was comparable to that of a live broadcast, and a selection might continue for a quarter of an hour or more without interruption.
In Germany at that stage, of course, Hitler could have anything he wanted. If he wanted a full symphony orchestra to play all night long, he could get it. Still, it didn't seem very likely that even a madman would insist on live concerts night after night. There had to be another answer, and Mullin was curious to know what it was.
After the liberation of Paris, as the Allied armies moved on Berlin, Mullin’s unit was reassigned to Paris and given the job of discovering technological developments that the Germans had made in electronics during the war. That meant taking trips into Germany from time to time. And on one of those trips, he met a British army officer who raved about the quality of the Magnetophon (the term that Germans used for all recording devices) at Radio Frankfurt. Figuring this officer simply didn’t have a good ear, Mullin assumed that the machine in question was no different than the noisy wire recorders that were commonplace.
On the way back to his unit, he came to the proverbial fork in the road. Turn right and drive straight back to Paris, or turn left, to Frankfurt. Turning left was the greatest decision of his life. At the time, the radio station was operated by the Armed Forces Radio Service and when the Magnetophon was demonstrated, Mullin flipped. There was no background noise—the music sounded live. The answer to his question about where all that beautiful night-music had come from was finally answered.
Although these machines had been used at a number of stations in Germany, there was no official word that such a thing existed. The people who were using it to prepare radio programs apparently were unaware of its significance.
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