Bob Crosby, who rose to fame in the 1930s as a suave, swinging bandleader--and kid brother to that more famous Crosby, Bing--died Tuesday of cancer at a nursing home in Torrey Pines. He was 79.
Best known as the easygoing front man for Bob Crosby's Bobcats, a rollicking octet that was the cornerstone of a larger Dixieland band, Crosby sought during his career to distinguish himself from his older brother. While Bing Crosby made a fortune crooning, for example, Bob rarely sang and once described himself in self-deprecating humor as "the only guy in the business who made it without talent."
Indeed, a critic once described his tentative baritone as having "a tremolo wide enough to drive a Mack truck through." But what he lacked in vocal confidence, he made up for in personality, bridging the gap between the audience and the bandstand with a mellow charm that made him one of the more popular bandleaders of the Swing era.
"I did play one important part," he acknowledged in a 1971 interview with Times jazz critic Leonard Feather. "I was able to introduce the sidemen in a conversational way that helped sell their music. . . . I could stand between (saxophonist) Eddie Miller and our audience and make what he was about to say on his horn comprehensible to the people."
Born George Robert Crosby in Spokane, Wash., on Aug. 25, 1913, Crosby was the youngest of seven children. By the time he graduated from Gonzaga University intent upon a show business career, Bing was already a well-known entertainer. Bob went directly from college to the Anson Weeks orchestra in the early 1930s, and within a year booking agent Tommy Rockwell got him a spot in a new band being organized around the Dorsey brothers. But the experience was painful.
"Those opening nights are burned in my mind like a nightmare," Crosby told Feather. "I didn't sing a single note, just sat at a table. The beginning of the third night, Tommy Dorsey came over to me and in his very tender way said, 'Look, this is the best band in the whole world and you ain't the best Crosby singer.' "
After a grueling year that reached its nadir when a Baltimore theater billed him as "Bing Crosby's Brother, Bob," the younger Crosby struck out on his own, fronting a group that was being formed from the remnants of the defunct Ben Pollack band.
He didn't sing or play an instrument, but his expansive stage presence made the most of the band's talented musicians, and soon the band's Big-Band Dixieland sound was getting top billing on radio shows and at hotels, theaters and ballrooms. Such jazz names as pianist Joe Sullivan and vocalist Doris Day worked with the band.
When World War II began, the band broke up. For a time Crosby appeared in such films as the 1944 "The Singing Sheriff," before joining the U.S. Marines, where he served with distinction, leading a service band in the Pacific.
After the war, he worked mainly as a daytime radio host, moving in the 1950s to daytime television. He headlined an Australian nighttime talk show, tried the car-rental business in Hawaii and fronted various reincarnations of the Bobcats during the 1960s before moving back to Southern California in the 1970s to settle in La Jolla.
Meanwhile, he had become a celebrity in his own right. The press tracked every rough spot in his long marriage and followed the lives of each of the five children who survive him.
Still, he confided in a 1971 interview, he and Bing never became close. He was the last of the seven Crosby siblings to die.