October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
Bing Crosby. The strong paternal voice of Bing Crosby has long soothed America’s soul. His career spanned almost six decades, and the crooners who followed him—Sinatra, Tormé, Bennett—have acknowledged him as one of their influences.
By 1931, when crooning approached its pinnacle of popularity, Crosby found himself in a kind of rivalry with a younger baritone named Russ Columbo. Like the rivalries among hip-hop groups today, the “battle of the baritones” was hyped in the press, though, fortunately, it was not as violent as the tension between factions of Tupac Shakur and Biggy Smalls. Crosby was pretty much the party boy, taking his career only seriously enough to get him from one gig to another. One night at the Cocoanut Grove, Crosby simply didn’t show up, and the bandleader, Gus Arnheim, pulled one of his violinists from the orchestra and put him out front singing. That man was Russ Columbo. Yes, Bing Crosby redefined singing with the advent of the microphone. But it was the competition with Russ Columbo that made him really work for it.
Russ Columbo. Russ Columbo was born Ruggiero Columbo in 1908, in Camden, New Jersey. Between 1931 and 1934 Columbo was the young upstart who battled Bing Crosby for crooning supremacy. He soon became known as the “Romeo of Song” and the “Vocal Valentino,” for like Rudolph Valentino, he possessed mysterious dark looks that made women swoon and men jealous.
Columbo’s first hit was one of many that he would have a hand in writing—one of the few singers to do so—and it became his theme song: “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love).” After that, it was a song free-for-all, with Columbo releasing songs just days before Crosby came out with the same number: “Where the Blue of the Night” and “Sweet and Lovely.”
Columbo’s detractors argue that he imitated Crosby’s style. Perhaps, at first. But Columbo took crooning one step farther. You can hear the heartbreak in his voice as he speaks of love gone bad. He sang as if speaking to each woman in the audience, a style that was later picked up by Sinatra. Musically, he was constantly looking for talented musicians for his band, such as the drummer Gene Krupa; the young clarinetist Benny Goodman led it in 1932.
The battle of the baritones moved to Hollywood, where Crosby took the lead. But the young Columbo was beginning to land romantic roles in such films, while his real-life escapades landed him in the tabloid headlines. He hung out with Pola Negri (Valentino’s former lover), was linked to icy Greta Garbo, and was seriously in love with Carole Lombard.
There’s a reason modern-day listeners are not familiar with Columbo. While Crosby’s career stretched from the 1920s to the time of his death in 1977, Columbo’s was cut short just four years after it began. On September 2, 1934, he was shot dead, accidentally, by his friend the photographer Lansing Brown. Thousands of fans came to his Hollywood funeral. The media attention the battling baritones received was so convincing that some people even conjectured that Bing Crosby had planned the hit himself. (In reality it was an amicable battle; Columbo was present at the baptism of Crosby’s first son, and Crosby served as a pallbearer for Columbo.)
Critics wonder if Columbo might have eclipsed Crosby had his life not ended so early. After all, Crosby’s style changed from decade to decade; perhaps Columbo’s would have too.
Russ Columbo inspired Sinatra, Perry Como, Jerry Vale, and Mario Lanza just as much as Crosby did, if not more. He possessed the Italian sense of romance. Columbo didn’t swing, but he did croon beautiful ballads. His most famous song, “Prisoner of Love,” was interpreted by a wide range of other singers—from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Tiny Tim and Les Paul; from Willie Nelson to Keely Smith; and from Etta James and Lester Young to the Ink Spots, the Platters, James Brown, and Flo & Eddie. Bing Crosby had the range of style—he could sing a ballad or an uptempo number—but he could never make love with his words as Russ Columbo did.