# First-Hand:Bing Crosby and the Recording Revolution

Contributed by: Robert R. Phillips, Life Member

## Introduction

In November of 1951 I quit my job in television in Los Angeles due to the conflict with my high school classes. I could no longer spend time with the remote crews doing live broadcasts but had to live in the dull world of film control on weekends. With the remotes I put in microwave links, repaired TV cameras and installed sound and video equipment. In film control there were only western movies and commercials, and the only excitement came when the film broke.

When I left, one of the directors that worked the remotes gave me a slip of paper with an address, 9030 Sunset Blvd., and a name, Jack Mullin. The next day I went to the address and asked for Jack Mullin and found that he was expecting me. The director was a friend of Frank Healy who was the head of the Electronic Division of Bing Crosby Enterprises. He told Frank about my work at the TV station. John T. (Jack) Mullin was the Chief Engineer, and had decided to hire me based on the recommendation of the director. They knew more about me than I did. The job was to do electronic bench work for Jack Mullin because he had broken his arm. It was to be for two weeks or until his broken arm healed, but the two weeks turned into six years.

The work involved building the first practical video recorder so that Bing Crosby could record his TV shows on magnetic tape just as he was doing with his radio programs. I was the fourth member of the team that consisted of Jack Mullin and Wayne Johnson. The third member was Gene Brown who was the machinist. About a week before, they had demonstrated to the news media what has been described as the first TV picture to have been recorded on tape. All of the main Hollywood press was there, and now the pressure was on to produce the recorder. However, before going into the development of the video recorder it is important to understand the events that led up to this project.

## The Audio Years

Over the months after I started working for Jack Mullin, he became my mentor and took me under his wing. He had been the person that had put the Bing Crosby radio show on magnetic tape and with Bing developed the art of editing the tape. Jack not only described to me these events, but took me to see the recording studios and equipment. He also taught me how to record and edit magnetic tape, and that prepared me to be an alternate editor for the radio show. Jack was now full time on the video tape development, and others had taken over the recording and editing work. The years of recording the radio show laid the ground work for the video tape development.

Bing Crosby was one of the pioneers of the radio music show. Beginning in 1935 the “Kraft Music Hall” on the NBC Red Network was a standard. It was a quality live production that held a high position in the ratings over the years. However, the summer of 1945 was a turning point in this standard. Bing decided that doing a live show every week was too demanding, and it did not permit him to pursue his other interests and to be with his family. During one period the show had to be done live twice, once for the east coast and once for the west coast, which also added to the work load. It also was confining, since it all had to be done within a certain regime that took away Bing’s casual side. The adlibs and jokes had to be done according to the script; there was no editing to remove mistakes.

The Bing Crosby show was aired on the elite Red Network of NBC that would not permit recorded shows; they had to be live broadcasts. So, the 1945 – 1946 “Kraft Music Hall” program began without Bing because of the dispute. The show went on, and NBC and Kraft sued him for not appearing. He returned to finish the season beginning with the 7 February 1946 program, but that was the end of Bing on the NBC Red Network. This time Bing had set his mind to having a prerecorded production. However, neither his current Bing Crosby Productions organization nor the Bing Crosby Enterprises headed by his brother Everett did not have the talent to establish a prerecorded show operation and the technical support it needed. In December of 1945 Bing hired Basil Grillo to help him with this task and improve the operation of these organizations.

In 1941 the US Government broke up the NBC empire and made it sell its Blue Network. NBC had its sophisticated programs on the Red Network and the other features like jazz on the Blue Network. In July 1943 NBC announced the sale of its Blue network, but it took several years for ABC to develop its own programs. They shared the NBC facilities at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood until at least 1948. After the breakup ABC needed programs with high ratings and the upcoming 1946 – 1947 season was no exception. They told Bing that if he joined ABC he could record his show but the quality had to be equal to the live broadcast. It was to be a 30 minute show known as the “Philco Radio Time” program.

A number of events happened during January 1946 before Bing accepted the ABC offer. Bing Crosby Enterprises was reorganized, and a division of it was dedicated to the production of the prerecorded radio show. It included a person, Francis (Frank) Healey, to supervise the technical parts of the production. Prior to this Bing did not have his own technical staff, since the NBC engineers provided that support. By the end of January 1946, Bing had settled with NBC and was well on the way to having his own prerecorded show on ABC.

The new 1946 – 1947 “Philco Radio Time” program began with Bing Crosby recording his show on transcription disks using the NBC recording facilities assigned to ABC and supervised by Frank Healey. However, all was not well with this new production. The recordings on the disks lacked the quality of the live show and the editing process was difficult. The show was done as a live production, but with additional recorded material that could be used if there was a problem. While it took two disks (15 minutes each) for the thirty minute show, the recordings were edited before the show was played at the appointed time on the ABC network.

The prerecorded show permitted changes to be made if Bing or his staff did not like something in the show. The sponsor also was known to require changes that could not be done with a live show. The editing process was difficult, since it required recording from one disk to another several times. At least two or three playback units were required to permit the different parts to be merged on to a new recording disk, and with each copy the sound quality dropped. At times this process took over forty disks and many days to complete the edit. The result was the recorded show was less than desirable, and the radio audience noticed the difference. The ratings dropped, and ABC began to question if they should not return to the live broadcast.

## The Recording Revolution

While the Crosby show was struggling with the disk recordings, a new technology had arrived. Jack Mullin had returned from his World War II service with parts for two German Magnetophon magnetic tape recorders that he had shipped back in mail sacks over a number of months. They were not the high quality Magnetophon, and they employed DC bias. Instead of going back to the telephone company, Jack joined a friend, William Palmer, in a recording and movie business. William Palmer had a machine shop where they restored and modified the two Magnetophon recorders. Jack made new electronics using standard American parts and replaced the DC bias in his recorders with the AC bias used in the high quality Magnetophon recorder to improve the tape signal-to-noise. He also added pre-emphasis for the high frequencies. These rebuilt Magnetophon recorders were then used in their recording business.

In May 1946 Jack Mullin demonstrated the modified Magnetphon recorder at an IRE (IEEE) show in San Francisco with the help of William Palmer. This demonstration caused a number of people to take notice of the quality that could be obtained from a magnetic tape recorder. There were other tape recorders at that time, but none of them had the outstanding quality of the rebuilt Magnetophon. During the following months William Palmer set up a number of demonstrations of the recorder for Jack to various movie, recording and broadcast people. The demonstrations showed that the recorder could reproduce sound as if it were live. Not only that, the magnetic tape could be edited by cutting it with a pair of scissors and splicing it with Scotch tape.

Jack Mullin (l) and Murdo McKenzie (r) with the two Magnetophon recorders in 1947. (Jack Mullin)

These demonstrations were more of a novelty to the industry than a major step forward. After all there were only two recorders and only 50 rolls of tape that no longer was made. The movie companies had made other agreements for their sound tracks, and the recording companies were happy with their recording process. During the demonstrations in the summer of 1947 Frank Healey, who was involved with technical production of the Crosby show, heard a demonstration and encouraged Murdo McKenzie, the producer of the Bing Crosby show, to investigate them for the show. Murdo arranged for a demonstration in San Francisco where Jack and Bill Palmer had their business. This demonstration was after the bad experience with the disk recordings, and Crosby now was faced with the prospect of finding a new way of recording the show or reverting to live broadcasts again. Murdo was so impressed with the tape process that he arranged for Bing to hear the demonstration, which took place about the first of August 1947 in Los Angeles. When Bing heard the sound quality and saw the editing, Jack Mullin was asked to do a test recording of the first Bing Crosby show of the 1947 – 1948 season. It was only a week way, and the Crosby people expressed concerns that Jack had only two recorders and a limited amount of tape. There needed to be way forward other than just the Magnetophon.

Jack, who was still working for Palmer, was given an old studio and control room in the NBC (ABC) facilities where he could set up his machines and do the recording and editing of the show. It also served as his office. The 1947 – 1948 season was the first time a radio program was aired from a magnetic tape recording even though the program was transferred to disk for broadcast. This transfer was due to the need to preserve the tape and insure that a tape break would not disrupt the broadcast. The quality of the show had improved even though disks were used, since the show was only transferred in final form and not edited on the disks. However, more important, the ratings of the show improved and the prerecorded show was preserved. The first step had been taken, but a bigger problem still needed to be addressed – new recorders and tape.

Alexander M. Poniatoff, the head of Ampex, heard one of the early demonstrations of the Magnetphon. He was in need of a new postwar product and was so taken by the recorder he decided to build one. He put his chief engineer, Harold Lindsay, in charge of the project and asked Jack Mullin to help them. Unfortunately Jack had already made the agreement with Colonel Ranger by that time, but Ampex decided to go ahead with the project anyway. After the poor showing of his recorders to the Crosby group, Colonel Ranger was persuaded by them and Jack Mullin to give up his agreement with Mullin. Jack was now free, and a call was placed to Ampex in October 1947. Minnesota Mining (3M) also was brought in as the tape supplier.

Alexander M. Poniatoff (r) and Harold Lindsay, his chief engineer, in 1948 with the first Ampex 200 recorder.

## The Wideband after Video

The year 1956 began with a new direction for the Electronics Division; the video tape work was over and the group was to be sold. The new direction for the group was established by an order from the Air Force in 1954 for an airborne wideband recorder. Much of the development work done for the video recorder could be used to build a wideband longitudinal recorder; so the core of the BCE technology was not lost. The tight loop drive, high frequency heads and record and playback electronics were used for the airborne recorder. However, we had to make the unit more compact and lighter weight. The other specifications that were new to us were shock and vibration. We had to shake and drop test the top plate on which the motors and electronics were mounted. It was made of cast aluminum with mounting brackets, and during its first drop test it broke.

The Mincom (3M) broadband recorder at Sylvania EDL.

It was another case of having to learn a new design approach, the world of military standards. When the top plate was machined the corners of the mounting brackets were made sharp, and that we learned put a lot of stress on the point where the brackets attached to the top plate. Once rounded corners were used, the test was a success. We were not really equipped to do major mechanical operations, and that was one reason for not trying the rotary head approach. Another problem was solved by the bathroom sink and a can of Drano. Aluminum parts had to be anodized, and so this process was done in the sink with Drano. We had the cleanest drains on Sunset Boulevard. Through all of these new standards problems, the recorder took shape and was tested in late 1956. It was installed successfully in the spring of 1957.

During 1956 Bing Crosby’s brother, Everett, was tasked with finding a buyer for the Electronics Division. While the video market was lost to Ampex, the success of the wideband recorder was the solution to the new instrumentation problems that required bandwidths beyond the traditional 100 kHz recorders. With Ampex focused on the rotary head technology that chopped some types of signals, there was an opening for wideband longitudinal recording that did not have any head switching. The 3M Company was finding that in order to keep up with the competition it had to move into the equipment market. An agreement was reached with Bing Crosby Enterprises in August 1956 to buy the Electronics Division. The transfer was made in 1957 after the Air Force contract was concluded.

When I returned to California that year from college, I found a different organization. The changeover occurred while I was traveling across the country. Jack Mullin, who was my trusted mentor, told me that I could stay, but there was much more to the world than where I had spent my last six years. I took his advice, and found myself at Sylvania EDL in Mt View, California. It was quite a change, but before long I was designing systems that had the 3M Mincom wideband recorder in them. It looked very familiar since it was based on the Bing Crosby recorder.

Jack Mullin went to 3M along with many of the Crosby group. Eugene Sakasegawa (Saki) started his magnetic head business, and the Saki magnetic head was known as one of the best. Wayne Johnson consulted with Sony in Japan on video tape recorders and became involved with the Winston tape recorder company that was started by others from BCE.

The last Bing Crosby show with David Bowie aired on 30 November 1977 after Bing died.

What about Bing? Well, he had his video recorder and now was doing television programs like he had done his radio shows. Many years later Bing recorded his last television program in September 1977 in London with rock star David Bowie. Since the session was recorded, these two opposites were able to put aside their nervousness when they did the duet of Little Drummer Boy. TV Guide listed the Crosby-Bowie duet as one of the 25 most memorable musical moments of 20th century television. Bing died on 14 October 1977, but it was decided to show the program. The last Christmas Show was aired on 30 November 1977.

Jack Mullin remained with 3M Mincom until his retirement. Peter Hammar, the Ampex Historian, said “He is justifiably honored as one of the greatest innovators in the history of the technology so important to broadcasting in the last half of the 20th Century: magnetic tape recording.”