Eddie was born Salvatore Massao on 25 October, 1902. His Italian immigrant father earned his living playing guitar and making banjos and guitars. In his childhood Eddie studied classical violin for 12 years and played the instrument in a trio in 1917. When he eventually took up the guitar, Eddie played only classical pieces, and was an outstanding player by the time he turned to jazz.
Lang was mainly self-taught on guitar, although he did have some help from his father. He abandoned the violin and banjo and switched permanently to the guitar in 1922. It’s interesting to note that the example of his rapid success on the guitar was the cause of a multitude of banjo players quitting to take up the more sophisticated instrument.
When Eddie’s mother died in 1923, it fell to him to provide support for the family. As he was soon to be earning more than $400 a week, a huge amount in those days, this was not a problem
He had little formal education, and changed his name to Eddie Lang (a name taken from an outstanding star basketball player in one of the Philadelphia teams) when he joined the Musicians’ Union in 1919. When Eddie’s mother died in 1923, it fell to him to provide support for the family. As he was soon to be earning more than $400 a week, a huge amount in those days, this was not a problem. He worked in many of the well-known bands of the day including Charlie Kerr’s and the Scranton Sirens in Atlanta.
Joe Venuti also came from the Italian section of South Philadelphia and the two became close friends throughout their schooldays and onwards until the end of Eddie’s life. In a piece on him in Downbeat in 1939 Joe said “Eddie and I started to play together when we were in grammar school. You know, he and I went all through grammar school and high school together. We used to play a lot of mazurkas and polkas. Just for fun we started to play them in 4/4. Then we began to slip in some improvised passages. I’d put something in, Eddie would pick up with a variation, then I’d come back with another variation.”
Eddie met his second wife Kitty in 1920 when she came to Philadelphia in the cast of Ziegfeld Follies, then on a nationwide tour. She was already a close friend of Bing Crosby’s wife Dixie Lee. It was in that year that Eddie let the violin go and changed to banjo, working with several pretty obscure bands.
In a memoir almost half a century later, Kitty recalled “He was a shy boy with black, curly hair and grey-green eyes. He could barely say hello, but he had the sweetest smile I ever saw.” In 1926, with little money because Eddie hadn’t yet hit the heights of his career, they eloped.
The association between Bing Crosby and Eddie Lang began when he was introduced to the singer in a nightclub while sitting with Jimmy Dorsey. Bing came over and sat at the table for a short time. “Eddie told me afterwards”, said Kitty, “that he believed this guy Bing would go places as he had everything going for him once he settled down to business.”
Their friendship, the closest and most intimate that Bing had, lasted until Eddie’s short life ended on 26 March 1933. Eddie was a kind, responsible and intelligent fellow, and he was soon looking after Bing’s money for him, in the same way he did for Venuti.
Eddie was to devote himself to providing the solo backing for Bing’s singing for almost a year. Bing had become a massive star by the time that Eddie relinquished all his other jobs to concentrate on accompanying the singer. At one point they were doing four theatre shows a day, with broadcasts at night and record dates when they had the time.
As the two men began working as a duo, Bing soon began seeking and listening to Eddie’s advice on how to phrase his songs. The fame of the partnership was such that, long after Eddie’s death, when Django Reinhardt worked in a similar role for the singer Jean Sablon, the two became known as the French Eddie Lang-Bing Crosby.
Even in Bing’s crowded schedule, there were gaps, and Eddie filled them with more jazz gigs, working and recording with, amongst others, the Boswell Sisters.
Bing Crosby’s contract with Paramount stipulated that Eddie should be in all his films. Bing signed a contract to make five, and Eddie went with him to California. Eddie was cast in the 1932 film The Big Broadcast, which also included The Mills Brothers, the Cab Calloway band and the Boswell Sisters. Eddie accompanied Bing on Please, which was to become one of his biggest hits, and on Dinah. Eddie was to have a speaking part in the film College Humor, for which he was to be paid $15,000. But he was having trouble from severe laryngitis and thought it might affect his speech in the film. Bing persuaded him to have a tonsillectomy, perhaps the simplest operation performed under anaesthetic at that time. Eddie agreed, and as the two were going on tour on the following Wednesday, the operation was arranged at the Parkside Hospital in Manhattan for the morning of Sunday, 26 March 1933.
Bing Crosby: ‘He mistrusted doctors and medicine. Like many people who came from backgrounds similar to his and had no experience with doctors or hospitals, he had an aversion to them’
Bing remembered in his 1953 autobiography Call Me Lucky “He had a chronically inflamed sore throat and felt bad for a year or 18 months before his death. He mistrusted doctors and medicine. Like many people who came from backgrounds similar to his and had no experience with doctors or hospitals, he had an aversion to them. But his throat was so bad it affected his health to such a point that I finally talked him into seeing a doctor, Many times afterwards I wished I hadn’t.”
The operation was a success, and Eddie spent the rest of the day sleeping in his hospital bed, with Kitty by his side. At five o’clock it was obvious that he was seriously ill and he died from a haemorrhaging embolism. He was 29.
Bing came to Philadelphia to accompany Kitty to the funeral. Word got round that Bing, now the most popular singer in the world, would be present and the church was packed with his fans. They crowded round him and pews were overturned, and the funeral was disrupted even as the priest begged them to return to their seats.
In 1939 Bing wrote that Eddie “had good sense and saved me from many a jam. And I don’t mean music session, Naturally when I got into a musical solo spot, it was a great comfort to have such an artist with me. Eddie made me do my best when the break came, and I give him full credit.”
Bing and Eddie had made their first record with Eddie accompanying the singer with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra on 26 January, 1929. It was called The Spell Of The Blues and at that stage Bing could still be described as a jazz singer, as well as being a popular crooner.
Eddie had been hired on his own for Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra when the classic Singing The Blues was recorded on 4 February 1927. The three indispensable elements of the record, as in the equally classic I’m Coming Virginia and Way Down Yonder In New Orleans, Ostrich Walk and Riverboat Shuffle, recorded two months later, were Beiderbecke’s cornet, Trumbauer’s C-melody saxophone and Lang’s guitar. There was no bass, and drummer Chauncey Moorehouse splashed about on novelty woodblocks, whilst his drums were under-recorded. All this emphasised what became almost a solo role for Eddie’s rhythm playing.
It’s intriguing that Eddie couldn’t read music at this time, and an indication of his value to bands is that when he and Venuti joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra for the second time in 1929, Eddie still hadn’t learned to read. But he did have perfect pitch and a photographic memory, which must have been a huge help to him.
“He carried the entire Paul Whiteman library, as far as his parts were concerned, on the back of a small business card in the breast pocket of his coat” said Frank Trumbauer. “There would be some intricate modulation to play, and rarely in radio rehearsals would he have time to actually set these things, so Whiteman would say ‘You take the modulation, Eddie.'”
Joe and Eddie left Paul Whiteman for the second time in the spring of 1930, a month after Bing had gone. The next year Eddie took the job of accompanist to Bing. He sat on a stool as Bing sang, and both shared the same mike.
It should be acknowledged that Joe Venuti claimed that Eddie was a good sight-reader. Credit to Venuti too for the fact that throughout all the recordings he made with Eddie, the jazz content was never compromised and there were no novelty effects or vocals on records under their name. Although perhaps the 1927 Four String Joe counts as a novelty: the violinist slackened the strings of his bow, slipped it over the neck of the instrument, retightened the strings and then played all four violin strings at once.